On this day – Queen Victoria approves the introduction of the Victoria Cross (VC) awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’ – 29 January 1856

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross, Britain’s (and some Commonwealth countries) highest award for gallantry for members of the Armed Forces, was officially constituted by warrant on this day in 1856.

Since that time the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients. Only 15 medals have been awarded since the Second World War.

As of 2018, there are six (6) living recipients of the Victoria Cross, three (3) living recipients of the Victoria Cross for Australia and one (1) living recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. They are:

  • Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank VC, 210 Sqn RAF (awarded  for his actions in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1944)
  • Sergeant Bill Speakman VC, Black Watch attached to King’s Own Scottish Borderers (awarded for his actions in Korea in 1951)
  • Captain Rambahadur Limbu, VC, MVO, 2nd Battalion, 10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkha Rifles (awarded for his actions in Borneo in 1965)
  • Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Payne VC, AM, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (awarded for his actions in South Vietnam in 1969)
  • Corporal Willie Apiata VC, New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2004
  • Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, VC, CNG, 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (awarded for his actions in Iraq in 2005)
  • Corporal Mark Donaldson VC, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2008)
  • Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith VC, MG, Australian Special Air Service Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Dan Keighran VC, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2010)
  • Corporal Joshua Leakey VC (shown below), 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (awarded for his actions in Afghanistan in 2015)

Joshua Leakey VC

The largest collections of VCs in the world are held by the Ashcroft Collection in Britain (established in 1986) which now contains 210 medals and the Australian War Memorial, which has 69 medals on public display.

You can find out more about the Ashcroft Collection here: http://www.lordashcroftmedals.com/

You can find out more about the AWM collection here: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/vic_cross

 

 

 

On this day – The Battle of Monte Cassino begins – 17 January 1944

Monte Cassino Cemetary

The battle of Monte Cassino officially began on this day in 1944.

Also known as the ‘Battle for Cassino’ or the ‘Battle for Rome’, it was a costly series of four assaults by Allied forces over the first five months of 1944 on Axis defensive positions along the Gustav Line, with the objective of breaking through and capturing Rome.

Italy Defensive Lines 1943-44

The Gustav Line ran across Italy from just north of where the Garigliano River flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west, through the Apennine Mountains to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast in the east.

Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey founded in AD 529, overlooked the nearby town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido river valleys. It was key terrain, whose ownership was decisive for the outcome of the battle as it completely dominated the surrounding area and Highway 6, which ran through the nearby town, leading directly to Rome.

Cassino

Following the Axis surrender in North Africa in May 1943, the Allies launched Operation ‘Husky’, the Invasion of Sicily, in July 1943 spearheaded by the US 7th Army (under command of Lieutenant General George Patton) and British 8th Army (under command of General Bernard Montgomery). Over six weeks the Allied amphibious and airborne operations were successful, leading to the removal of Benito Mussolini from power, and the cancellation of a major German offensive against the Russians at Kursk, in order to divert German forces to Italy.

Invasion of Sicily 1943

In early September 1943 the Allies followed up this success with the Invasion of continental Italy, with British forces landing at Reggio (Operation ‘Baytown’) and US forces (now the 5th Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark) landing at Salerno (Operation ‘Avalanche’).

Invasion of Italy 1943

In October 1943, Hitler was persuaded by Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, that the defence of Italy should be conducted as far away from Germany as possible. This would make the most of the natural defensive geography of Central Italy, whilst denying the Allies the easy capture of a succession of airfields.

Kesselring was given command of the whole of Italy and immediately ordered the preparation of a series of defensive lines across Italy, south of Rome. Two lines, the Volturno Line and the Barbara Line, were used to delay the Allied advance so as to buy time to prepare the most formidable defensive positions, which formed the ‘Winter Line’, the collective name for the Gustav Line and two associated defensive lines on the west of the Apennine Mountains, the Bernhardt Line and Hitler Line.

The ‘Winter Line’ proved a major obstacle to the Allies at the end of 1943, halting the Fifth Army’s advance on the western side of Italy. Although the Gustav Line was penetrated on the Eighth Army’s Adriatic front, and Ortona captured, blizzards, drifting snow and zero visibility at the end of December caused the advance to grind to a halt. The Allies’ focus then turned to the west, where an attack through the Liri valley was considered to have the best chance of a breakthrough towards Rome.

