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Heroes of the British Commonwealth

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Comparison of award systems in the USSR and the UK during World War II.

Heroes of the British Commonwealth

Originally appeard at VPK, translated by Elmo Goof exclusively for SouthFront

The British award system (United Kingdom) reflected a monarchical form of government and formed itself during a few centuries, while the Soviet reward system existed just a little more than two decades before World War II started.

According to a medieval tradition, the main British orders portrayed some kind of a union of its chevaliers, the form of which copied a knight order. The monarch was herewith a kind of a grandmaster for the chevaliers of all orders and the right of rewarding belonged to him. Nothing of the kind existed in USSR, which sometimes makes the comparison of rewards of both countries difficult. We also exclude the salary of noble titles (count, viscount, baron and others) from the comparison, which was usually seen as a more valuable award than any kind of medal, but wasn’t common in Soviet Russia.

Knights of the Garter

The highest British order of chivalry is the Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded in 1348 and is considered one of the world’s most ancient orders. According to the knights’ code of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the order cannot contain more than 24 people, aside from the monarch, the Prince of Wales, members of the royal family and foreign monarchs. The reigning monarch chooses the knights for the Most Noble Order of the Garter himself, recommendations of whomever aren’t necessary for this. But during World War II, the king listened to the Prime Minister’s recommendations when choosing chevaliers for the Order. Statesmen and military figures become knights; their appointment is announced on St George’s Day, the 23rd of April, but the honour is handed over some time after that, usually in June. But the awards were naturally given when there were free vacancies after the death of knights, repeated awards were excluded. This is how Winston Churchill, the Prime-Minister of wartime, has been awarded the honour of the Garter in 1953, but he received it in 1954, at the very end of his political career. Admiral of the fleet, count Louis Mountbatten of Burma, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command, was rewarded with the honour of the Garter in 1955. British field marshals also received the honour of the Garter: Commander of Allied Ground Forces in Europe Bernard Law Montgomery (1946), Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke (1946), Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean Harold Alexander (1946) and Commander of Allied Ground Forces in South-East Asia William Slim (1959).

Basically, Stalin probably copied the Order of the Garter when he introduced the Order of Victory. This is also indicated by the close number of chevaliers in both orders: 24 in the Most Noble Order of the Garter, without foreign monarchs and 16 in the Order of Victory, but with foreign leaders, including one monarch. Bearing in mind three repeated awards, the general number of awards of the Order of Victory during Stalin’s government reaches 19, whereas a repeated award of the Order of the Garter wasn’t allowed. Stalin made the Order of Victory the highest military order. The Order of the Garter wasn’t formally considered as one. But during World War II and post-war years people were rewarded with it only for military Merit. Churchill’s awards can also be included here, who actually executed duties of a Supreme Commander.

‘Suvorov’: the British-way

Next in seniority is the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, founded in 1725. Its head (the Grand Master) is also the British monarch. Contemporaneous, there can only be up to 120 Knights or Dames Grand Cross, 355 Knights Commander or Dames Commander and 1925 Companions. Foreigners may be made Honorary Members of the Order of the Bath. During World War II, Honorary Members were Soviet warlords marshal Zhukov (Knight Grand Cross) and also marshals Konev and Rokossovsky (Knights Commander).

Certain British warlords, who weren’t awarded the Order of the Garter, received this honour. Commander of the British Expeditionary Forces in France, Field Marshal John Standish Gort was awarded Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1940 for a successful evacuation from Dunkirk. In 1941: Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, Commander of the British Army in India and Burma for the exile of Italians from Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea when he was a Commander in the Middle-East. In 1942: Field Marshal John Greer Dill, Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff in the USA. In 1944: Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson, Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean and in 1945: Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Commander in India and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF Bomber Command. The latter wasn’t awarded the Order of the Garter because of the ambiguous attitude of the British society towards the strategic bombings, which led to large civilian casualties. He was also not awarded a title of Peerage. Note: Field Marshal Auchinleck refused the title of Peerage. Probably this was connected with failure experiences, which the British troops suffered under his command in North-Africa in 1942.

There are no analogues of the Order of the Bath in the Soviet award system. To a certain degree, in the section of awards for military Merit, similar functions were carried out by the Order of Suvorov and by the Order of Ushakov. This way, a second-time award with the Order of Suvorov 1st Class can be associated with the Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath.

