Breakout Short Stories: Controversy surrounds George Cross awards

Beatrice Hardy sister of Ben Hardy in 1985 handing over the George Cross to Gavin Fry of the Australian War Memorial.

Beatrice Hardy sister of Ben Hardy in 1985 handing over the George Cross to Gavin Fry of the Australian War Memorial.

Each week until August this year, the Cowra Guardian will feature a short story from the Cowra Prisoner of War camp in the lead up to the 75th anniversary of the breakout on August 3 to August 5.

On September 7, 1950 the announcement that Private Benjamin Gower Hardy N103951 and Private Ralph Jones N244527 had been posthumously awarded the George Cross appeared in the Government Gazette.

Hardy's medal was not presented to his sister until February 21, 1952 and Jones' to his brother in England on February 14, 1951.

Why had it taken so long for the bravery of these two men to be recognised?

The promotion of the cause for an award, came from Sergeant Little, who had manned a Lewis Gun at the POW Camp on the night of the Breakout. He felt very strongly that these two men should be recognised and wrote to the Army Minister in 1948.

Lieutenant-Colonel Monty Brown the Commandant at Cowra at the time of the Breakout, was a key supporter for an award for the two men.

On the basis that Military awards were not applicable due to Cowra being in a non-war-zone Brown was asked t for further information. Brown replied immediately, giving a short citation for Hardy and Jones, detailing their bravery and strongly recommending the George Cross.

One week later, the military secretary wrote to Brown asking him to complete the relevant documentation and send the names of three eyewitnesses.

Brown duly completed the forms, identified four witnesses and sent this information back on December 1, 1948.

Strong arguments had now been placed before Hon C. Chambers, the Army Minister at the time and he promised to look into the matter.

True to his word, the Minister set in train a series of investigations into the particular incident and sent details off to the authorities in the United Kingdom which controlled the Imperial Awards system.

In October 1949 the Acting High Commissioner in London advised that had the incident occurred in the UK, the appropriate award would have been the King's Commendation for Bravery.

The Army Minister Chambers reflected this advice to the Australian Government and in a letter from the Minister for Defence, it was noted that Prime Minister Chifley agreed that this award be made.

Shortly after the Chifley Government was voted out of in December 1949 the new Prime Minister Robert Menzies appears to have taken a personal interest in the matter with the advice from his Department as follows:

"The Prime Minister feels that in all circumstances the award in these cases should not be downgraded lower than the George Medal and is of the opinion that the appropriate award should be the George Cross.

"I am to ask that proposals be reconsidered by the Minister for Defence and the Minister for the Army and that a fresh recommendation be submitted for the Prime Minister's decision".

The George Cross (GC) is the second highest award of the United Kingdom honours system. It is awarded "for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger", not in the presence of the enemy.

This was a sticking point and the United Kingdom seemingly dismissed a military award such as the Victoria Cross because the Breakout was not in a war zone.

In August 1950 the Award by King George VI of the George Cross in recognition of the bravery of Privates Hardy and Jones was finally confirmed, however, tragically, Private Hardy's mother died just four days before the announcement was made.