“Ninety-Six Australians have received the British Empire and Commonwealth’s highest military award for valour. Another 20 have gone to New Zealanders.”
ON APRIL 25, Australians and New Zealanders pause to remember all those who served in wartime.
The holiday known as Anzac Day is held annually in both countries as well as the Cook Islands, Niue, Pitcarin and Tonga. It was originally established to mark the anniversary of the 1915 landings at Gallipoli, but in subsequent decades the observances were widened to include all Aussies and Kiwis who fought in both world wars as well as more than a half dozen other conflicts.
In recognition of Anzac Day (and as a shout-out to our legions of readers from Down Under), MHN has prepared this special salute to some of Australia and New Zealand’s most outstanding Victoria Cross winners. In all, 96 Australians have received the British Empire and Commonwealth’s highest military award for valour. Another 20 have gone to New Zealanders. Here are just some of the incredible stories behind these medals.
The First of Many
John Bisdee, a 30-year old cavalryman with the Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen, earned Australia’s first Victoria Cross while fighting in the Second Boer War. During an enemy ambush on Sept. 1, 1900 near Warm Bad, Transvaal, the native of Melton Mowbray rode through a hail of gunfire to retrieve an injured officer who had been shot from his horse by an enemy marksman. A 20-year-old lieutenant from the same outfit named Guy Wylly also won the VC for recovering wounded during the battle. Both commendations now hang in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Galley at Hobart. Four additional VCs would go to Aussies before the fighting in South Africa ended in 1902.
VCs of WW1
More than 60 VCs were awarded to Australians who fought in the First World War, nine of which went to veterans of the Gallipoli Campaign. Leonard Keysor of the 1st Battalion was one such recipient. The 30-year-old London-born lance corporal was given the citation after taking part in a harrowing raid on a Turkish trench at Lone Pine on Aug. 6, 1915. After securing the objective, the small party fended off continuous counter attacks by enemy infantry for three days straight. Although wounded, Keysor amazed his comrades by repeatedly scooping up grenades that were tossed into the trench by Turkish soldiers and then lobbing them back into No Man’s Land before they exploded.
Australia’s most decorated Gallipoli vet, Alfred Shout, had already won the coveted Military Cross for heroism during the April 1915 landing at Anzac Cove when he received the VC for his part in an Aug. 9 assault on the Turkish lines. The married father of one single-handedly fought off dozens of enemy troops with rifle, blade and whiz-bang as his comrades raced to fortify a captured enemy sap. As the battle raged, the 33-year-old New Zealand-born sergeant and Boer War campaigner kept his wavering comrades’ spirits up with cries of encouragement and a seemingly endless stream of jokes. Sadly, Shout was fatally wounded when one of his own grenades exploded in his hand. Even wounded, he continued to urge his squad mates on. He died on a hospital ship two days later and was awarded his commendation posthumously. Due to an administrative foul up, Shout’s wife and daughter didn’t learn of his death for some weeks, believing he had only been wounded. Australian newspapers even falsely reported his triumphant homecoming.
Other Australian VC winners from the First World War include 26-year-old Percy Storkey. The former law student led 11 men on a daring bayonet charge against 100 German troops that were storming the Allied lines near Villers-Bretonneux during the Kaiser’s 1918 Spring Offensive. The outnumbered squad killed 30 of the enemy and drove the rest off. King George V personally decorated Storkey at Buckingham Palace. The young hero later became a judge and left the prized citation to his old high school upon his death in 1969. Fourteen years later, the school’s parent council planned to sell off the VC as part of a fundraiser. Outrage ensued and the medal was donated to the National Army Museum.
Then there was Frank McNamara. The 22-year-old Victoria-born aviator was wounded in the leg by a burst of Turkish flak over Gaza on March 20, 1917. Despite his wounds, he still managed to force land his single-seat scout plane to led aid to a downed pilot. With enemy cavalry closing in, McNamara laid the injured flier flat on the wing of his damaged Martinsyde G.100 and tried to get airborne — the added weight made that impossible. Despite blood loss from his own injuries, the young aviator fought off enemy cavalrymen with his service revolver while the other pilot hastily repaired his own damaged B.E.2 bomber. The pair eventually took off and managed to fly more than 70 miles to safety.
