100 years of air force honours (part two)

Alan CobhamIn the second of two articles about RAF honours over the last century, Russell Malloch looks at non-operational air force honours and related flying awards.

Flying awards

The founding warrant of 3 June 1918 provided that the Air Force Cross and Air Force Medal (AFC and AFM) could be awarded for ‘acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying though not in active operations against the enemy.’

Around 660 AFCs and 100 AFMs were gazetted before the end of 1919, and most appeared without a citation. The honours mainly related to services connected with the war in Europe, with a few for work in locations such as India and Mesopotamia. The first major AFC investiture took place in July 1919, when the recipients included two holders of note, Sefton Brancker and Arthur Harris.

Brancker played an important role as the Royal Flying Corps developed into an independent air force, and he joined the Air Council as controller general of equipment at the same time as Hugh Trenchard became the first chief of the Air Staff in 1918. Brancker held the relatively senior rank of major general when he received the AFC, and received the KCB in 1919 with two other prominent figures from the early days of aviation, Frederick Sykes and John Salmond, two of Trenchard’s successors as chief of the Air Staff.

Brancker promoted civil transport after the war and became director of civil aviation at the Air Ministry, but he lost his life when the Airship R101 crashed in northern France in 1930. The passengers included the secretary of state for air (Lord Thomson) and several holders of flying awards, including George Hunt, the R101’s chief coxswain, who had earned a bar to his AFM in 1925 when the Airship R33 broke away from its mooring mast (Gazette issue 33048). One of the few survivors of the disaster was Henry Leech AFM, a foreman engineer at the Royal Airship Works, who received the Albert Medal for re-entering the burning mass to rescue a companion (Gazette issue 33657).

Arthur Harris had a more conventional RAF career than Brancker, and achieved fame during World War 2 for his work with Bomber Command, including his part in the area bombing of some of Germany’s great industrial towns. After the war, Harris received the grand cross of the Bath and promotion to the rank of marshal of the RAF, and is commemorated today by a statue outside St Clement Danes.

Other wartime AFCs include Geoffrey de Havilland, the aircraft engineer and founder of the de Havilland Aircraft Company, whose production included the Moth, Comet and Mosquito. De Havilland was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps, but spent much of the war designing and test flying, and building a single seat fighter and general purpose biplane. In 1962, his many achievements as an air pioneer were recognised with his appointment to the Order of Merit.

The AFC and AFM were designed by Carter Preston, and used emblems such as a thunderbolt, aeroplane propellers and Hermes mounted on a hawk. The cross carried the King’s cypher on the reverse, while the medal showed his effigy on the obverse. The riband was of red and white stripes, and followed the pattern of the DFC and DFM, including the change from horizontal to diagonal stripes in 1919.

Civil aviationAFC

Around 300 crosses and medals were issued between the end of 1919 and the start of World War 2, and several aviation achievements were noticed, including some performed by civilians.

Some of the earliest ‘celebrity’ aviation honours marked efforts to win the prize that the Daily Mail offered for completing the first direct aeroplane flight across the Atlantic. Harry Hawker and Commander Kenneth Mackenzie-Grieve of the Royal Navy tried and failed to do so, but their attempt was rewarded with the AFCs they received from the King at Buckingham Palace on 28 May 1919 (Gazette issue 32938). A few weeks later the prize was won by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who were invested as KBEs on the day after they received their £10,000 cheque from Winston Churchill.

The Air Ministry marked flights by different means and by different routes to many destinations, including the work of pioneers such as Alan Cobham (pictured, top), who received his AFC in 1926 after returning from Cape Town (Gazette issue 33143)  He became a knight commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) later that year, on his return flight from England to Australia (Gazette issue 33209).

The 1927 Gazette recorded several similar adventures, with AFCs for the officers involved in light aeroplane flights from England to India and South Africa, and a seaplane flight from Melbourne to the British Solomon Islands. The cross was also given to the well-known Captain Charles Lindbergh after flying solo from New York to Paris (Gazette issue 33279),  and Flight Lieutenant Sidney Webster was the first of three British winners of the Schneider Trophy race to be noticed with the AFC.

Among the many AFCs that were gazetted without a citation was the one for Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquess of Clydesdale – later duke of Hamilton – the chief pilot on the first flight over Mount Everest, who was awarded a medal commissioned by the Times for members of the expedition. The medal was presented to him in June 1933 by the Duke of York, who had been associated with the RAF since its early days, and became head of the force as King George VI. Hamilton later joined the King’s household as lord steward, and returned to the attention of the press in 1941, when Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland to meet him.

One of the last feats to be specially gazetted was the RAF’s Long Range Development Unit’s achievement in setting a world long-distance record by flying from Egypt to Australia in November 1938 (Gazette issue 34620). One of the five AFCs for that adventure was conferred on Brian Burnett, who became an air chief marshal and GCB, while the only long-distance AFM was Sergeant Hector Gray, who became a prisoner of war and was executed by the Japanese in circumstances that led to the posthumous award of the George Cross (Gazette issue 37538).

War and after

World War 2 saw many acts of bravery in flying outside active operations against the enemy, and around 2,400 AFCs and 300 AFMs (including bars) were gazetted between September 1939 and the end of 1946.

A rare citation was gazetted for Sergeant James Muir, the pilot of a Wellington that had caught fire. Most of the crew escaped by parachute: ‘Sergeant Muir knew that a crash was inevitable but realising that the bomber was in the vicinity of two villages and being uncertain whether the wireless operator was alive or dead, he decided to remain in the aircraft in an endeavour to land clear of the villages. He succeeded in landing the bomber in a field. Sergeant Muir extricated himself just before the aircraft became enveloped in flames, but he was unable to release the wireless operator. Sergeant Muir displayed a high standard of courage and devotion to duty throughout this hazardous experience’ (Gazette issue 35911).

