Civilian honours in the Second World War

In 1940, in order to recognise the gallantry and devotion to duty of civil defence workers and non-uniformed civilians, King George VI instituted the George Cross and George Medal.

A Treasury Committee on Civil Defence Honours was set up, chaired by Lord Chatfield (Fig.1), a retired Admiral of the Fleet. Ernle Chatfield had seen service in the First World War and was Minister for Co-ordination of Defence between February 1939 and April 1940. The Committee sat between April 1940 and December 1946.

Submissions came to the Committee from the Interdepartmental Committee on Civil Defence gallantry awards. The committee consisted of Home Office and Ministry of Home Security representatives; it was responsible for considering all recommendations from local sources and subsequently submitting them with its own recommendations to Lord Chatfield’s Committee at the Treasury which acted as the final arbiter in deciding gallantry awards.

To consider the submissions the Committee required descriptions of the actions warranting recognition, backed up by witness testimony to validate the claims. The Committee would then send its recommendations to the Sovereign, George VI, for approval, and the awards were subsequently announced in the London, Edinburgh, or Belfast Gazette.

The awards, going down in degrees of precedence, ranged from the George Cross, George Medal, British Empire Medal, and Commendations.

Whether a Policeman, ARP worker, or fireman, (or for that matter a non-uniformed civilian) was commended, medalled, or neither, it says something of the conditions which each endured that the King believed it appropriate to institute a new set of awards during the heat of the Blitz.

The United Kingdom World War Two register of Civil Defence Gallantry Awards 1940-1949 includes the details of eleven Isle of Wight uniformed civilians whose cases were considered by Chatfield’s Committee.

Following the Cowes Blitz (Fig.2 - bomb map of the district), Case No. 1958 dealt with Sidney Frank Burchell (Fig.3), Senior ARP Officer at the Report Centre in Northwood House.

Submitted by IW ARP Controller Percival Edgar White, with supporting testimony from ARP worker Ethel Maude Batty, the claim for award was based on Burchell’s insistence that he remained at his post during the infamous raid despite receiving the news that his wife had been killed and his infant son badly injured. Fortitude seems to have been a Burchell trait for he was awarded the Military Medal following his refusal to retire from battle in May 1916 despite receiving a wound that rendered his left arm all but useless for the rest of his life. Even Isle of Wight MP Sir Peter Drummond MacDonald submitted a written support for Burchell’s recognition.

The Committee’s decision that Burchell was not due a medal as he wasn’t in danger and therefore didn’t display heroism or courage may seem harsh but is in keeping with the criteria. However, in part the claim was recognised, and his stoic duties were reflected in a Commendation in the London Gazette, which was followed later by an appointment as a Member of the British Empire for his outstanding service in the community.

Right behind Burchell’s case was No. 1959, concerning ARP Rescue Squad Leader Arthur Cross of 20 Adelaide Grove, East Cowes. The bulk of the evidence supporting the case of Arthur Cross was submitted by a civilian, James Walkinshaw of Grange Road, East Cowes, who, during the Cowes Blitz, witnessed Cross lead his squad beneath debris to rescue a life despite the falling of more bombs as the Luftwaffe began its second wave of attack. One fell in such close proximity that the Rescue Squad’s vehicle was nearly tossed over onto its side. Supported by both Sidney Burchell and Percival Edgar White, Cross was commended in the London Gazette.

Case Nos. 2001, 2001a, 2001b, and 2002, dealt with William Leonard Bolt, Sydney Walter Chorley, Arthur Arnold Hodges, and Henry Wallace Hall, all of Saunders Roe Works Fire Brigade, for their indefatigable efforts to extinguish conflagrations at the Cornubia and Solent works while under fire. All applications were endorsed by Percival Edgar White with the witness testimony provided by the men’s Chief Officer Arthur Pointer (Fig.4). All four received commendations in the London Gazette.

The story of Case No. 1936 concerning Cowes Police Constable Stanley Howard Humphrey is an epic of devotion and daring supported by a myriad of eyewitness submissions from the public, Police and Military. He too was not decorated but commended in the Gazette.

Perhaps the most tragic gallantry case of an Isle of Wight resident concerned that of Portsmouth evacuee John Arnold Ferrari. He and his younger brother had been placed with a couple in Shorwell. John yearned to do his bit and at 16 years old was enrolled into the Auxiliary Fire Service as a messenger. It was in that capacity that he cycled to discover the whereabouts of a number of incendiary bombs dropped in the locality in the early hours of 5 April 1941. Locating the fizzing and spitting tubes at Yards Hollow, Limerstone, he, assisted by an ARP Warden, set about smothering the bombs with soil. Tragically one was of the type fitted with an additional charge and detonator. As the teenaged firefighter approached the device it erupted, sending a searing hot fragment into his chest causing instant death. Chief Constable R.G.B. Spicer (Fig.5) added his thoughts to the recommendation submitted by Percival Edgar White – I consider that the gallant action of this boy deserves recognition.

