The Order of the British Empire (part three): 1937 to 1957

St Paul's Order of the British Empire chapelThis third article in the series marking the centenary of the Order of the British Empire covers services rendered in connection with World War 2, the responsibility for the allocation of honours being extended to Commonwealth countries, and the creation of the Order’s spiritual home in London.

New insignia

The Order’s insignia, which had been altered to commemorate the reign of King George V and Queen Mary (see part two), was ready in time for members of the royal family to wear their new pink riband at King George VI’s coronation in May 1937.

Two months later, the membership was extended, with a 45 per cent increase in the fixed places in the commander (CBE) to grand cross (GBE) classes, and more than 60 per cent extra annual appointments as officer (OBE) and member (MBE):















July 1937






Two half-yearly honours lists appeared in the Gazettes of 1938 and 1939, and included awards to mark the 150th anniversary of Australia, the Empire Exhibition and the centenary of the London, Midland & Scottish Railway, with a less conventional CBE for the artist George Kruger Gray (Gazette issue 34469), whose designs included the coinage of the new reign and the collar of the Order of the British Empire.

Promotions to CBE were also approved for Otto Schiff, whose services with the German Jewish Aid Committee hinted at the tragedy ahead; and for Florence Horsbrugh (Gazette issue 34585), the first woman to hold a cabinet post in a Conservative government, and one of fewer than 20 women to attain the highest class of GBE during the present reign.

War honours

The Order returned to a war service role in 1939, when the main change from the previous conflict was the decision not to use the Order of St Michael and St George for the armed forces, and so the British Empire worked mainly as a junior partner to the Order of the Bath.

The highest military distinction – that of grand cross – was rarely used, and only eight GBEs were appointed before the fall of Hitler, including Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Wilson, who directed combined operations in the Middle East; Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, of Bomber Command; and General Sir Thomas Blamey, who led the Australian forces in the South West Pacific, while the victory list of 1946 noticed General Sir William Slim, who commanded the allied land forces in South East Asia.

More than 33,000 military division appointments and medals were gazetted between the end of 1939 and the victory parade in London on 8 June 1946, honouring men and women from across the Empire and, in particular, citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

The awards gave public thanks for services rendered during the brief but critical Battle of Britain in 1940 (Gazette issue 37719); the much longer but no less gruelling Battle of the Atlantic; the defence of Malta; the allied landings in Sicily and Normandy; the campaigns in Norway, North Africa, Burma, Italy, the Middle East and the Pacific; the operational flights from UK air bases; and the march across north-west Europe from D-Day until the German surrender.

Awards were gazetted for endeavours ranging from the first naval action of the war, when a British fleet engaged the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee during the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 (Gazette issue 37989), through to managing the legacy of the conflict, including the work done by prisoners of war and the services rendered by medical personnel during the liberation of the German concentration camps.

Many Gazettes gave the theatre of operations, and some honours were reported as being for ‘gallant conduct in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner’, but few disclosed the specific services. A number of awards were gazetted with a little more information, as with the OBE for Eric Brown of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for courage in becoming the first pilot to land on the deck of a carrier (Gazette issue 37474). Another citation explained how Geoffrey Carter of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve gained his MBE for searching for casualties and removing the wounded and dead after an air force base was demolished by a long-range V2-type missile (Gazette issue 37221).

The Merchant Navy gained frequent notice for the bravery displayed by seamen in convoy work, and in rescuing and sustaining survivors from ships destroyed by enemy aircraft and submarines. The British Empire’s first wartime appointment was made on 3 November 1939, when Captain Hugh Roberts, the master of SS Mopan, became an OBE for ‘great courage, resolution and skill in saving his unarmed ship, when under continuous fire from an enemy submarine for over four hours’ (Gazette issue 34724).

Awards were granted to personnel employed in civil defence, often with the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) services and other organisations that responded to enemy attacks, including the bombing of locations as far apart as Chelsea, Coventry and Clydebank. The Home Guard also played a key role, and more than 800 members received awards ranging from British Empire Medals (BEM) to CBEs when it was stood down in December 1944 (Gazette issue 36840).

One of these medallists was Company Quartermaster Sergeant Harry Irving of the West Riding Battalion, whose recommendation explained that he could have ceased duties at any time on medical grounds, as he suffered from diabetes, ‘but he has always put his service to his country through the Home Guard before all personal considerations’.

Other areas of endeavour associated with the conflict were also recognised, including the national war savings movement; the output of factories engaged in the production of the weapons of war; and workers engaged in the supply of the necessities of life, such as fuel and food, for the home population.

Some unusual awards were gazetted, such as for Kathleen Mitchell, for showing ‘sustained bravery and devotion to duty in carrying on farming under the gunfire and air attacks of the enemy’. The citation explained that ‘The farm is at the nearest point to the Continent and is scarred with filled-in shell-holes. The farm buildings are probably the most vulnerable in the country, yet work was carried on throughout the Battle of Britain and ever since’ (Gazette issue 35568).

Some families provided several members of the Order, including five Russells. Their wartime collection began in 1943, with a CBE for Captain Guy Russell of the Royal Navy for service in Malta. His brother, Leopold, received a military OBE with the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, and a second naval CBE was earned by their brother, John (Lord Ampthill). 1946 brought an OBE for a fourth brother, Wing Commander Edward Russell, RAFVR, and their family group was completed with a civil OBE for their sister Phyllis Thorold, for work with the Red Cross.


