On 23 September 1940, as a response to the changing nature of war that the Second World War had brought about, George VI announced the creation of the George Cross. Ranking alongside the Victoria Cross, it would recognise supreme gallantry away from the heat of battle – behind the front line and in civilian situations.
From the beginning, those who risked or lost their lives in bomb disposal were at the forefront of the minds of those issuing the award – and amongst the very first awarded were those to Robert Davies and George Wylie for their bravery removing an unexploded bomb close to St Paul’s Cathedral. Today it is still these bomb disposal men, who face the possibility of death on a daily basis, who are so often the recipients of the award, with Olaf ‘Oz’ Schmid the most recent recipient. Schmid spent five months in Helmand Province and defused over seventy improvised explosive devices. He lost his life in October 2009.
Since its inception, 161 awards have been made across the Commonwealth and, of these, 110 have been to service personnel and 51 have been to civilians. Those civilians have come from walks of life as diverse as police officers, train drivers, journalists and teachers, and have included four women as well as two collective groups – the people of Malta in 1942 and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999. The very first recipient Thomas Alderson typified the bravery that George VI wanted to commemorate – an ARP leader in the Blitz, he led a series of dangerous below-ground searches, while the air-raids were still continuing, in his home town of Bridlington, with little concern for his own safety.
George Cross Heroes was also made into a four-part series shown on Discovery History.