Even following the 1918 Armistice, Australians continued to win VCs for heroism. Arthur Sullivan enlisted too late to see action in France, but did volunteer for the 1919 Allied intervention force sent to Russia to fight the Red Army. During a firefight along the banks of the Sheika River on Aug. 10, the 22-year-old artilleryman plunged into a swamp to pull four drowning comrades to safety. Years later, Sullivan was invited to represent his native Australia in the 1937 coronation of King George VI. Less than two weeks after the ceremony, the 40-year-old bank manager tripped while walking the streets of London and suffered a fatal head injury.
Fighting the Axis
Twenty Aussies would be awarded VCs for heroism in the Second World War, including one multitasking 25-year-old lieutenant named Roden Cutler. The Sydney native kept masses of Vichy French tanks and infantry at bay near Merdjayoun, Lebanon, all the while directing artillery onto enemy positions and repairing a downed telephone line at the same time. He did it all as bullets and shells burst around him. As testament to his versatility, after the war Cutler became an accomplished diplomat and the longest serving governor of New South Wales. He was even knighted by the Queen. Following his death in 2002, Cutler was honoured with a state funeral.
Then there was Bruce Kingsbury, 24, of Melbourne who received a VC for charging straight into a wave of Japanese infantry after his decimated platoon, outnumbered more than five-to-one, was nearly overrun during the August, 1942 battle of Isurava, Papua. “He came forward with this Bren [gun] and he just mowed them down,” reported one eyewitness. “He was an inspiration to everybody else around him.”  After driving the enemy back, Kingsbury was shot dead by a sniper.
Ron Middleton, 26, of Sydney wouldn’t live to see his Victoria Cross either. During a long distance raid on an aircraft plant in Turin, Italy in 1942, the young flying officer piloted his crippled Short Stirling bomber back to southern England, despite having been fatally injured by an anti-aircraft blast. Bleeding profusely, blinded in one eye and with his jaw shredded by shrapnel, Middleton flew on for hours pledging to his crew that he’d get them home alive. Having reached England’s south coast with only enough fuel for just five more minutes in the air, the dying aviator ordered his crew to bail out. With only moments to spare, he turned his plane back out to sea to avoid crashing on land and risking civilian lives. His body was recovered two months later.
Vietnam and Beyond
Four Australians were also awarded Victoria Crosses during the Vietnam War: Kevin Wheatley, Peter Badcoe, Keith Payne and Ray Simpson, who at the age of 43 rescued a wounded comrade during a May, 1969 firefight in Kon Tum Province. In addition to being decorated by Queen Elizabeth II, Simpson was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and American Bronze and Silver stars. He died in 1978.
Australia nationalized the Victoria Cross in 1991. Since then, four have been awarded for heroism in Afghanistan.
New Zealand VCs
The first New Zealander to take home a VC was Charles Heaphy, a 43 militia major who was shot three times by Maori warriors while coming to the aid of a wounded comrade during the Invasion of the Waikato. Despite his injuries, the London-born colonist continued to fight on while aiding casualties. After receiving his citation, Heaphy became a member of parliament representing an Auckland riding in the Kiwi national legislature.
The only Maori to win a VC was Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, a 22-year-old second lieutenant serving with the New Zealand Army in North Africa. In March of 1943, the young officer led his platoon against Panzer grenadiers from the German 164th Infantry Division on of Hill 209 near the Tebaga Gap in Tunisia. After driving the enemy from the ridge, Ngarimu ordered his men to hold the line in the face of repeated counter attacks. He died with his men while defending the position.
Perhaps the most astounding story of New Zealander heroism comes to us from Sgt. James Allen Ward, 22, who served aboard a Vickers Wellington bomber from No. 75 Squadron. While returning from a July 7, 1941 bombing raid on Munster, Germany, Ward’s plane fell prey to a Luftwaffe Me-110. With the starboard engine ablaze, the captain of the allied aircraft ordered Ward to douse the flames before they engulfed the fuel tanks. Amazingly, the former schoolteacher tied a rope around his waist, popped open a hatch on the plane’s fuselage and exited the bomber in mid-air to get at the fire. Despite the intense wind resistance, Ward inched his way across the surface of the wing and reached the smouldering engine, extinguishing it with a canvas sheet. And he did it all without a parachute! The bomber eventually made it back to England safely. Days later, Ward was granted an audience with Winston Churchill. “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence,” said the prime minister. “Well, you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours.” Ward was given command of his own Wellington, but died during a raid over Hamburg on Sept. 15, 1941.
Did we miss any VC winners worthy of attention? Please add your suggestions to the comments section below.