Until late summer 1940, World War Two had yet to reach the shores of mainland Britain with any great ferocity. All this changed on 7th September, when the first air raid of the Blitz took place. 350 German bombers flew over London, dropping 300 tonnes of bombs, and this attack marked the start of two months of serious, constant bombing of the capital. Although they eventually slowed, the regular attacks didn’t stop until May 1941. People who had previously only talked of or trained for war found themselves suddenly thrust into the middle of it. They rose to the occasion bravely, working to drag survivors from burning buildings, patch up badly wounded casualties out in the open, even as the air-raid sirens wailed, and locate and defuse bombs that had failed to explode. The sharp rise in acts of bravery by civilians prompted Prime Minister Winston Churchill to write to the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Chatfield, asking him to chair a new Civil Defence Honours Committee that would be responsible for calling in and sifting through recommendations for a new award.
On 23rd September 1940 King George VI went on the radio to announce the institution of the George Cross and George Medal, and by 29th January 1941 the Royal Warrants dropped onto his desk for approval, dated 24th September, the day after his broadcast. Further details were printed in the London Gazette on 31st January, according to ‘British Gallantry Awards’ by PE Abbott and JMA Tamplin.
The George Cross, the paper reported, was to be a plain cross with four limbs, with a circular medallion showing St George and the Dragon and bearing the words ‘For Gallantry’. The Royal Cypher of “G VI” would be found at the angle of each limb, forming a circle concentric with the medallion. On the reverse would be inscribed the recipient’s name (and rank and service description where appropriate), as well as the date that the award was announced in the London Gazette. The cross would be suspended by a ring from a bar adorned with laurel leaves, and the whole would be made of silver. It would be worn on the left breast (or, on women, from the left shoulder on a ribbon fashioned into a bow), and would be suspended by a blue ribbon 1 ½ inch thick (originally it was intended to be 1 ¼ inch thick, but this was soon changed).
The recipient could use the letters ‘GC’ after their name, and the reason for the award would be printed in the London Gazette. The George Cross would be recommended only for “acts of greatest heroism or most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”, and though intended as a civilian award (civilians not being eligible for the Victoria Cross), could also be awarded to members of the armed forces for acts of bravery for which military honours were not normally given (bomb defusing and clearance of mine fields being the most common). Police, Fire and Rescue Services, men and women alike would be eligible, and a list of names of those it was awarded to would kept in the Centre Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood. It could also be awarded posthumously. A pension of £100.00 per annum was later granted to recipients. Those previously granted the Empire Gallantry Award were invited to return their awards and be sent the GC as a replacement, and in 1971 the Albert and Edward Medals were also revoked and the GC given instead, to ensure that those who had committed acts of gallantry in past years continued to receive the respect they deserved.
From 1940-1979 inclusive 151 awards were made to individuals, mostly members of the Armed Forces or civilians from the UK, Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand, with 6 GCs being given to people from other Commonwealth counties.
The most unusual award of all went to an island nation. Malta was given the George Cross on 15 April 1942, much to the surprise of its beleaguered citizens. They had been suffering hugely for four months by that time, bravely holding off the Italians and the Luftwaffe despite being 1,000 miles from the nearest help, with few supplies, little ammo and virtually no fighter planes to aid them with their heavy task. On average 7 raids a day were hitting the island, and anti-personnel bombs were wreaking havoc among the ordinary people. The worst of these were explosives hidden in tiny objects, such as toys or pens, which would go off when picked up. The people of Malta were under siege, and could not find safety anywhere. Just as they began to despair and feel they were forgotten by the rest of the world, the award came to restore hope, pride and joy. It was a personal gesture from King George VI himself, not one recommended by the government, and a unique honour. At the end of the same month, and in May, two huge deliveries of new Spitfires would end the misery and helplessness once and for all, giving the Maltese a way to fight back against their tormenters. The award played a huge part in keeping them going until then.