This is the Ally

by D C Alexander

Your guide to recognizing insignia and medals worn by British airmen

His uniform makes a serviceman's life practically an open book. The style and color of his clothes tell you whether he sails, flies or shoots it out on the ground and under which flag he fights; his shoulder or sleeve reveals his rank, thus informing the world how much he earns; and his tunic may tell you exactly which corner of corners of the globe he has traveled, that he has been wounded, that he's a hero.

After several years of war, rank insignia present no recognition problem to the average passerby, uniforms are pretty well sorted out and even the ribbons for various war theaters are familiar. Only the small, multicolored ribbons signifying the award of medals remain a mystery, with the decorations worn by Great Britain's armed forces an unknown variety to most Americans at home.

Of the many medals awarded by his Majesty's government, only twelve may be won by the air forces for gallantry. Actual medals are seldom worn on the uniform but, like the servicemen of other countries, the British airman wears a ribbon signifying the decoration be has been given. A rosette on one of these ribbons means he has won the same decoration twice and that he has been awarded a bar to attach to the ribbon of the medal itself.

Most highly prized decoration in the British Empire is the Victoria Cross, awarded for feats of valor performed in the presence of the enemy. It may be, and has been, won by airmen; in the current war 17 RAF men wear the red ribbon signifying possession of the Cross itself, and two other flyers received it posthumously. These two, Flight Officer D E Garland and Sgt Thomas Gray, pilot and observer, were the first RAF personnel to receive the Victoria Cross. They led a formation of five aircraft that successfully bombed the bridge over the Albert Canal during the German advance in 1940. Only one of five planes made the return trip.

A small bronze replica of the Cross is attached to the ribbon, which is worn before all other awards. Queen Victoria herself sketched the original design, decided on the wording to be inscribed on it and drew up, in rough, the original rules to govern its presentation, then announced it officially (in 1856 to mark heroism in the Crimean war. All ranks may receive the VC and to anyone below commissioned rank it carries with it an annual pension of £10 ($40) with £5 for each bar.

Next in line is the George Cross, awarded to commissioned and noncommissioned men in the Forces, and to civilians, for highly courageous acts in the face of extreme danger. It was initiated by the present British ruler during the blitz of 1940 to honor the men and women who stood up under and fought the damaging air attacks of the Nazis. In the air force it is generally awarded for rescuing crews from burning planes and similar deeds. When you see a dark blue ribbon decorated with a small silver cross you'll know that man has been given the George Cross. The George medal, whose ribbon is red with five narrow blue stripes, was designed at the same time for deeds of slightly less merit.

Distinguished service in the field merits a commissioned officer the Distinguished Service Order, which was first awarded in 1866 for meritorious work before the enemy. Open to all services, the medal has been won by over 400 RAF men, 39 of whom wear the rosette cluster on the blue and red ribbon. (The center is red, with blue at either side.)

For gallantry on the ground in the face of the enemy, flight lieutenants and below and warrant officers may receive the Military Cross, instituted in 1914 during World War I. The Cross is Silver and the ribbon representing it is white with a purplish blue stripe in the center. Noncoms and other enlisted personnel of the RAF rate the Military Medal for the same degree of bravery. The ribbon for this decoration consists of seven strips — a white center, bounded on both sides by narrow red stripes, which are followed by narrow white stripes. Wider edging stripes are blue.

Of the decorations awarded to Air Forces personnel only, the Distinguished Flying Cross ranks highest. It goes to commissioned and warrant officers who display exceptional devotion to duty in the air when operating against the enemy. Its ribbon is easy to recognize because the color stripes — violet and white — run diagonally.

Ranking directly below the DFC, the Air Force Cross goes to commissioned airmen and warrant officers for courage and devotion to duty when flying but not in the presence of the enemy. The ribbon for this award has the diagonal stripes of the Distinguished Flying Cross but its colors are red and white.

The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (Flying) is reserved for highly courageous acts performed by enlisted men up through the rank of sergeant. A Naval award, its first recipient fought in the Crimean War. A white ribbon with a narrow blue band at each edge signifies this decoration, which is limited to men of the Fleet Air Arm and only those RAF men serving with the Fleet Air Arm.

Thus far in the war, over 4,000 NCOs and enlisted men of the RAF have the right to wear the highly prized Distinguished Flying Medal, awarded for gallantry when operating in the air against the enemy. Sgt W E Willits received DFM award number one in 1939 when he piloted his aircraft 140 miles back to its base after the pilot had been shot. First fighter pilot to win this prize was Flight Sgt D Kingaby, who was later commissioned and added the DSO to his collection of medals. The Distinguished Flying Medal is somewhat similar to the DFC but the diagonal violet stripes are narrower than those of the higher-ranking award.

Of all Air Force decorations the Air Force Medal is perhaps the most picturesque. The actual medal depicts Hermes, the Greek God of Speed, being carried through the air on the wings of a hawk. On the reverse side, Athene, Goddess of War, is perched on an aircraft. Similar to the DFM, the Air Force Medal is also intended for non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, is awarded for courage and devotion to duty when flying, but not against the enemy. The ribbon is of the same design as that representing the DFM but with red stripes instead of violet.

The British Empire Medal is worn by all ranks in honor of meritorious service. Its ribbon is rose with a narrow gray stripe at either side and in the center.

Many of the men awarded one or more of these decorations never lived to see their medals or wear the ribbons; many others were too badly wounded to serve in the Air Forces again. But thousands of recipients proudly wear their ribbons, adding rosettes to the old ones and winning new awards.

This article was originally published in the December, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 6, pp 28-29.
The original article includes, in addition to the illustrations of insignia and medals above, 5 photos of airmen,
Drawings and photos credited to British Information Services.