The Chatfield Committee decided that John Arnold Ferrari would be posthumously recognised through commendation in the London Gazette. Despite multiple searches I have been unable to unearth the record of the commendation.

The King may have desired to recognise gallantry by the making of awards, but Chatfield’s committee seemed reluctant to issue them even where the criteria may arguably have been met.

That argument was rarely stronger than Case No.887 concerning Gerald Haven Frederick Wheeler of 84 Monkton Street, Ryde.

Born in 1920, Gerald Wheeler was employed as a building labourer by Slater’s of Newport. In his spare time, he served in the Territorial Army with the Royal Artillery and remained in service until late 1940 when, for reasons unknown, he transferred into the Auxiliary Fire Service at Portsmouth.

Gerald was the son of Ernest, a sheet metal worker, and Bessie Wheeler, and had many siblings.

Fireman Wheeler was among the watch at the AFS Sub-station, Granada Street, Southsea, on the evening of 10 January 1941 when a Red Warning was issued at 18:02. As driver of the Mobile Dam Unit (MDU) he was immediately ordered to drive his appliance and cargo to a rendezvous point on St Paul’s Road close to AFS Sub-station 17.

Wheeler, in only his seventh week in the fire service, began his journey across the city as over 300 Luftwaffe bombers bore down and began disgorging their payloads. By 19:00 hours the area into which Fireman Wheeler had arrived was under intense bombardment from many calibres of explosive ordnance in addition to thousands of smaller incendiary devices.  Acting Divisional Officer Charles Reginald Russell witnessed Fireman Wheeler determinedly go about his business of water supply despite being repeatedly buffeted by blast waves. Wheeler was close to Sub-station 17, already alight due to an incendiary device when it took a direct hit from a high explosive bomb and was blasted apart.

Wheeler was nearby deploying one of the mobile dams from the MDU and took shrapnel to his left leg resulting in a wound with blood loss. DO Russell ordered him to report to the First Aid Party, but Wheeler ignored the order and continued to supply water into the relay system for another two-and-a-half hours under bombardment. Russell’s report to the Committee emphasised Wheeler’s gritty determination – although it was obvious he was in great pain… He removed two mobile dams from alongside blazing premises at some personal risk, as the buildings were in a state of collapse, and these dams would have been lost but for his prompt action.

While continuing to supply vital water for firefighting operations involving a three-storey building in Kings Terrace, adjacent to the vast Victoria Barracks (long since demolished), Fireman Wheeler finally succumbed to his wound and blood loss and collapsed. He was gathered by ARP stretcher bearers and removed to hospital.

DO Russell’s submission summarised – During the whole of the period of these operations Wheeler had to pass through an area which was continually bombed, and but for his efforts the firemen would have been unable to confine the conflagration to the area destroyed, which would have meant the loss of many more valuable buildings. During the whole of this period the cold was very intense and, owing to his duties, his clothing was saturated with water, which intensified the pain from his wounds. Taking these facts into consideration Wheeler set an heroic example to the personnel employed at these operations, and did not complain during the whole of the time.

Patrol Leader E.J. Burton also submitted eyewitness testimony, much of which supported Russell’s statement, and added – This man was working running water backwards and forwards from the Children’s Paddling Pool to the fires at Kings Road and Landport Terrace, which was an area of many fires. I saw him at the Paddling Pool, and he was obviously in pain. I questioned him respecting his leg and asked him to have his injuries attended to. He replied, “It is nothing” and carried on with his work until he collapsed owing to pain and shock. During the whole of this time the man was subjected to heavy bombardment from the air. He displayed great courage and his fortitude under the circumstances was exemplary.

The County Press made light of his action, describing it merely as a lucky escape in their report of 18 January, but offered a richer report in May when news broke of an impending decoration. For courage and fortitude, began the report which stated Wheeler had remained active for seven hours after sustaining his wounds. The report added the happy news that following his recovery Fireman Wheeler had married Betty Bovington of Freshwater.

When Fireman Wheeler attended Buckingham Palace to be awarded by the King in early July, he received his British Empire Medal alongside DO Russell, who had been equally awarded for personal heroism in extricating himself from beneath the debris of the destroyed Sub-station 17, sustaining injuries to his back, before returning into the rubble to successfully rescue Operator Taylor, in addition to salvaging a trailer pump and other vital equipment and remaining on continuous duty for 48 hours.

Fireman Wheeler and Betty were to enjoy a happy family life with five children at 77 Monkton Street, just a few doors from where he had been raised, before his premature demise aged 57 on 7 July 1977.

