Monday 11 November is Remembrance Day, commemorating the end of the First World War I on that date in 1918, ‘at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month’. Here at the Royal Society we also remember those of our Fellows who took part. In this post, I want to look at two recipients of the most important medals for valour, the Victoria Cross and the George Cross.
The Victoria Cross (VC) is awarded for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’, and is the highest military award for bravery in the United Kingdom, taking precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals. It was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 to recognise acts of valour from the Crimean War, and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.
John Alexander Sinton (1884-1956) was elected FRS in 1946, having previously been awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916 whilst he was a Captain in the Indian Medical Service. A remarkable and much travelled man, Sinton was born in British Columbia, the third of seven children. The family moved to Ulster in 1890, and in 1903 Sinton entered the Medical School of Queen’s College Belfast, where he distinguished himself, winning many examination prizes. In 1911 he joined the Indian Medical Service (after, of course, taking first place in the entrance exam), an attractive posting with good prospects for a young medic, though it required military service, usually as a Medical Officer to an Indian Regiment.
Sinton, with the rank of Captain, was posted to the Indian Expeditionary Force D (Mesopotamia). Here he fought at Sheikh Sa’ad at the time of the attempt to relieve Kut in 1916, and the VC was awarded for his actions here. The citation records that he was shot through both arms and the side, but refused go to hospital and remained as long as daylight lasted, rescuing and tending to numerous wounded soldiers during the battle whilst under heavy fire. Three previous actions where he had displayed great bravery were further noted. Sinton also fought in Mesopotamia, Tanganyika and the NW Frontier in India; he was mentioned in dispatches on four occasions in the same campaign, and received the Russian Order of St George, along with many further awards and medals, including the OBE.
Sinton’s later career in the IMS saw him appointed Director of the Malaria Survey of India, which under his direction was to become one of the chief centres of malaria research in the world. As Consultant Malariologist and subsequently Adviser on Malaria to the War Office, he saw action again in several campaigns in the Second World War. After retirement to Ulster, he took an active part in academic and public affairs as Pro-Chancellor of his university and High Sheriff of County Tyrone.
The George Cross is the highest gallantry award for civilians, and is of equal precedence to the Victoria Cross. In the Second World War it was awarded to Peter Victor Danckwerts (1916-1984), elected FRS in 1969. Born in Hampshire in the year in which Sinton was awarded his VC, he followed his father, a Vice-Admiral, to become a Sub-Lieutenant in the RNVR. He trained in the RN Torpedo School at Portsmouth, and was then posted to the Port of London as Bomb Disposal Officer in time for the start of the Blitz in September 1940. Danckwerts describes in his biographical notes (held in the Royal Society’s archives) that he ‘became the incumbent disposer of German parachute mines’ (magnetic mines), and that ‘the mechanism which was designed to detonate them was grossly inefficient and after each raid a number were found standing on the top floors of houses, hanging from trees and bridges. There was a sporting chance of actuating the fuse while trying to remove it, but usually it buzzed for 10 to 15 minutes before the explosion. Those were stirring times.‘
Adopting a bold imaginative approach, using makeshift tools not developed for mine disposal and at great personal risk, Danckwerts became an expert, on one occasion defusing 16 mines while working non-stop for 48 hours. A key item of kit was a piece of string, for the final yanking out of the fuse from a safe distance once it had been unscrewed from the mine casing. It was during this period that he was awarded the George Cross for his outstanding bravery.
Danckwerts continued his bomb disposal work abroad, being wounded in a minefield in Sicily. In 1944 he was transferred to the Combined Operations Headquarters in Whitehall, set up by Lord Mountbatten, which included ‘the only all-ranks bar I encountered during the war and a canteen run by society ladies, which served the best food in Whitehall’. Here he shared an office with the brilliant physicist J D Bernal FRS. Unfortunately no details are available of his activities here, though he did speak of his enjoyment in setting off large quantities of explosives during trials. He received an MBE for his wartime work.
After the war Danckwerts developed his career in the new field of chemical engineering, setting up the original chemical engineering team at Cambridge in the 1950s. Here he established an international reputation for some remarkable papers in a variety of topics such as gas absorption, and inspired many others to advances in chemical and industrial innovation.
Sinton and Danckwerts were awarded their medals at the beginning of their careers, and it is right they should be remembered and honoured for their valour and lifesaving actions in defence of their country. It is also inspiring and humbling to note that both took these same qualities of imagination, dedication and courage, in the best scientific and Royal Society traditions, to make major advances in their respective fields of study, malaria and chemical engineering, for the benefit of all.