The enemy hands out the award

The Victoria Cross is the highest military order in Britain and in the Commonwealth countries for the most conspicuous bravery, valour, self-sacrifice and devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Let’s clarify: the highest among awards which are not considered to be knight orders. The Victoria Cross was introduced in 1856 for the heroes of the Crimean War. It may be awarded to a person of any military rank in any service and to civilians under military command, e.g. civil medical personnel. Since 1856 the medal has been awarded 1358 times. It is believed that all the medals are struck from Russian bronze weapons captured at the Siege of Sevastopol, but some researchers express doubts, suggesting that most of the medals were made of Chinese bronze cannons, captured during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion from 1900 to 1901. Right now, the last owner of the Victoria Cross (in chronological order of awarding) is lance-corporal of the Parachute Regiment Joshua Marc Leakey, awarded this medal in 2015 for bravery for actions in Afghanistan. After World War II there were only 15 Victoria Cross awards, eight of which were posthumous. But during World War II 181 people were awarded the Victoria Cross, 85 of which posthumous. An obvious analogue in the Soviet award system is the ‘Golden Star’ of the Hero of USSR. But a repeated award with the Victoria Cross happened just once, unlike with the ‘Golden Star’. Captain Charles Upham, from the 2nd New Zealand Division, was awarded the Victoria Cross and an additional mark of distinction, which meant a repeated award. He became the third owner of the mark of distinction in history of the order. He was noticed for the first time when he still had the statute of a Second Lieutenant for the participation in actions in Crete from the 22nd to the 30th of March 1941. The second time Upham received the Victoria Cross was for his participation in the first battle near El Alamein from the 14th to the 15th July 1942, where he was the commander of a company. He has been awarded in September 1945, in particular for the fact that ‘despite two injuries, the first of which he got when he was crossing an open area that was under enemy fire for the inspection of advanced units guarding our minefields, and the second of which he got when he entirely destroyed a truck filled with German soldiers with a hand grenade … he insisted on staying with his people to participate in the final attack’. In that battle Upham also destroyed a German tank and a few tools and vehicles. In that period of time he was captured and tried to escape from Italian camps many times. In the end he was sent to a camp in the Colditz Castle in Saxony, which American troops released on the 14th of April 1945. Upham returned to New-Zealand, where he died on the 22nd of November 1994 at the age of 86.

First chevalier of the Victoria Cross during World War II was Lieutenant-Commander (equal to an Army Major) Gerard Broadmead Roope, captain of torpedo-boat HMS Glow worm, who died together with the biggest part of the crew and ship in the Norwegian Sea on the 8th of April 1940. The torpedo-boat joined in an unequal battle with a German heavy cruiser ‘Admiral Hipper’ and managed to ram the ship before its shipwreck. The commander of the cruiser, Captain Hellmuth Heye, wrote a letter to the British Admiralty with the battle description and recommendations for the nomination of a British torpedo-boat for an award.

Let’s highlight the fact that the difference between the general number of Victoria Cross awards and the Hero of USSR titles was more than 60, because, during World War II, there were more than 12 thousand Heroes of USSR. 25,3% of Heroes of USSR were awarded the ‘Golden Star’ posthumous, while the ones who were awarded the Victoria Cross posthumous were 47%. All awarded the Victoria Cross were soldiers and officers. There were no generals or admirals among them. Unlike the ‘Golden Star’ of the Hero of USSR, the Victoria Cross couldn’t be given for the management of executed operations, but only for heroism shown directly on the battle field, under enemy fire. This award was received by 28 representatives of the Royal Air Force (including one from Australia) and 23 representatives of the Royal Navy, including one member of the Marine Corps. The other 130 awards were for the Land Forces, which made 71,8%. Here you can notice a resemblance with the Soviet practice. There were about 20% pilots among the Heroes of USSR, 4,25 % representatives of the Navy and the Marine Corps, and about 76% representatives of Land Forces, including guerrillas, border guards and secret agents. We should only keep in mind that sailors in Britain were rewarded more generously (affected by the tradition of ‘Mistress of the Sea’), but they were very stingy to pilots, because of the society’s ambiguous attitude towards Germany’s strategic bombings. Because the Western Allies were completely dominating the air in 1943, the British pilots of the fighter aircraft turned out to have way less potential targets than their German colleagues-enemies, which could have not led to a way smaller result than that of the Luftwaffe Aces. And the British used another tactic. They were less active than the Germans when they brought the best Ace Pursuit planes into play, which restrained their number of departure flights. This reduced the amount of victories, but increased the chance of surviving.

