Honouring the brave: Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients

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This art was used for the cover of a booklet used to tell the stories of Canadian Victoria Cross recipients published in 1944. It is unknown who the publisher of the booklet is, currently the booklet is held in the University of Ottawa Archives.

As we prepare to commemorate Remembrance Day, the Ingenium Channel is putting the spotlight on some of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients.

The Victoria Cross is an honour bestowed to members of the British Armed Forces and individuals belonging to the Commonwealth, including Canada. Because of Ingenium’s connection to aviation history — through the Canada Aviation and Space Museum — we have chosen to follow the stories of three exceptional Canadian airmen. But first, let’s take a look at the history behind the Victoria Cross.

History of the Victoria Cross

The medal takes its name after Queen Victoria, who was made Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1837 — when she was just 18 years old.

The Victoria Cross is truly a unique piece of wartime history. The medal is comprised of a bronze cross pattee, adorned with a lion, a royal crown, and the fitting words, ‘For valour.’ The first crosses were awarded in 1857, after the Crimean War. A common myth regarding the creation of the Victoria Cross is that every medal has been made from the same Russian gun captured by the British during this conflict. It is more likely that the medals may have been made from copper belonging to a captured Chinese gun, during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century. Although every medal may look the same, the writing on the back — which features the date the act of bravery was committed — personalizes the award for each recipient.

In 1857, the first Victoria Cross ever awarded to a Canadian was given to Lt. Alexander Dunn. Dunn received the medal for acts of bravery during the Crimean War; he was also part of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Since its creation, the Victoria Cross has been awarded to 99 Canadians and a total of 1,351 recipients altogether. There are a range of Canadian recipients across many international conflicts. Ten Canadians received the award prior to the First World War, including five awarded during the Anglo-Boer War in southern Africa (1899-1902). Seventy-three Canadians were awarded the cross for their deeds throughout the First World War, and 16 for the Second World War.

A Victoria Cross medal — a bronze cross with a lion atop a crown, with the inscription “For Valour” across the bottom.

An original Victoria Cross medal, currently in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Canadian impact

The stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients are harrowing, to say the least. Through the years, many Canadians have served with distinction and honour; but these specific stories highlight some truly remarkable acts of courage. One of these stories details how Alan Arnett McLeod, an 18-year-old from Manitoba, was able to bring his burning reconnaissance and light bombing aircraft to the ground in a safe enough manner to save not only his life, but also that of his observer/gunner, all while several enemy planes fired on them.

Another remarkable story is that of William Avery “Billy” Bishop, a pilot still revered by many Canadian aviation enthusiasts. Bishop was Canada’s top flying ace in the First World War, and played an important role in recruiting for the Royal Canadian Air Force and in promoting the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War.

William George Barker is known for being in one of the most infamous dogfights of the First World War, and for being Canada’s most decorated pilot. Perhaps the most intriguing theme woven through these stories is how much these people were able to accomplish, with limited resources at times. Reflecting back on their equipment and the conditions, some of these individuals demonstrated they were truly masters of their craft, while exemplifying pure bravery.  

Eventually Canada would form its own way of honouring its veterans, and in 1993 Queen Elizabeth II allowed the creation of the Canadian Victoria Cross. This medal resembles the same cross pattee as its predecessor, but the words “For Valour” inscribed on the medal have been changed to “Pro Valore.” The change from English to Latin was made in order to accommodate Canada’s bilingual nature. The Canada Victoria Cross has yet to be awarded.

Stay tuned to the Ingenium Channel over the next few days, as we take a closer look at Victoria Cross recipients Alan Arnett McLeod, William Avery “Billy” Bishop, and William George Barker.

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Connor Wilkie

As a co-op student at Ingenium, Connor is looking forward to researching and writing an array of stories over the coming weeks. With a background in journalism, Connor enjoys being informed on all issues, from science and technology topics to every day breaking news. When he’s not busy writing, Connor loves taking photos and shooting video.