‘We Knew You Were Coming’

Victoria Cross in Surrey

This blog post took its genesis from a family friend who kindly lent me a fascinating booklet produced by The Maldens and Coombe Heritage Society that details the exceptional proportion of Victoria Cross medals that were awarded to military who hailed from this particular corner of Surrey. Interestingly, there were three Victoria Cross medal recipients from the New Malden area. To put that in perspective, there are only two other places in the world that share the same accolade and those are: Carluke in South Lanarkshire, Scotland and Euroa, near Melbourne, Australia. However, of the three, New Malden is the only town with no separate commemorative site, statue or memorial to visit.

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration and it is given in reward of an act of bravery, courage, selflessness, love, commitment and camaraderie above and beyond the call of honour and duty. It is awarded for the:

‘… most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.’

The New Malden Victoria Cross recipients were:

Humphrey Osbaldeston Brooke Firman V.C.
Cyril Joe Barton V.C.
Ian Willoughby Bazalgette V.C.

Humphrey Osbaldeston Brooke Firman V.C. (born 24th November 1886 and died 24th April 1916, aged 29).

He joined the Royal Navy as a cadet on 15th May 1901 aged 15. He became a midshipman and then a sub-lieutenant on the Battleships HMS Glory, HMS Albion and HMS Illustrious. He also served aboard the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 31st August 1908 and he was established as a Lieutenant on board the HMS Essex by 1911.

The story of how Firman V.C. was awarded the Victoria Cross is utterly compelling in its heroism.

On the 23rd April 1916 (Easter Sunday) Firman was the captain of the mission. Their aim sounded simple: to steer a reinforced boat (called ‘The Julnar’) laden with supplies, up the river Tigris to the town of Kut without the Turks knowing.

But the mission was heightened in its drama by the fact that those on board The Julnar knew that the enemy were already informed that they were coming. It had been deemed a doomed mission by the army and navy early on. Unfortunately, all other means of getting the supplies to the British army in Kut had failed, making this impossible mission the only possibility.

Their plan was to take the boat of 270 tonnes of armour and supplies to the trapped British army in Kut while the Turks were napping. The moon was due to rise at 1.15am so they calculated that they had five hours of darkness to cover the 20 miles of river and took the Julnar against the current all the way.

However, they soon received a confirmation message that a red light had been seen somewhere further up the river – a recognised Turkish signal that a vessel was travelling up the river.

But Firman and his men continued, valiantly. They came under sustained fire from both sides of the riverbank. Three shells passed clean through the ship. One, however, pierced through and another shell struck the bridge, killing Lieutenant Firman instantly.

One of the men on board, Lieutenant Commander Charles Henry Cowley, was already a marked man by the Turks as he had survived an assassination attempt before volunteering. He was also awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition for his extraordinary bravery in this mission. He was later captured and shot. Both men were awarded the VC posthumously.

Cyril Joe Barton V.C. (born on 5th June 1921 and died 31st March 1944, aged 22).

Cyril grew up in Surrey and the family moved to New Malden in 1936. He was unwell as a child and he was hospitalised for meningitis and peritonitis, but made a full recovery. He held a keen interest in aviation and wrote in his diary when a test flight bomber crashed into New Malden close to where the family were living that it was: ‘hard luck – I didn’t get any souvenirs’!

When he was 18 he worked at Parnell’s Aircraft Factory in Tolworth and left two years later to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve in April 1941.

He trained in America for a year as a bomber pilot and had his first flight at the beginning of 1942, with his first solo flight one month later. He was made a Sergeant in November 1942. He returned to England in early January 1943 and in July 1943 he qualified as a First Pilot.

On the 18th July Cyril wrote a letter to his mother only to be opened in the event of his death. He was under no illusion as to what the future might hold: he was down for 30 ops and he calculated that the life expectancy was for 20 ops.

By the end of 1943 he had flown 10 ops. Having flown 18 successful missions on the 30th March 1944 his 19th mission was a night operation to bomb Nuremberg.