‘Georgy’ from George

The Cross of St. George was established by King George IV on the 24th of September 1940 as the highest civil award, the next most valued award after the Victoria Cross. It’s given for ‘the greatest heroism or a particular bravery in circumstances of extreme danger’. Generally, the award receivers are civilians or militaries, whose deeds weren’t directly related to warfare. During the war and a time after that, 146 awards were reached out for military deeds, including a collective one to the inhabitants of the Maltese archipelago bravery in the face of German-Italian bombings. 52 people were awarded posthumous. The closest analogue of the Cross of St. George in the Soviet award system is the title of the Hero of Socialist Labour as the highest civil award. There were 201 people who got this award during the war, which is close to the number of awarded people with the Cross of St. George. But during the war, titles of Heroes of Socialist Labour weren’t handed out posthumous. And the statute also differed. The title of Hero of Socialist Labour was given ‘to citizens who made significant contributions to the advancement of Soviet industry, agriculture, transportation, trade, science and technology, and helped with the rise of the national economy, science, culture, growth of the power and the glory of USSR’. This way, it wasn’t about the achievement of a heroic deed in circumstances of extreme danger.

But the medals are alike

Other wartime British awards don’t have direct analogues in the Soviet award system. This way, the medal for ‘Distinguished Service’, which was given to senior officers, and the cross for ‘Distinguished Service’ and the Military Cross, which are meant for junior officers and warrant officers (Majors could also receive the Military Cross), can only be conditionally compared with the Civil War medal of the 1st and 2nd class and Soviet Military Leader medals of junior classes. And the medal of the British Empire that has five military classes and that was handed out for military and civil services, including many foreigners, may not be compared with any Soviet award. Let’s note that honoured knights of the Grand Cross Order of the British Empire were marshal Vasilevsky and marshal Sokolovskiy. Vice-admiral Georgiy Kholostyakov was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The British, unlike the French and Americans, were very stingy with awarding Soviet generals and marshals.

But British medals for military campaigns may be compared with Soviet medals for the defence and the taking of certain cities. But we have to keep in mind that unlike Soviet medals, British medals were divided in stars and actual medals, which are lower in class than the stars. All the participants of military actions of British troops from the 3rd of September 1939 to the 2nd of September 1945, who served in the current army not less than six months, were awarded the medal ‘Star 1939-1945’. The star’s analogues are Soviet medals ‘For Victory over Germany’ and ‘For Victory over Japan’. Medal of a lesser class was ‘For the Participation in the War of 1939-1945’. 28 days of taking part in military actions were enough to get that medal.

Soldiers of Great Britain and countries of the Commonwealth were awarded the medal ‘Atlantic Star’ for the participation in military actions in the Atlantics during World War II. The star was given for six months of service on the fleet in the Atlantic Ocean and British coastal waters during the 3rd of September 1939 to the 8th of May 1945. Soldiers of the Royal Air Force, who took part in military operations in a specified zone, and military sailors, who took part in military actions not less than two months, were awarded this medal. The Air Force star ‘For battles in Europe’ was given to pilots, who participated in military actions in occupied Europe from 1939 to 1944, during a period not less than two months.

The ‘African Star’ was given to participants of military actions in North-Africa from the 23rd of October 1942 to the 12th of May 1943. The ‘Pacific Ocean Star’ was meant for taking part in active military actions in the Pacific Ocean military actions theatre from the 8th of December 1941 to the 2nd of September 1945. The ‘Burma Star’ was given to participants of military actions on the territory of Burma from the 11th of December 1942 to the 2nd of September of 1945. The ‘Italian Star’ was meant for participants in the battles in Italy from 1943 to 1945, and the ‘France and Germany Star’ was for participants of military actions in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia from the 6th of June 1944 to the 8th of May 1945.

The medal ‘For the Defence of Norway from 1940 to 1945’, established on the 19th of September 1945, was given to the British and foreigners, participants of the 1940 campaign and further research-diversion operations, including the destruction of heavy water provisions and production capacity in the Vemork factory in February 1943, which made the realisation of the German atom project difficult.

The medal ‘For Defence’, established on the 16th of August 1945, was meant for awarding the servicemen of the civil defence, the royal service of military journalists, the national fire brigade service, the military mail service, the police, the coastal guard etc. Its closest analogue is the Soviet medal ‘For Heroic Labour during the Great Patriotic War from 1941-1945’, established on the 6th of June 1945. Although the group of people awarded that medal is way bigger than those who got the British medal ‘For Defence’. That medal could have been received by all the Soviet citizens who ‘with their brave and selfless labour provided the USSR Victory over Germany’, and not only by those who were serving in supporting services. And today there are more than 16 million people awarded the medal ‘For Heroic Labour’.

In general, the British award system, that started in the Middle Ages and that had monarchy characteristics, didn’t have many resemblances with the young Soviet award system during World War II than the German and USA award systems. The last-mentioned were also younger than the British system. The American award system didn’t exist more than 80 years. The German system (historically it started from the Prussian system), was established in the 18th century. Although Hitler made reforms in that system, so practically the system was just as young as the Soviet one. The British award system is way older than the Soviet system; this is why only certain Soviet medals can be compared with the ones in the United Kingdom.

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