The George Cross (GC) is the second highest award of the United Kingdom honours system. It is awarded "for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger", not in the presence of the enemy, to members of the British armed forces and to British civilians. Posthumous awards have been allowed since it was instituted. It was previously awarded to Commonwealth countries, most of which have established their own honours systems and no longer recommend British honours. It may be awarded to a person of any military rank in any service and to civilians including police, emergency services and merchant seamen. Many of the awards have been personally presented by the British monarch to both recipients and in the case of posthumous awards to next of kin. These investitures are usually held at Buckingham Palace.
The George Cross was instituted on 24 September 1940 by King George VI. At this time, during the height of the Blitz, there was a strong desire to reward the many acts of civilian courage. The existing awards open to civilians were not judged suitable to meet the new situation, therefore it was decided that the George Cross and the George Medal would be instituted to recognise both civilian gallantry in the face of enemy action and brave deeds more generally.
Announcing the new award, the King said:
In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised, I have decided to create, at once, a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction, which will consist of the George Cross, which will rank next to the Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution.
The King in his speech announcing the new award stated that it would rank next to the Victoria Cross. This was second on the Order of Wear, much higher that the then existing awards for bravery not in the presence of the enemy, the highest being the Albert Medal (AM), a two-class award restricted to saving life at sea and on land and the lowest being the single class but unrestricted Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM). In a substitution of awards unprecedented in the history of British decorations it was holders of the EGM that were instructed to exchange their insignia for a GC. In 1971, surviving recipients of the Albert Medal and the Edward Medal (EM) became George Cross recipients but unlike the EGM exchange of insignia they had the option of retaining their original insignia. Of the 64 holders of the Albert Medal and 68 holders of the Edward Medal eligible to exchange, 49 and 59 respectively took up the option.
The GC, which may be awarded posthumously, is granted in recognition of:
acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.
The award is for civilians but also for military personnel whose actions would not normally be eligible to receive military awards, such as gallantry not in the face of the enemy. The Warrant states:
The Cross is intended primarily for civilians and award in Our military services is to be confined to actions for which purely military Honours are not normally granted.
The Cross shall be worn by recipients on the left breast suspended from a ribbon one and a quarter inches in width, of dark blue, that it shall be worn immediately after the Victoria Cross and in front of the Insignia of all British Orders of Chivalry.
Bars are awarded to the GC in recognition of the performance of further acts of bravery meriting the award, although none has yet been awarded. Recipients are entitled to the postnominal letters GC. In common with the Victoria Cross, a distinction peculiar to these two premier awards for bravery, in undress uniform or on occasions when the medal ribbon alone is worn, a miniature replica of the cross is affixed to the centre of the ribbon.
All original individual GC awards are published in The London Gazette.
Since its inception in 1940, the GC has been awarded 408 times, 394 to men, 12 to women, one award to the Island of Malta and one to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). There have been 163 original awards including the awards to Malta and RUC. There have been 245 exchange awards, 112 to Empire Gallantry Medal recipients, 65 to Albert Medal recipients and 68 to Edward Medal recipients. Of the 161 individuals who received original awards, 86 have been posthumous. In addition there were four posthumous recipients of the Empire Gallantry Medal whose awards were gazetted after the start of the Second World War and whose awards were also exchanged for the GC. All the other exchange recipients were living as of the date of the decisions for the exchanges.
The GC was awarded to the island of Malta in a letter dated 15 April 1942 from King George VI to the island's Governor Lieutenant-General Sir William Dobbie:
To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.
The Governor answered:
By God's help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won.
The cross and the messages are today found in the War Museum in Fort Saint Elmo, Valletta. The fortitude of the population under sustained enemy air raids and a naval blockade which almost saw them starved into submission, won widespread admiration in Britain and other Allied nations. Some historians argue that the award was in fact a propaganda gesture to justify the huge losses sustained by Britain to prevent Malta from capitulating as Singapore had done in the Battle of Singapore.