The system of gallantry awards was altered in 1940 with the introduction of the George Cross and George Medal, the ending of the Empire Gallantry Medal (EGM), and with the publication of formal commendations in The Gazette.

Existing recipients of the EGM became holders of the George Cross, while the BEM continued to reward bravery where the act did not merit either the George Cross or Medal. Occasionally, a variety of honours were associated with a single incident, as happened in June 1944, when members of the Royal Canadian Air Force struggled to save lives after an aircraft crashed into another that was loaded with bombs ­– Air Commodore Arthur Ross OBE received the George Cross, two men were awarded the George Medal, and British Empire Medals were conferred on two leading aircraftmen (Gazette issue 36767).

George Woodward was one of fewer than 20 wartime holders of both the George Medal and a bravery British Empire Medal. His BEM was earned during the London Blitz when, as leader of the Chelsea ARP Rescue Party, Woodward tunnelled to rescue a girl from debris under which she had been trapped for four days, while high explosive bombs were dropping nearby. Three years later, his George Medal followed the rescue of a woman from a flooded basement, where she was pinned beneath the wreckage of a building that had collapsed and caught fire, after it was hit during an air raid (Gazette issue 35143 and 36696).


The Order of the British Empire operated across the globe from the outset, and Crown (as opposed to honorary or foreign) nominations had been made throughout the Commonwealth with, for example, more than 1,400 Australian awards by the time the Order reached its silver jubilee in 1942.

Responsibility for the selection of candidates rested with the King’s United Kingdom ministers until the middle of the war, when (in common with the approach adopted for several other honours) the system was altered to allow overseas governments to tender advice, and for honours to be gazetted as such. Canada and South Africa took advantage of this facility from 1942, and were later joined by Australia and New Zealand.

The role of overseas ministers evolved during peacetime as the constitutional links between London and the old Empire changed, with different approaches being taken by countries which either became independent republics, or gained their independence within the Commonwealth before becoming republics, or remained independent under the Crown.

Republics usually ended their association with the Order, as happened with Burma in 1948, while the countries that retained Crown links include Ceylon, which became an independent dominion and later the republic of Sri Lanka, but only used the Order until the mid-1950s.

With rare exceptions, Canada and South Africa ended making submissions for British Empire awards after the war, while Australia and New Zealand continued to provide regular lists of candidates for more than four decades.


The post-war policy saw a return to the familiar half-yearly honours lists, with operational awards gazetted as the need arose, as in the case of the Kenya, Palestine and Suez campaigns. The engagements in Korea and Malaya gave rise to the largest number of military admissions, while the civil awards reflected some specific events from the closing years of King George VI’s reign, including the London Olympics of 1948, the union of Newfoundland with Canada in 1949, and the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The membership also began to reflect structural changes at home, as the nationalisation programme led to regular honours for personnel from, for example, the National Coal Board and British Railways.

No attempt was made to modify the Order’s insignia when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, apart from altering the cypher on the medal to ‘E II R’, in contrast with the situation in 1937, when the riband changed from purple to pink and her grandparents’ portraits entered the insignia. The Queen’s grandmother, Queen Mary, died in March 1953, and her successor as grand master of the Order of the British Empire was the Duke of Edinburgh, who continues to serve in this role.

The coronation honours list (Gazette issue 39886) rewarded some of those who created the early images of the Queen’s reign, including OBEs for Cecil Thomas and Mary Gillick, who designed the portraits that appeared on her Coronation Medal and first coinage. Thomas’s effigy and the British Empire’s insignia were united at Buckingham Palace in July 1953, when members of the Mount Everest Expedition received specially engraved Coronation Medals: Edmund Hillary was invested as a KBE, and the Queen knighted the expedition’s leader, John Hunt, who had earned his CBE during the war.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Four years after the coronation, it was announced that St Paul’s Cathedral in London was to become the church of the Order, with a chapel for the British Empire being located in the crypt. An agreement with the cathedral authorities allowed ceremonials and religious services to be organised for the first time, and a statute of May 1957 added three new officials to serve the Order, including the position of dean, which was filled by the dean of St Paul’s.

The Order’s chapel contained no stalls or banners of the kind associated with, for example, the knights of the Garter at Windsor, and instead the heraldic display was limited to banners for the Queen as sovereign, the Duke of Edinburgh as grand master and a few of the royal grand crosses, including Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

The chapel was dedicated by the prelate of the Order, the Bishop of London, on 20 May 1960, and was later made available for the marriage and baptism of members and medallists, and as the location for certain memorial services. One of the earliest events was held to remember the life of Lord Mottistone, the surveyor of St Paul’s, who received an OBE for designing the chapel, but died less than three years after it was opened.

The cathedral accommodated several general gatherings of the Order, with services taking place every few years in the main part of the church, rather than the chapel. A special event was organised in St Paul’s to mark the Order’s golden jubilee in 1967. The ceremony took place on 24 May, the date the original statutes deemed to be – and which continues to be – the anniversary of the institution of the Order, even although the founding letters patent were issued on 4 June 1917.

24 May was, however, the birthday of Queen Victoria and became known as Empire Day, and so the anniversary acknowledged the existence of the family of nations which were still joined in a common cause when the Order emerged amid the chaos of war. The centenary service is also due to be held on 24 May 2017.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

See also: The Order of the British Empire: 1957 to 1993