Jean Selys de Longchamps and fellow pilots with a Spitfire Mk V in the background.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces

This Remembrance Day, we are bringing you 5 stories that capture the courage of service men and women...

One hundred years ago today, on November 11 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – millions of men across the war-torn globe laid down their guns, heralding the end of World War One. Known at the time as The War To End All Wars, a second World War followed just 21 years later, raging even further destruction and calling for new sacrifice.

To commemorate this historic day, Gentleman’s Journal are sharing the inspiring stories of five heroic figures whose stories worked towards changing the course of history.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas await treatment at an Advanced Dressing Station near Bethune during the Battle of Estaires, 10 April 1918, part of the German offensive in Flanders.

Edith Cavell

Cavell once famously announced: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anybody.” A British nurse who ran a Belgian clinic, Cavell saved hundreds of lives on both sides in her medical capacity. She also managed to smuggle nearly 200 Allied troops from Britain, France and Belgium out of a then-occupied Belgium.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
A stamp issued shortly after Cavell's death

Her plot was eventually discovered, and Cavell was put on trial by the German government and executed. Her death caused shock waves, helped a surge in British recruitment, and made her a martyr.

Norman Cyril Jackson VC

Norman Cyril Jackson was a flight engineer on a Lancaster when the bomber was attacked by a German Fw 190 fighter. With the starboard wing on fire, Jackson climbed out of the aircraft and onto the wing in an attempt to put out the fire, knowing quite well that a re-entry would have been close to impossible.

He gripped the air intake on the leading edge of the wing with one hand, and fought the fire with the other. However, the fighter aircraft attacked again, wounding Jackson and throwing him clear. With a burned parachute he landed, but broke his leg and was severely burned.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
Warrant Officer Norman Cyril Jackson VC, painted by William Dring

He managed to crawl to a nearby German village the next morning, where he was paraded through the street. After months in hospital he was sent to a prison camp. He made two attempts to escape; the second time he succeeded in reaching Allied lines. For his brave act, he was awarded the VC, the highest military award.

(With thanks to the RAF Museum London for their archival information and imagery)

Adrian Carton de Wiart

Famously known as ‘the unkillable soldier’, Carton de Wiart Carton de Wiart served in the Boer War, World War One and World War Two. In the process he was shot in the face, losing his left eye, and was also shot through the skull, hip, leg, ankle and ear.

Having previously lost an eye and a hand in battle, Carton de Wiart, as commanding officer, was seen by his men pulling the pins of grenades out with his teeth and hurling them with his one good arm during the Battle of the Somme.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart

For his bravery, the 36-year-old Carton de Wiart was awarded the Victoria Cross. But he humbly made no mention of it in his memoirs, claiming “it had been won by the 8th Glosters, for every man has done as much as I have.”

John Hannah VC

John Hannah was a wireless operator on a Handley Page Hampden bomber. He was part of 83 Squadron which were tasked with the destruction of German improvised invasion barges, being readied for a possible invasion of Britain, in the port of Antwerp, Belgium.

His Hampden was the last to get airborne, which meant they were the last in the formation. As the pilot was unhappy about the first run, he circled around to have another go, when at that moment the bomber got hit by Flak, German anti-aircraft fire.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
John Hannah VC

The aircraft quickly caught fire. The rear gunner and navigator bailed out, but the pilot stayed inside while John Hannah attempted to extinguish the flames. Hannah used up the two extinguishers before resorting to put the fire out with his bare hands. Miraculously, he succeeded, but sustained terrible injuries.

After landing in Britain, he was rushed to hospital where he stayed for several weeks while innovative plastic surgery was carried out on his badly burnt face. Although he was discharged from the hospital and received the Victoria Cross, the highest military order, he was soon invalided from the Force. His health began to deteriorate and finally failed completely. He passed away in 1947, aged just 25.

(With thanks to the RAF Museum London for their archival information and imagery)

Baron Jean de Selys Longchamps DFC

Baron Jean de Selys Longchamps  was a Belgian cavalry officer when Nazi Germany invaded his country. However, he managed to escape to England and eventually joined No. 609 Squadron, flying Spitfires.

Here he quickly developed into an aggressive and able pilot, shooting down two German planes. On 20 January 1943, he single-handedly launched a devastating attack on the Nazi Gestapo headquarters in the centre of Brussels, killing several Nazi officers.

5 inspiring stories of heroism from the British Armed Forces
Jean Selys de Longchamps and fellow pilots

While flying away from the target, he threw out several small Belgian and British flags. The attack had a massive impact on the morale of the Belgian population under occupation. His commanding officers were less pleased: he was demoted and put up for transfer to another unit.

However, word of his brave attack soon came out and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Unfortunately, in August 1943 while on a ground attack mission, his aircraft was damaged by enemy ground fire resulting in a crash landing, killing the Belgian RAF pilot.

(With thanks to the RAF Museum London for their archival information and imagery)

For more inspiring stories, and to learn more, visit the RAF Museum online. 

Further Reading