Map-2-Salerno-to-Cassino-largeThe ‘First Battle of Cassino’ launched on 17 January 1944 involved 5th US Army attacking along a 30 kilometre front, with the British X Corps crossing the Garigliano River below its junction with the Liri River near the coast.

The US II Corps would then follow on 20 January 1944 with the main thrust in the centre, crossing the Garigliano River eight (8) kilometres downstream from Cassino. Simultaneously, the French Expeditinary Corps would continue its ‘right hook’ toward Monte Cairo, which was the hinge to both the Gustav Line and Hitler Line.

Map-4-The-crossing-of-the-Garigliano-large

The initial attack by the British X Corps was successful but they could not make a decisive breakthrough. The initial success of their operations caused a lot of concern for the Germans and resulted in the deployment of two Panzergrenadier Divisions from Rome to reinforce the German line.

Map-5-Bloody-River-largeThe central thrust, an opposed river crossing over the Garigliano River by US 36th Division on 20 January 1944 was a costly failure due to well dug in German defensive positions and a lack of sufficient armoured support.

Map-6-USII-Corps-on-the-Massif-largeOn 24 January 1944 US II Corps again attacked across the flooded Rapido River valley north of Cassino with the 34th US Division and French colonial troops. Flooding made movement very difficult, particularly for armour and it took eight (8) days of heavy fighting to establish a foothold.

Map-7-The-French-Attacks-on-Belvedere-largeThe French assault on the right made good initial progress against the German 5th Mountain Division. However by 31 January 1944 their attack had ground to a halt.

The task then fell to the US 34th Division to fight south across the hilltops near Monastery Hill. Despite tough conditions and fierce fighting, by early February the Americans had captured positions no more than half a kilometre from the Abbey itself.

On 11 February 1944 after a final unsuccessful three (3) day assault on Monastery Hill and the town of Cassino, exhausted US forces were withdrawn, with some battalions losing 80% of their strength.

Three further attempts were made by Allied forces to capture Monte Cassino, the final attempt by the Polish Corps in May 1944 being successful.

 

Customs & Traditions – The Infantry Senior Non-Commissioned Officer’s (SNCOs) Scarlet Sash

British Army SNCOs

The scarlet sash in the British and some other Commonwealth Armies is worn by Sergeants and Warrant Officers Class 2 (WO2) serving in the Infantry.

The tradition dates from the 17th century as sashes were originally used as badges of rank. Some were worn around the waist, whilst others were worn over the
shoulder.

Officers serving in Regiments of Foot wore silken sashes over their left shoulder and Senior NCOs wore worsted sashes over their right shoulder.

Senior NCOs in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and some of  its Commonwealth peers (like the RAAF) have also adopted the tradition wearing a light blue rather than scarlet sash.

Great Battles – ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’* – The Centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres

Friday 10 November 2017 marks the centenary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, more commonly referred to as ‘Passchendaele’.

The Third Battle of Ypres was the major British offensive in Flanders in 1917. It was planned to break through the strongly fortified and in-depth German defences enclosing the Ypres salient, a protruding bulge in the British front line, with the intention of sweeping through to the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. The battle comprised of a series of limited and costly offensives, often undertaken in the most difficult of waterlogged conditions – a consequence of frequent periods of rain and the destruction of the Flanders’ lowlands drainage systems by intense artillery bombardment. As the opportunity for breakthrough receded, Sir Douglas Haig still saw virtue in maintaining the offensives, hoping in the process to drain German manpower through attrition. The main battles associated with Third Battle of Ypres were:

– Pilckem, 31 July to 2 August
– Langemarck, 16-18 August
– Menin Road, 20-25 September
– Polygon Wood, 26 September to 3 October
– Broodseinde, 4 October
– Poelcapelle, 9 October
– Passchendaele (First Battle), 12 October
– Passchendaele (Second Battle), 26 October to 10 November.

Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces incurred 38,000 casualties. The combined total of British and Dominion casualties has been estimated at 310,000 (estimated German losses were slightly lower) and no breakthrough was achieved. The costly offensives, ending with the capture of Passchendaele village, merely widened the Ypres salient by a few kilometres.

* Taken from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Memorial Tablet’ written by him in October 1918 and first published the following year.