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Welsh Victoria Cross winners

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:25 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

The Victoria Cross is the highest decoration available for men and women who have performed acts of great valour in the face of the enemy. Since it was introduced during the Crimean War, the medal has been awarded to just under 1,400 people but, surprisingly perhaps, only 39 of those individuals have been Welsh or have had Welsh connections.

Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross medal

Robert Shields from Cardiff was the first Welsh recipient, six months after the medal was introduced, for an act of valour during the Crimean War. However, the one action that everyone considers to be a uniquely "Welsh affair" - the defence of Rorkes Drift during the Zulu War of 1879 - saw only three Welsh VCs.

In total, 11 VCs were won during that battle, the most ever awarded for a single action, but with the South Wales Borderers recruiting in all parts of the country most of the soldiers actually came from England and Ireland, not Wales - as is popularly supposed. Purely on the basis of numbers it was inevitable that Welsh VC winners from the defence of Rorkes Drift, men like Robert Jones and John Williams, were always going to be in the minority.

World War One saw 14 Welshmen win the coveted award. The first of these was William Charles Fuller who came from the tiny village of Laugharne in Carmarthenshire. He had joined the army in 1901 and served in South Africa during the final days of the Boer War.

Leaving the service when the campaign in South Africa finished, William Charles Fuller was still classified as a Reservist when war with Germany broke out in 1914. Like many other Reservists at that time he was duly recalled to the colours.

Serving as a Lance Corporal with the Welsh Regiment, on 14 September that year he went out from the relative safety of his own lines in an attempt to save the life of a wounded officer. Despite being subjected to heavy fire, Fuller managed to bring the officer to safety but the man - Mark Haggard, the nephew of the novelist Rider Haggard - later died of his wounds.

After the war Charles Fuller left the army again and retired back to Laugharne. He had served with great courage throughout the war and been wounded but he had managed to survive. And during the World War Two this man of amazing energy and verve still continued to "do his bit" when he promptly enlisted and served in the town's Home Guard Unit.

William Williams of Amlwch on Ynys Mon sailed as a seaman on the Q Ship HMS Pargust. Q Ships were old merchant vessels, heavily armed with hidden guns and other weapons. The aim was to trap German U Boats into thinking the old vessels were too defenceless and dilapidated to warrant a torpedo.

The lengths that the crews went to in order to disguise the true intent of the Q Ships were amazing. Sometimes sailors even dressed up as women passengers - usually only from the waist up - in order to bamboozle German submariners as they watched through their periscopes.

If the subterfuge was successful the German commander would order his vessel to surface. However, when the U Boats rose to the surface to sink the merchant ships by gun fire, the hidden guns would open fire and, with the tables now well and truly turned, destroy the submarine.

It was a remarkably dangerous job as there was no guarantee that U Boats would actually attempt to destroy the Q Ships by gun fire. And that is exactly what happened to the Pargust. The first the crew knew about the presence of the German submarine was when a torpedo smashed into her side. The ship heeled over, badly damaged, but did not sink.

However, the metal covers that hid the Q Ship's guns were loosened by the explosion and threatened to fall to the deck - thus inviting another torpedo from the watching U Boat. But William Williams and several other sailors, quickly seeing the danger and using all their strength, managed to hold them in place.

When the submarine duly surfaced to finish off its victim, the covers were dropped and the British guns promptly sank the U Boat. It was a courageous action by all concerned but, having been told that only one medal was available, the crew drew lots to see who would take the award. The lucky man was William Williams.

World War Two saw several more Welshmen awarded the Victoria Cross. Perhaps the best known is Tasker Watkins who later became a renowned QC. He was the man who took charge of the Abervan Enquiry in the 1960s and was also, for several years, President of the Welsh Rugby Union.

Born in Nelson, Tasker Watkins enlisted as soon as he was able and was given a commission in the Welsh regiment. He won his VC when, in the days following the D Day landings in 1944, with many of his platoon killed or injured, he led a bayonet charge against 50 enemy troops and then, single handedly, charged a German machine gun post.

Someone who is often forgotten - not because his deed was minor or ineffectual - but simply because he is not considered Welsh, is Captain Warburton Lee of the Royal Navy.

Lee was 44 years old and in command of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla when during the Norway campaign of 1940, he led his ships into Narvik Fjord. Faced by a superior squadron of German destroyers Lee forced home his attack and destroyed five enemy vessels and supply ships before a shell burst on the bridge of his destroyer, HMS Hardy, killing him instantly. For his bravery Warburton Lee was awarded the VC, the first Victoria Cross of the war.

There are many other stories of bravery and courage during times of conflict. Not every soldier or civilian can be awarded the Victoria Cross but that should not, in any way, diminish the enormity of their actions.


  • Comment number 1.

    I know some (English) people who are very vociferous about the Welsh having "stolen England's glory" in relation to the Rorke's Drift action. Part of the controversy relates to the fact that some prefer to count the 18 Monmouthshire men as English rather than Welsh, which puts the English contingent in a large majority. Personally I don't think there was much "glory" in this encounter, so it doesn't trouble me what nationality the participants were.

  • Comment number 2.

    Actually, Phil, I think you have incorrectly identified the first Welsh VC recipient. Hugh Rowlands won the VC at Inkerman on 5 November 1854.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Deb - I'll check up on that. Robert Shields has always been cited as the first Welsh winner of the VC, being given the credit in the Boys Own Paper etc - doesn't mean its true. As I say, I'll check and get back to you.
    Since the blog went up we've had several comments from people about VC winners who, in their opinion, should have been mentioned. I can't argue with that - anyone who wins the VC must have done something pretty incredible. The only trouble is we can't mention everyone, otherwise all we'll have is a list. But if anyone does have a story or information that they think is worth further mention, please let us know and we'll do our best to use it - no promises but we will try. Write a comment or just get in touch, along with a contact number etc. There's no ulterior motive in leaving out this person or that - just lack of space.

  • Comment number 4.

    As you say, Phil, every area in Wales has its VC's, but one of the youngest must have been a Milford lad, Private Herbert William 'Stokey' Lewis, who was just 20, and a member of the Welsh Regiment, when his exceptional heroism at Salonika in 1916 won him the award. His cause was championed for years by a local schoolmaster (and a former colleague of both Phil's and mine) Walter Ireland.


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