The two final considerations from the Isle of Wight were that of 34-year-old wholetime Fireman James Charles Goddard (Case No.2035a) of 68 Well Street, Ryde, and his part-time colleague 44-year-old Fireman Henry Francis Budden of 89 West Street, Ryde who worked full-time at Lloyds Bank.

The two cases were considered side by side, submitted with the approval and written support of Fire Force Commander Charters and in the main based on the report of Company Officer Max Heller of Ryde, in addition to Section Leader R.E. Hannam and, unusually, underpinned by the recommendation of Chief Regional Fire Officer H.M. Smith.

Charters began – Firemen Goddard and Budden were attached to the crew dealing with a serious fire occurring as a result of enemy action in Cowes, I.O.W., on the 4th May 1942. The premises involved were the East Cowes Sailing Boathouse, which was one complete blaze and choking fumes from a large store of coke situated in the adjoining gasworks, were sweeping over and dangerously affecting the men working in the confined, narrow alley-way on the sea-side of Clarence Road.

A building nearest to the three-quarters filled gasholder was well alight, and the flames from which were in contact with the holder. In view of the dangerous situation there was no time during which to await the arrival of self-contained breathing apparatus and taking elementary first aid precautions of using cover for their mouths, the crew under the leadership of Fireman Goddard, who was periodically overcome by fumes, continued with their work, explosives and incendiary bombs falling within the near vicinity. 

The crew continued with their work and their devotion to duty enabled the gasholder and other gas works and other property from becoming involved.

Company Officer Max Heller (Fig.6), senior officer of Ryde's District 2 contingent of the Island’s NFS added – Two lines of hose were in use and operations had to be conducted from a narrow alley-way at the rear of a row of cottages. The men were out of sight of the road.

When I arrived on the scene, one of the men had just been overcome by the fumes and taken out into Clarence Road to recover. A second man was sick and the others were suffering severely through the effects of the fumes. I was at once approached with a request that permission be given for the men to withdraw until breathing apparatus could be obtained owing to the danger of the fumes.

Elementary first aid precautions were taken by using coverings for the mouths and the men were rallied. They then again attacked the fires and by good team work, coupled with extra strenuous efforts, the building that was on fire nearest to the gasholder was concentrated upon and the fire brought under control.

Section Leader Hannam was more succinct and closed with – Their action undoubtedly played a big part in saving the gasworks.

CFRO Smith closed the submission with – The work performed by the Fire Service personnel as a whole, during the raid on 4/5th May, was of a high character and it is not my wish that any individual should be singled out for the award of any decoration for gallantry. I do, however, feel that Goddard and Budden should be commended for their devotion to duty.

Smith’s comments sealed the deal, Goddard and Budden were not decorated but were commended in the London Gazette in January 1943.

An IW County Press article published in the same month suggested that Fireman Hugh Weeks of 122 Arthur Street, Ryde, was also to receive a commendation for his actions at the same event, but no record has been discovered to support this.

No doubt the actions of the men detailed above could be compared to those of other emergency workers and civilians in response to any of the attacks the Island sustained during the war, but most of whom were not recognised. The reality of awards and commendations is commonly a case of the few who were seen by those willing to submit recommendations, while the many go unnoticed and forgotten.

A letter submitted by Mr C. Reed of 45 Gordon Road, Cowes, which appeared in the IW County Press on 30 January 1943, is understandable.

I notice there has been an announcement of Ryde firemen being praised for saving a gasworks at Cowes… I consider anyone in any service who helped that night with hell let loose is deserving of praise, not to single out a few, for every man was gallant in my estimation.

Name Chatfield Committee decision
ARP Officer Sidney Frank Burchell Commendation in London Gazette
ARP Rescue Squad Leader Arthur Cross Commendation in London Gazette
AFS Messenger John Arnold Ferrari Commendation in London Gazette
NFS Fireman James Charles Goddard Commendation in London Gazette
NFS Fireman Henry Francis Budden Commendation in London Gazette
AFS Fireman Gerald Haven Frederick Wheeler British Empire Medal
Police Constable Stanley Howard Humphrey Commendation in London Gazette
SARO Fireman William Leonard Bolt Commendation in London Gazette
SARO Fireman Sydney Walter Chorley Commendation in London Gazette
SARO Fireman Harry Wallace Hall Commendation in London Gazette
SARO Fireman Arthur Arnold Hodges Commendation in London Gazette

The formal register, accessible via the Ancestry website, revealed the names of the men above. If you believe that there are more Isle of Wight civilians that were awarded or commended for gallantry during the Second World War, please contact me using the form below.

If you have enjoyed this page, why not make a small donation to the Firefighters Charity.

Rating: 1 star
1 vote