The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the honours system and was introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour heroes of the Crimean War. Since then, it has been awarded to over 1,300 individuals.
During the First World War, 627 people received the Victoria Cross for showing valour in the face of the enemy, and once such recipient was Daniel Marcus William Beak.
Beak was born at 42 Kent Road in St Deny’s in 1891, and began his education at St Deny’s School before heading to Taunton’s School in his teens. At Taunton’s, he was captain of his house and was noted for his sporting ability. When he left he became a teacher at St Mary’s School for a while, but later moved to Bristol. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In May 1916 he arrived in France and in January 1917 he led his men with ‘great courage’, assisting in the capture of an enemy line whilst setting ‘a fine example throughout’. For this, he was awarded the Military Cross. A bar was added to his MC in July, for ‘conspicuous gallantry during operations, when he continually dashed forward, under heavy fire, to reorganize the men, and led them on with great bravery through the enemy barrage and machine-gun fire’. A year later in July 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order his actions in defending against an enemy attack.
Beak, already a decorated hero and no doubt war-weary, continued to prove his worth in battle. At the end of August and in the beginning of September 1918, his actions at Logeast Wood in France won him the Victoria Cross. The London Gazette published the following:
T./Comdr. Daniel Marcus William Beak, D.S.O., M.C., R.N.V.R.
For most conspicuous bravery, courageous leadership and devotion to duty during a prolonged period of operations. He led his men in attack, and, despite heavy machine-gun fire, four enemy positions were captured. His skilful and fearless leadership resulted in the complete success of this operation and enabled other battalions to reach their objectives.
Four days later, though dazed by a shell fragment, in the absence of the brigade commander, he reorganised the whole brigade under extremely heavy gun fire and led his men with splendid courage to their objective. An attack having been held up he rushed forward, accompanied by only one runner, and succeeded in breaking up a nest of machine guns, personally bringing back nine or ten prisoners. His fearless example instilled courage and confidence in his men, who then quickly resumed the advance under his leadership.
On a subsequent occasion he displayed great courage and powers of leadership in attack, and his initiative, coupled with the confidence with which he inspired all ranks, not only enabled his own and a neighbouring unit to advance, but contributed very materially to the success of the Naval Division in these operations.
Daniel Marcus William Beak was personally awarded his Victoria Cross by King George V at Valenciennes on the 6th of December 1918.
After the war Beak was demobilised and on the 2nd of April 1919 he was awarded the Freedom of Southampton. A lunch was held at the South Western Hotel, and then there was a procession to the Palace Theatre on Above Bar Street. It was as if the whole town had come out to see Beak, who travelled along the route with the mayor, Sidney Kimber. The school children had all been given a day off, so the streets were thronged with kids who waved flags, eager to see their war hero. At the Palace Theatre the presentation was made by his former Taunton’s headmaster Seymour Gubb and Beak, in full military uniform, was the toast of the town. Beak made a speech in which he praised the important role Southampton played during the conflict, and in conversation with a Hampshire Advertiser representative he wished to express his thanks again, asking them to “please convey my sincere thanks to the people of Southampton for their great kindness”.
Whilst in town he visited Taunton’s, where he was mobbed by children wanting autographs, and he went to St Deny’s School too, where several of his old teachers still worked. Everywhere he went he was cheered and applauded.
He re-joined the armed forces in 1921, and during the Second World War served in North Africa. Daniel Marcus William Beak MC DSO VC retired with the rank of Major-General in 1945.
One of the earliest recipients of the Victoria Cross had been George Fiott Day, who was born in Southampton in 1820. In 1855 he was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and during the Crimean War and his brave actions ashore at Genitchi saw him awarded the Victoria Cross two years later in 1857.
On the 19th of May 1856 Queen Victoria was in Netley to lay the foundation stone of the great new hospital that was to be named in her honour. Before the stone was put in, the Queen placed in the ground a sort-of time capsule, containing plans of the hospital, a Crimea Medal, some coins, and the first ever Victoria Cross. She would visit the hospital a number of times after its completion, and she personally awarded three Victoria Crosses there. Frederick Hitch was awarded one for his bravery at Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War in 1879, and George Findlater and Samuel Vickery for their actions in the attack on Dargai Heights in India in 1897.
When the mayor Sidney Kimber presented a portrait of Daniel Beak to St Deny’s School in 1920, he told the boys that it was unlikely they’d ever win the VC or the DSO and he hoped they would not have the opportunity to. He did not know that nineteen years later, the world would be plunged into the darkness of war once more.
Jack Foreman Mantle was born in Wandsworth in 1917 but moved with his family to Southampton in the early 1920s. Like Beak, he was educated at Taunton’s School. Like St Deny’s School, Taunton’s also received a portrait, and so Mantle no doubt would have known all about his fellow Tauntonian’s bravery. He was a member of the St Paul’s Boy Scouts Troop in Southampton, and in 1934 joined the Royal Navy.
When war broke out, Mantle went on convoy protection and was mentioned in dispatches for shooting down a German plane. He transferred to HMS Foylebank and on the 4th of July 1940 the ship was at Portland in Dorset. The evacuation of Dunkirk had taken place just over a month before and it had left Britain vulnerable. On the 4th of July, the Luftwaffe targeted Portland.
