Have you ever heard of Geoffrey Keyes and Operation Flipper?
I hadn’t until this week, when I learnt that Keyes was a Second World War commando who led a team 400km behind enemy lines in North Africa in a bid to assassinate Erwin Rommel. The group evaded guards around the perimeter fence and got inside the house used as the German HQ, but as they entered a ground-floor room Keyes was shot and killed. Rommel wasn’t even in the house at the time.
Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross and his story is ripe for a film, but this is the first I’d heard of it.
The new Extraordinary Heroes gallery at the Imperial War Museum is full of such remarkable tales, 243 in all, each tied to either a Victoria or George Cross. 164 of these medals belong to Michael Ashcroft, the Tory party donor, who has also forked out £5m for a new gallery to house them – the first permanent gallery at the museum for a decade. Well, I guess it beats paying tax.
The gallery is a great example of how with a bit of thought a museum can make a lot out of a little. The exhibits – the medals – are not much to look at, and the VC itself is almost parodically tasteful, a modest thing of dull brass (it’s made of gun metal) with a sober ribbon the colour of dried blood. There are numerous medals on display here, and the VC is always the least conspicuous of the lot.
But the curators have done wonders with this unpromising material, emphasising the extraordinary stories behind each medal with frugal but compelling text and embellishing some of the tales with props such as the diving suit worn by James Magennis when placing mines on a target in 1945 or a portrait of recent VC awardee Johnson Beharry taken by Don McCullin.
There’s wit here as well such as a stuffed white rabbit to represent the codename of spy Forest Yeo-Thomas or the surprisingly effective touch-screen version of some of the stories told in Victor comic style. The IWM uses these informal touches confidently, never lapsing into poor taste and aware that excessive sobriety can be just as offputting.
While the bravery of these men and women is moving, the circumstances are often maddening. Many medals were awarded during the carnage of Gallipoli, and there was something about the story of Alfred Wilkinson, a Private who was awarded a VC for delivering a message during the First World War after four previous messengers had died, that somehow summed up all that is most horrific and pointless about that conflict.
Some medals were awarded in peacetime. An 11-year-old girl was given a George Cross in Canada in 1916 for fighting off a cougarm, while Harry Wilson was awarded a GC in 1924 for saving the lives of his colleagues in a flooded colliery.
And, bringing it all back home, a George Cross was awarded for bravery in South London after unarmed PC Tony Gledhill chased a car filled with armed robbers from Creekside Street, Deptford into Rotherhithe. Gledhill’s car was shot at around 15 times by the robbers before he confronted them on foot and eventually subdued the men, securing the conviction of four criminals, including John McVicar.
There’s always a London connection if you look hard enough.