Charles Walker, who received the George Cross (GC) for saving a man’s life by diving into a burning sea, has died aged 97. But what a long and varied life he enjoyed, and what a hero he was when the moment came for him to face his greatest test.
My life-long interest in gallantry has led me to conclude that there are essentially two sorts of bravery: spur-of-the-moment courage and “cold courage”, involving a premeditated act of bravery.
Mr Walker displayed a magnificent example of spur-of-the-moment courage at the height of the Second World War when he was serving in the Royal Navy as a Petty Officer Cook. It was in August 1942, when a convoy of 14 merchant ships passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Codenamed Operation Pedestal, the convoy, which had a substantial naval and RAF escort, was bound for the besieged island of Malta.
Time and again, Axis aircraft attacked the convoy, sinking several ships and inflicting a heavy loss of men. Further damage was caused by an attack from Italian E-boats (fast torpedo boats) in the middle of the night.
On August 13, when what remained of the convoy was still 200 miles west of Malta, the merchant ship Waimarama was hit by bombs and burst into flames. Mr Walker, then aged 28, was serving in Ledbury, an escorting destroyer, which went in close to the stricken ship to pick up survivors.
Amid the chaos and mayhem, Mr Walker saw a man floundering alone in the sea. Although there was a high risk of further explosions, he dived overboard and swam to the man who was struggling amid the burning wreckage of the ship.
As an experienced sailor who had enlisted in the Navy in 1932, Mr Walker knew that if his ship came under a renewed attack it would be forced to turn away leaving him and the struggling seaman to perish.
However, Mr Walker succeeded in reaching the seaman and in keeping his head above water until they were both safely picked up.
Mr Walker was awarded the Albert Medal (AM) on December 15, 1942. He was invested by George VI at Buckingham Palace on August 13, 1943.
In October 1971, it was announced that surviving recipients of the Albert Medal (and Edward Medal) would have their awards translated to the GC and that no more Albert or Edward Medals would be awarded. This meant that Mr Walker had a second investiture – this time for his GC – which took place on March 13, 1973.
My book, George Cross Heroes, published last year, does not, in fact, include a story on Mr Walker’s exploits. This is because, for purely practical space reasons, the book contains write-ups only on the 161 direct recipients of the GC, not the translations from a total of three other gallantry medals which have subsequently been superseded.
George Cross Heroes does, however, contain a lengthy write-up on the island of Malta, whose occupants become the first group of people to be awarded a collective GC. Their award in April 1942 came not in the traditional way – an announcement in the London Gazette – but instead in a handwritten letter from George VI to the Governor of Malta.
The letter read:
“To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
Indeed, in the 71 year history of the award, there has been only one other collective GC – to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in November 1999.
Mr Walker, a married man with four children, not only survived the war but went on to live for a further 66 years after the end of hostilities. After leaving the Royal Navy, he did various jobs, including a spell in the merchant navy and working for the Post Office.
As well as enjoying a game of bowls, he was a keen member of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association and he regularly attended the reunions for members.
I decided last year that I would donate all my author’s royalties from George Cross Heroes to the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, which I have supported for many years. I remain committed to doing my bit to promote the courage of wonderful men such as Charles Walker, GC.