More than twenty Stukas screeched down upon the Foylebank that day, unleashing devastation with every dive. Jack Mantle was on the starboard pom-pom gun, and he fought through the pain of injury with such courage and bravery, below the terrifying noise of the Stuka and amid the deafening sound of explosions. The London Gazette published the following:
Leading Seaman Jack Foreman Mantle, Royal Navy.
Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom-pom gun when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.
Mantle was just twenty-three years old when he died at his gun. HMS Foylebank, having taken serious damage, sank the following day and 176 out of a crew of 298 died in the attack.
Jack Foreman Mantle was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, and he was buried at the Royal Naval Cemetery in Portland. From the family home at 2 Malvern Road, Shirley, his mother told the Daily Mirror that he was “a quiet, unobtrusive boy who never shirked his duty… Naturally, we are tremendously proud of him”.
A few months after Mantle’s heroics, a Victoria Cross would be won in the skies over his house.
Twenty-three year old James Brindley Nicolson was a flight lieutenant in No. 249 Squadron. On the 16th of August 1940, a glorious day, Nicolson took off from RAF Boscombe Down in his Hurricane and headed towards Southampton with his squadron.
Flying towards Southampton at 15,000 feet, they saw three Ju 88 bombers about four miles away, so Nicolson led his squadron towards them. Three miles later, they saw a squadron of Spitfires beat them to it, and the German bombers were easy pickings. Nicolson was disappointed as he hadn’t yet fired a shot in anger at the Germans, and so he turned and climbed to about 18,000 feet over Southampton. It was then that four big bangs hit his fuselage, the loudest noises he’d ever heard. The bangs were direct hits from a Messerschmitt 110 cannon. The first shell tore through the hood over his cockpit and sent splinters into his left eye, nearly severing his eyelid, and obscuring his vision. The second shell hit his spare petrol tank and set it on fire. The third shell tore off his trouser leg and the fourth hit the heel of his shoe, making “quite a mess of my left foot”, he said. Just as he started to prepare to bale, cursing himself for his carelessness, the German fighter overtook him and whizzed right into his gunsights. The German pilot twisted and turned, and both planes entered a dive, as Nicolson opened fire and began to hit his adversary. “I remember shouting out loud at him, when I first saw him, ‘I’ll teach you some manners you Hun!’ And I shouted other things as well!”¹. Whilst this was happening, he looked down at his left hand on the throttle which was now consumed by fire. The skin was peeling off.
With his cockpit engulfed in flames, he watched as the German plane went down, its right wing lower than its left, and saw it fade out of sight. It was then he decided to jump out, and parachuting down he had to play dead as another Messerschmitt circled him. He could see the bones in his left hand, and saw that his right was badly burnt too. His jacket was ripped to shreds, he only had half a trouser leg left, and blood oozed from the laces of his left shoe.
He landed in a field at Millbrook, and a crowd who had watched the dogfight soon gathered. As he floated towards the ground, an overzealous individual shot him, thinking he was a German. Luckily, the shotgun pellets, fired at a distance, did not do too much damage. Pilot Officer Tom Neil said the “army” shot him, and that they also shot at Nicolson’s wingman, nineteen-year old Martyn King¹. A Home Guard soldier, Mr. R. W. F. Stanley, stated that he watched King’s parachute open, but then the panel split, and he fell “like a stone”. King died landing in the garden of 3 Clifton Road, and his Hurricane crashed at Lee near Romsey.
Stanley asserted that it was either Canadian soldiers or members of the Royal Engineers that shot Nicolson. Stanley was one of the first on the scene after seeing Nicolson bale, he had commandeered a van and followed the parachute. Finding the wounded airman, he saw the ankle bone protruding through the flesh and the horrific burns. Whilst comforting him, soldiers appeared through the bushes, taking aim with rifles, and he drew his revolver and shouted at them to stop. He collared a frightened looking soldier who told him he was in the Royal Engineers based at Sparshatt’s garage. Returning to Nicolson, he found him composing a telegram to his wife – “sign it Nick, the wife will not worry” – and he was then rushed to the Royal South Hants Hospital. His Hurricane had crashed on the corner of Bakers Grove and Rownhams Lane.²
Nicolson recovered from his many injuries and in November went to Buckingham Palace where King George VI awarded him the Victoria Cross before conversing with him for several minutes about his experiences. Wing Commander James Brindley Nicolson died on the 2nd of May 1945 when the B-24 he was travelling in caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal.
In 2016, schoolchildren at Sholing Junior School designed, raised funds, and eventually unveiled a memorial plaque in remembrance of Nicolson and ‘the pilots who defended the city of Southampton so bravely during the Battle of Britain’. According to the deputy headteacher³, the children thought that it was an injustice that there was no memorial to Nicolson, who was the only member of Fighter Command to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.
¹ Statements from pilots are from the 2010 book Last of the Few by Max Arthur
² Statements from Mr. R. W. F. Stanley can be found in these two links from Sotonopedia: ‘A Day to Remember in 1940’ and ‘Shot down airman had to be ‘saved’ from own side’