Compiled from the sound archives of the Imperial War Museum, this oral history recounts the deeds of those – as recounted by the men and their admiring comrades – who were awarded the highest decoration in Britain’s gift for acts of valour.
Covering VCs won in conflicts from the award’s inauguration during the Crimean War of the 1850s to the Korean War a century later, Bailey admires those magnificent men in their flying machines perhaps most of all. His account of the VCs (all posthumous) won by Britain’s top three Great War air-aces makes it clear that air combat was even more deadly for its participants than trench warfare was for subalterns.
There are many incredible stories of bravery here, but few can beat the actions performed by New Zealander Sergeant James Ward, the co-pilot of a Wellington bomber who actually climbed out onto the wing of his aircraft while it was flying to extinguish a potentially fatal fire in an engine. Ward won his VC in July 1941, tape recorded his account of the action in August of the same year, and tragically died a month after that in September 1941 – one of 55,000 members of Bomber Command killed on active service in the war.
We imagine our heroes to be quiet and modest, belying the almost insane courage they display in action. But they can be loud-mouthed and brash too. One such was the Great War’s Neville Marshall VC, MC. He was the commanding officer of Wilfred Owen, who thought him a bully. Both died in the final battle of the War, exactly a week before the Armistice. And both, sensitive poet and rough, tough ex-horse dealer lie in the same row of the same cemetery.
Review by Nigel Jones
Ebury Press, £16.99