It is said that Air Marshall and Commander of the Bomber Command Arthur Harris felt that he had one last chance to attack deep into Germany and Nuremberg was his preferred target. Harris wanted to inflict the heaviest possible bombardment and he instructed that fuel consumption had to be minimized to allow for the weight of bombs to be increased. This meant that instead of flying in their typical zig-zag flight path (to confuse the enemy to make tracking more difficult) they would take the most efficient route: flying in a straight line, which meant using less valuable fuel. However, the odds of survival are immediately reduced, as the enemy would be able to identify the flight path and prepare the attack ahead.

His plane, the Excalibur (named after the legendary sword of King Arthur) was hit 70 miles from the target. Cyril placed the bomber into a corkscrew dive in an attempt to escape from the enemy fighters. He levelled up at 9000 feet and the plane was very damaged, but still flying. At this point, three of his six crew, including his navigator, bailed out. He continued his mission and dropped the bombs himself. Bombs gone, he then turned for home. Without a navigator he used the stars and a compass to navigate his way home. As they approached the English coast, with fuel running desperately low, an anti-aircraft battery started to fire on them. Cyril turned the plane away and then returned, this time setting off flares to alert the ground batteries that they were friendly. By now, they had run out of fuel and were running purely on vapour. The plane’s descent was an unpowered glide. Cyril managed to avoid a row of cottages, but the wing caught the last cottage and the plane crashed into a nearby colliery. The cockpit shot forward taking Cyril with it. His crew members survived. Their only thoughts were: ‘Get the pilot.’ He was found unconscious with severe head injuries and died shortly thereafter. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in June 1944. It was said in ‘The Citation’ recorded in The London Gazette on the 23rd June 1944 that ‘This officer displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty’.

Ian Willoughby Bazalgette V.C. (born 19th October 1918 in Canada and died 4th August 1944, aged 25).

When he was four years old the family moved to New Malden. He was very unwell as a child and was diagnosed with clinical tuberculosis – but against all the odds, he survived.

After leaving school, he joined the auxiliary police force and enlisted into the army in 1939, before the war had started. By September 1940 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. He answered a call for volunteers from the RAF in March 1941. By August 1941 he had taken his first solo flight. Bazalgette was assessed by his Commanding Officer on completion of his training as being ‘Above average as a pilot’.

His tour of duty (30 missions) began on 30th September 1942. Fewer than 25 out of 100 crews would survive their first tour. On 1st July 1943 as Acting Flight Lieutenant Bazalgette was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for undertaking a low level raid on the Fiat factories of Turin in November 1942.

On 12th August 1943 Bazalgette and his crew successfully flew their 30th mission without loss and without being wounded.

In September 1943 he was transferred to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland where, as Flight Commander, he would oversee the training of bomber crews. But he felt the pull of duty and felt he had more to offer and returned to active service in the Pathfinder Force, known as the ‘Elite’. The Elite undertook the task of marking important targets for oncoming heavy bombers to hit with accuracy.

London and the South East were terrorised by huge V-1 bombs – and putting a stop to their launches was near-on impossible as they were easily portable. But, in late spring 1944 the Enigma code had been broken by cryptanalysts working at Bletchley Park, so Bomber Command declared with great certainty where the V-1 bombs were stored.

On 4th August 1944 Bazalgette and his crew were sent on a bombing raid on a V-1 bomb storage site in northern France. There had been two raids previously on other storage sites, so the enemy knew that another attempt would be made. The two other aircraft in the pathfinder group were shot down leaving Bazalgette and his crew with the responsibility of dropping the flares accurately. In undertaking his mission, his aircraft was hit. With one wing on fire he continued flying and dropped the markers himself from his cockpit. As he turned his plane away, it went into a spin and swiftly lost altitude. He recovered from the spin but the crew knew they would not get back to England. Bazalgette wisely headed northwest for Normandy which was held by the allies (this was almost two months after the D-Day landings). He manoeuvred the burning plane full of spilt fuel, flying on just one engine, to land in a field. Witnesses to the landing recall that they thought that Bazalgette had been successful in making a safe landing. However, there was a ditch in the field which tipped the plane onto its nose and all the fuel that had been in the back of the plane rushed forward into flames and the whole plane exploded killing all three on board. It was his 58th mission.

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