I came across this interesting article today and it reminded me of the debate that exists regarding the Victoria Cross and Special Forces.
The article tells of William Williams who was awarded the VC in 1917. Williams was serving on a disguised and armed merchant ship, known as a ‘Q-ship’. Its job was to lure German U-Boats to the surface and attack them with hidden guns.
The Wikipedia site describes Williams’ actions as follows:
‘On 7 June 1917 HMS Pargust (one of the Q ships) was out in the Atlantic when her engine room was damaged by a torpedo fired from a U-boat. The ‘Panic party’ went away and the U-boat surfaced, thinking that Pargust was a merchant vessel. When the U-boat was about 50 yards away, the Commander of Pargust gave the order to fire and the submarine blew up and sank. The explosion when Pargust was torpedoed loosened the gun covers and Seaman Williams with great presence of mind took the whole weight on himself and physically prevented the covers from falling and betraying the ship to the enemy.’
The secrecy of this mission resulted in a rather vague citation, when on 2 August, 1917 the London Gazette published the following:
‘His majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the under mentioned Officers, Non-commissioned Officers and Men.’
It the atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded the Q-ship operations the vague citations was understandable. In fact, Williams was not the only ‘vague’ VC and he became part of a group known as the mystery VCs.
This raises an important question.
Should ‘sensitive’ actions be eligible for the VC?
Historically this was not such an issue. Special Forces operations only became part of regular combat during the Second World War. This means that in the years prior to WW2, the inclusion of vague citations was a suitable cover for ‘sensitive’ actions.
However, in the media hungry world of modern warfare this is no longer the case. In the recent conflict in Iraq, Special Forces played a large and significant role in the war. These troops often operated deep in enemy territory and at extreme risk. Naturally, the nature of this kind of warfare produces a high proportion of VC worthy actions. Yet, the secret nature of the missions means that the public issuing of a VC becomes impossible, since it would attract much unwanted media attention.
In his book, ‘Looking for Trouble’, General Sir Peter De La Billiere, a retired SAS commander, writes extensively about his time commanding Special Forces. In one telling passage he explains that:
‘I should have liked to recommend him [Mike Kealy] for the Victoria Cross, but this was politically impossible, for a VC would have attracted far too much attention and publicized our presence in Oman to an unacceptable degree.’
General De La Billiere’s comments come as no surprise. However, attempts have been made to award members of the SAS with the VC.
On Monday 25 March 2002, The Scotsman newspaper ran an article titled ‘SAS Afghan hero is awarded VC.’ The opening paragraphs read as follows:
‘A regimental sergeant major in the SAS is to become the first living recipient of a Victoria Cross since the Vietnam War, for his bravery in action against al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. The soldier was part of a 90-strong British force which found itself outnumbered two to one during fierce fighting around the Tora Bora cave complex in the White Mountains. Despite being shot in the leg and wounded, he fought on as the SAS beat the odds to take the complex. The four hours of hand-to-hand combat sub-sequently became known as the Battle of the Caves. But because the identity of SAS soldiers is never disclosed, the man’s name will never be made public. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is believed to have wanted the man’s name to be published to create a “feel good” factor around the British presence in Afghanistan. However, he reluctantly agreed the man’s identity and the details of his gallantry would not appear in the London Gazette when the honour is officially announced.’
However, it never happened. Instead, two members of the SAS were awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses.
So what is the answer?
The problem as I see it, is that the VC is a public medal. A key aspect of the issuing of the award is the public ‘feel good’ factor that is produced. The VC is a demonstration of the gallant acts of the British army. It publically illustrates just how bravely our soldiers are fighting and dying to protect our freedom. It makes us ‘feel good’ about the army. The VC is a political statement and therefore a political medal, with factors beyond military considerations impacting on the way it is awarded.
This means that secret, or anonymous, awarding of the medal is pointless. The medal has to make a statement. It must be public.