Yesterday we described Operation Plunder, the US, Canadian and British crossing of the Rhine. Today we have the story of the sole Victoria Cross awarded during the operation, which went to a member of the 6th Airborne Division, Corporal Frederick George Topham, a medical orderly with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
According to ‘Honour to the Airborne’ by David Buxton, on 24th March, 1945, Topham parachuted with his battalion into a very well defended area on the German-held side of the Rhine. At 11am he heard a cry from a wounded man, who was lying in an area dangerously exposed to machine gun fire, and raced to help his comrade.
The London Gazette entry recording his heroics, published on 31st July 1945 and available to view as part of his record on the Forces War Records site, is as follows: “On 24th March 1945 east of the Rhine, North-West Europe, when two medical orderlies had been killed while attending to a wounded man lying in the open, Corporal Topham, on his own initiative, went out and while he was attending to the casualty, was shot through the nose. In spite of his wound he carried on, bringing the wounded man in under continuous fire, and refusing to have medical treatment until all the casualties had been cleared. Later in the day he rescued three men from a carrier which had been hit, regardless of the fact that the carrier's own ammunition was exploding.”
The rescue of the men from the carrier in fact came after Corporal Topham had been ordered to evacuate the area, due to the severity of his wound, but he had pleaded hard to remain and was finally allowed to do so. When he came across the burning wreckage he was advised by an officer on the spot that it wasn’t safe to help, since bombs were dropping all around and the mortar ammunition stored in the carrier kept exploding. He went in alone, and in rescuing the three occupants, managed to save two of their lives. He then personally arranged the evacuation of the survivors.
Corporal Topham typifies the quiet bravery and dedication often to be found amongst stretcher bearers and medics, those who go to war aiming not to harm, but to help. Read on to discover the story of similar heroes from the First and Second World Wars.