Some wartime AFCs rose to high rank, as with marshals of the Royal Air Force Dermot Boyle and William Dickson. The most recent combination of AFC and senior rank arose with Lord Stirrup, who was honoured after the aircraft he was flying with a student was struck by a bird and later suffered an engine fire, when he ‘displayed outstanding flying skills, airmanship and courage which not only saved a valuable aircraft but also would have saved the life of his student had he proved unable to eject’ (Gazette issue 49413). Wing Commander Stirrup later became chief of the Air Staff, a knight of the Garter and an honorary marshal of the RAF.

Since 1946, about 2,300 AFCs and 400 AFMs (including bars) have been awarded, reflecting work in the Berlin Airlift and flying in locations such as Malaya, Korea and Northern Ireland. Most awards were reported in the bi-annual honours lists without a citation, and since 1993, have generally been reported on an individual basis, or in the periodic defence force lists, as the AFC is no longer granted for ‘meritorious service’ but is restricted to rewarding acts of gallantry. The policy shift towards gallantry has been marked in terms of the number of AFCs awarded, with an average of around 90 per year during the 1950s, falling to just over 20 per year in the 1980s, and to none in some recent years.

The AFC and AFM were also affected by two other developments in the early 1990s, as the principal Commonwealth users – Australia, Canada and New Zealand – decided to substitute their own defence force decorations, and the British government ended the rank-based approach to awards, which ended the use of the medal and led to the cross being granted to all personnel.

The last rank-based medal was gazetted in 1993, following the rescue of the crew of a merchant vessel off the Guernsey coast. The helicopter’s captain, Lieutenant Michael Langley of the Royal Navy, was awarded the AFC while the aircrewman, Petty Officer Adrian Rogers, was given the AFM (Gazette issue 53440). The RAF’s final medallist was Flight Sergeant Paul Trethewey, the winchman of a Sea King helicopter that saved the crew of a stricken Russian trawler in atrocious weather conditions, whose citation noted that ‘His brave, selfless conduct throughout a long and physically exhausting sortie was in the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force’ (Gazette issue 53002).

Flight Sergeant Trethewey’s was one of many acts of bravery reported in The Gazette, mainly connected with attempts to save lives and render assistance in the face of adversity. Other examples include carrying blood to save a life on Christmas Island; rescuing an injured Gurkha soldier from the Malaysian jungle; contributing to humanitarian relief operations in Sarajevo; and helping with the relief work with followed the Indonesian tsunami in 2005.

The two most recent recipients are Lieutenant Commander Richard Lightfoot, RN and Squadron Leader Mark Discombe, RAF. The first was noticed for ‘assisting in the rescue of ten passengers trapped in a  single decker bus in a heavily flooded river in Dailly, South Ayrshire’ while the second was honoured for ‘executing the faultless forced landing of a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Hurricane which had suffered engine failure, in Lincolnshire’ (Gazette issue 61739).

Fewer than 40 individuals have held both the AFC and AFM, while a number of colleagues have combined operational and non-operational honours. More than 550 officers have worn both the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Force Crosses since they were introduced in 1918, including the most decorated officer in air force history, Wing Commander John Braham, who fought in the Battle of Britain and earned the DSO with two bars and the DFC with two bars during the war, before receiving the AFC in 1951 for hazardous development work on all-weather fighter aircraft.

Other awards

The need to have equivalent awards for all three services after the formation of the RAF was addressed by introducing the four air force honours, and was accompanied by creating an air force version of the Meritorious Service Medal in 1918, and an air force Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in the following year, while the Queen’s Medal for Champion Shots of the Air Forces was instituted in 1953 to mirror the naval and military medals that encouraged skill in shooting.

The personnel who provided nursing support to air personnel, in units such as Princess Mary’s RAF Nursing Service, became eligible for the Royal Red Cross in due course, and the Air Efficiency Award was created in 1942, to recognise long and meritorious service in the auxiliary and volunteer air forces (Gazette issue 35699).

The use of commendations, some accompanied by a certificate and insignia, was extended during World War 2, with the introduction of what became the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air, for acts that did not reach the standard required for a decoration or medal. Several AFCs held such commendations, including a few who were noticed for their work as civil test pilots with companies, such as Hawker Siddeley and Rolls Royce.

Commendations were occasionally granted for the same action as other air force honours, as happened with the personnel who helped to evacuate civilians trapped in Dacca during the war between India and Pakistan in 1971, when Wing Commander Kenneth Hannah was awarded the AFC, and Squadron Leaders Lewis Willcox and John Wolley received Commendations (Gazette issue 45621).

The commendations for brave conduct and for valuable service in the air were discontinued in 1994, and two new awards were created, although the air distinction was retained in the form of the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery in the Air (Gazette issue 53760), which is marked by wearing a silver eagle emblem.

 A recent example of the combination of such honours related to the evacuation of those trapped by flash flooding at Boscastle in Cornwall in 2004, as Lieutenant Commander Martin Ford of the Royal Navy was awarded the Air Force Cross, while the recipients of the Queen’s Commendation included Flight Sergeant Clive Chapman (Gazette issue 57588).

More than 37,000 awards of the four air force honours from World War 1 have been made since the summer of 1918. These provide a lasting testament to the bravery of members of the RAF and the other airborne forces, whether flying above the fields of Flanders, during the Battle of Britain, in operations in Afghanistan, over the mountains of Scotland, or above the seas of Cornwall.

About the author

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

Images: Sir Alan Cobham, pioneer aviator, returns to Croydon after his flight to India and back, © Alamy; Air Force Cross, © NZDF

See also

100 years of air force honours (part one)