The George Cross was incorporated into the Flag of Malta beginning in 1943 and remains on the current flag adopted at the country's independence in 1964.
The GC was awarded to the RUC in 1999 by Queen Elizabeth II following the advice of her Government. The Queen presented the George Cross to the organisation at Hillsborough Castle, County Down. The citation published by Buckingham Palace on 23 November 1999 stated:
For the past 30 years, the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been the bulwark against, and the main target of, a sustained and brutal terrorism campaign. The Force has suffered heavily in protecting both sides of the community from danger—302 officers have been killed in the line of duty and thousands more injured, many seriously. Many officers have been ostracised by their own community and others have been forced to leave their homes in the face of threats to them and their families. As Northern Ireland reaches a turning point in its political development this award is made to recognise the collective courage and dedication to duty of all of those who have served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and who have accepted the danger and stress this has brought to them and to their families.
There have been 10 GCs awarded to Canadians including those by substitution for awards superseded by the GC. The recipients comprised nine men and one woman. The GC is no longer awarded to Canadians by the Queen of Canada, who awards the Canadian Cross of Valour instead.
The George Cross was awarded to 22 Australians, 11 to the Australian forces and 11 to civilians. It is the highest decoration of the Australian Honours System after the British Victoria Cross and the Victoria Cross for Australia. Although Australia established the Cross of Valour within the Australian Honours System in 1975 'for acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril' it was not until 1992 that Australia officially ceased recommending British honours. During the period 1975 to 1992, the last George Cross to an Australian was awarded in 1978.
Of the 22 awards, 14 were direct awards and eight were Empire Gallantry Medal (two) and Albert Medal (six) exchange awards. Four awards were to officers of the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve who served in the extremely dangerous role of mine disposal during the Second World War. Courage of a different sort was displayed by two prisoners of war who endured terrible suffering without flinching, with Private Horace William Madden, captured in Korea in 1951, dying of privations while assisting fellow prisoners, and Captain Lionel Colin Matthews eventually being executed by his captors for building a resistance network in British North Borneo in the Second World War. The last Australian to be awarded the GC (in 1978) was Constable Michael Kenneth Pratt of the Victoria Police, Melbourne, for arresting two armed bank robbers in June 1976.
Holders of the Victoria Cross or the George Cross are entitled to an annuity, the amount of which is determined by the awarding government. Since 2015, the annuity paid by the British government is £10,000 per year . In Canada under the Gallantry Awards Order, members of the Canadian Forces, or people who joined the British forces before 31 March 1949 while domiciled in Canada or Newfoundland, receive $3,000 per year. Australia has been responsible for the payment of both the Victoria Cross Allowance and the George Cross annuity since the 1940s. The Victoria Cross Allowance which includes both the Victoria Cross for Australia and the British Victoria Cross is included in s.103 of the Veterans' Entitlement Act and is presently $A4,447.00 per year. Although there is not a statutory instrument for the payment of the George Cross annuity, both annuities for the Australian Cross of Valour and George Cross match the Victoria Cross Allowance payment.
Since 1943, in accordance with the George Cross (Restriction of Use) Ordinance, it is unlawful in Malta to use the George Cross, an imitation of it or the words George Cross for the purposes of trade or business without the Prime Minister's authorisation.
The fictional detective inspector William E. "Jack" Frost in the novels of R. D. Wingfield is a recipient of the George Cross, which sometimes serves as a plot element in allowing him to get away with actions that would otherwise have landed him in trouble.
Charles (Karl, Graf von) Dennim, the protagonist in Geoffrey Household's 1960 thriller Watcher in the Shadows, was awarded the George Cross for espionage work during the Second World War, including undercover service as a Gestapo officer at the Buchenwald concentration camp. He refused to accept the award on the basis that "one does not defile a decoration".
Alex O'Loughlin's character Steve McGarrett and Scott Caan's character Danny Williams in "Hawaii Five-0" episode "No Ke Ali'i' Wahine A Me Ka Aina" (2016) are recipients of the George Cross for stopping a terrorist attack against Europe.
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