The Army Wins Its First Victoria Crosses

The War Illustrated, Volume 3, No. 49, Page 139, August 9, 1940.

It is a tragic fact that of the five Victoria Crosses as yet won during this war all but one were posthumously awarded. Of them one went to the Royal Navy and two to the Royal Air Force (see Vol. II, pages 631 and 654). Now two are allotted to soldiers who greatly distinguished themselves in actions before Dunkirk and on the Scheldt as told below.

Of all the great conflicts in history, this war is surely most noted for falsifying all reasonable predictions as to the course of events and for producing the "unexpected." It would have been a rash man to prophesy that nine long months of this vital struggle would elapse before the British Army won its first Victoria Cross. But so it was. It needed Dunkirk to produce the occasion and the men.

On July 30, 1940, the War Office announced that the highest British decoration for valour had been awarded for conduct in the field outstanding even at a time when brave deeds and heroic sacrifices were of hourly occurrence. The two soldiers singled out for such signal honour were:

Lieutenant (now Captain) Harold Marcus Ervine-Andrews, of the East Lancashire Regiment, and
The late Lance-Corporal Harry Nicholls, of the Grenadier Guards.

The dignified pages of the "London Gazette" glow with unwonted life and colour as they set forth the stirring story of these great deeds.

Capt. Ervine-Andrews won his V.C "for most conspicuous gallantry on active service on the night of May 31-June 1st 1940." The official announcement continues:

Capt. Ervine-Andrews took over about 1,000 yards of the defences in front of Dunkirk.

His line extended along the Canal de Bergues, and the enemy attacked at dawn. For over 10 hours, notwithstanding intense artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire, and in the face of vastly superior enemy forces, Capt. Ervine-Andrews and his company held their position.

The enemy, however, succeeded in crossing the canal on both flanks and owing to superior enemy forces, a company of Capt. Ervine-Andrews own battalion, which was dispatched to protect his flanks, was unable to gain contact with him.

There being danger of one of his platoons being driven in, he called for volunteers to fill the gap. Then going forward, he climbed on to the top of a straw-roofed barn, from which he engaged the enemy with rifle and light automatic fire, though, at the time, the enemy were sending mortar-bombs and armour-piercing bullets through the roof.

Capt. Ervine-Andrews personally accounted for 17 of the enemy with his rifle and for many more with a Bren gun.

Later, when the house which he held had been shattered by enemy fire and set alight, and all his ammunition had been expended, he sent back his wounded in the remaining carrier.

He then collected the remaining eight men of his company from this forward position, and, when almost completely surrounded, led them back to the cover afforded by the company in the rear, swimming or wading up to the chin in water for over a mile.

Having brought all that remained of his company safely back, he once again took up position.

Throughout this action Capt. Ervice-Andrews displayed courage, tenacity, and devotion to duty worthy of the highest traditions of the British Army, and his magnificent example filled his own troops with the dauntless fighting spirit which he himself displayed.

Born on July 29th 1911, Capt. Ervine-Andrew joined the East Lancashire Regiment and saw service during the North-West Frontier campaign in 1936-37. Here too, he gained distinction being mentioned in dispatches. Safely evacuated from Dunkirk, he has now been appointed liaison officer at Cambridge airport.

His companion in honour, Lance Corporal Nicholls was twenty-five years old and a native of Nottingham. He was particularly keen on boxing and fought for his battalion in Army championships. Since the thrilling deeds which earned him his decoration, he has most regrettably been reported as having been killed in Action.

The official account of Lance-Cpl. Nicholls bravery says;

On May 21 Lance-Cpl. Nicholls was commanding a section in the right-forward platoon when the company was ordered to counter-attack.

At the very start of the advance he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel, but continued to lead his section forward.

As the company came over a small ridge the enemy opened heavy machine-gun fire at close range. Lance-Cpl. Nicholls, realizing the danger to the company, immediately seized a Bren gun and dashed forward towards the machine-guns, firing from the hip.

He succeeded in silencing first one machine-gun and then two other machine-guns, in spite of being again severely wounded.

Lance-Cpl. Nicholls then went on up to a higher piece of ground and engaged the German infantry massed behind, causing many casualties and continuing to fire until he had no more ammunition left: He was wounded at least four times in all, but absolutely refused to give in.

There is no doubt that his gallant action was instrumental in enabling his company to reach its objective and in causing the enemy to fall back across the River Scheldt.

Historical context, by the webmaster

In this article Nicholls is reported killed in action. He was not. He was taken prisoner of war and presented his Victoria Cross by the German commandant in his POW-camp in Poland.

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