Was this the bravest VC of them all?
First published in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 November 2021.
Warrant Officer Norman Jackson
In a quiet corner of Twickenham Cemetery, south-west London, beneath the outstretched branches of a gnarled cherry tree, there is a black marble tombstone. “Cherished memories of a dearly loved husband, father and grandfather,” reads the inscription.
However, it is two letters after the name of the individual that makes this grave so different from the others: “V.C.”, standing for Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for gallantry in the presence of the enemy.
This is the grave of Warrant Officer Norman Jackson VC; as someone with a lifelong interest in bravery, I am the privileged custodian of the Jackson medal group. It is part of my VC collection – more than 200 strong and the largest in the world – that is on public display in the Imperial War Museum, London.
Yet there is no single VC action that I admire more than the one carried out by Jackson during a bombing mission in the spring of 1944. Nearly 80 years on, the selfless act of valour that Jackson performed still seems impossible to comprehend.
Norman Cyril Jackson was born in Ealing, west London, on April 8, 1919 and within months he had been adopted. After attending schools in Twickenham, he became a fitter and turner.
On October 20, 1939, less than two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, initially working as ground crew, then becoming a flight engineer.
In July 1943, and by then a sergeant, he joined 106 Squadron at Syerston, Nottinghamshire, and completed around a dozen sorties before the squadron moved to RAF Metheringham, Lincolnshire, in early November.
By April 24, 1944, Jackson had completed his scheduled tour of 30 operations, mostly over heavily-defended German targets. However, before taking some time off, he volunteered for one more sortie on the night of April 26/7 because the rest of the crew were one mission behind him.
The target that night for the Lancaster crew was Schweinfurt, which was at the centre of the German ball-bearing industry.
The Lancaster’s bombs were dropped successfully and the aircraft was climbing out of the target area when, suddenly, it was attacked by a night fighter at nearly 20,000 feet.
The captain took evading action at once, but the enemy Focke-Wulfe 190 secured several hits. A fire started near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the aircraft’s starboard wing.
Sergeant Jackson had been thrown to the floor during the attack and he was also wounded by shell splinters in his right leg and shoulder. Recovering his composure, he obtained his captain’s permission to try to put out the flames.
Pushing a small fire extinguisher into the top of his flying jacket and grabbing small axe, he jettisoned the escape hatch.
He then started to climb out in order to reach the burning wing.
With the Lancaster travelling at 200 mph, he released his parachute inside the aircraft. This enabled other crew to hold on to the rigging lines, paying them out as Jackson crawled into the unknown. As he inched his way towards the fire, he slipped and grasped on to the leading edge of the starboard wing.
Using the axe to secure a grip, he fought the blaze with the extinguisher. Despite his best efforts, the fire spread and soon his face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Even worse, the enemy fighter came back and strafed the Lancaster a second time, forcing Jackson to drop the fire extinguisher. Unable to keep his hold on, Jackson was swept through the flames and into the night.
When last seen falling towards the ground, his parachute was only partly inflated and was burning in a number of places. Jackson, with his parachute ablaze, was unable to control his descent and landed heavily. He suffered a broken ankle, his right eye was closed and his hands were burnt so badly as to render them useless.
At daybreak, he crawled to the nearest village on his knees and elbows because his hands were such a mess. Once the German authorities were alerted to his presence, he was taken as a Prisoner of War and transported to Dulag Luft, a prison camp that acted as collection and interrogation centre for newly-captured Allied aircrew before they were transferred to more permanent camps.
However, due to his 17 separate injuries, Jackson spent his first ten months in hospital before being imprisoned with other POWs. During his captivity, he made two escape attempts, the second, close to the end of the war in Europe, was successful. He met up with troops from General Patton’s Third Army near Munich.
Jackson eventually learned that four others from the seven Lancaster crew had survived the attack. After the war he was reunited with his wife Alma, whom he had married in London on Boxing Day 1942. They eventually had seven children, four sons and three daughters.
As the full story of Jackson’s courage emerged, he was recommended for the VC. His decoration was announced in The London Gazette on October 26, 1945 when his citation ended, “By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.”
Jackson returned to Britain on VE Day and received his VC at Buckingham Palace from George VI on November 13, 1945. He retired in the rank of warrant officer with a disability pension and was always modest about his wartime role, once saying of his VC action: “I was the most experienced member of the crew, and they all looked to me to do something.”
He worked as a travelling salesman for Haig whisky after the war, and died at Hampton Hill, Middlesex, on March 26, 1994, aged 74.
Jackson’s VC was auctioned in London in 2004 at the request of his family. The medal group fetched a hammer price of £200,000, plus auctioneer’s commission. At the time, this was the highest auction price ever paid for a VC but one that reflected the incredible story behind the award.
Furthermore, it was because of brave men like Norman Jackson that, more than a decade ago, I pledged £1million towards a £6.7million fund to build a permanent Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park. This was built and unveiled by the Queen in the summer of 2012.
Earlier this week, I visited Twickenham Cemetery to pay my respects to Jackson at his graveside and to meet one of his five surviving children. David Jackson, 68, a semi-retired businessman, told me: “Dad was a wonderful man with a great sense of humour. He was humble and rarely discussed his VC action but there is no doubt that the bravery he showed was simply incredible.”
This week, as we commemorate our war dead, my thoughts have turned again and again to Norman Jackson VC, a man whose courage and self-sacrifice must never be forgotten and who, arguably, carried out the greatest VC action of all time.