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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 12:43 GMT
George Cross - one of the highest honours
George Cross created to mark wartime gallantry

The George Cross is one of Britain's highest awards for gallantry - equivalent only to the military decoration, the Victoria Cross.

The medal was instituted in September 1940 to recognise civilian heroism at the height of the Blitz - Nazi Germany's bombing campaign against British cities.

The George Cross: 'For Gallantry'
With the attacks placing not just those in the armed services in peril, King George VI created the award for the men and women of the Commonwealth whose courage could not be marked by any other honour.

One of the early recipients of the George Cross was air raid warden Tony Smith, who burrowed into a burning Chelsea building to save its trapped inhabitant.

The simple silver cross, bearing an image of St George slaying the dragon and the words "FOR GALLANTRY", was bestowed on more than 100 people during the war years.

Designed by Percy Metcalfe and struck at the Royal Mint, the medal is only awarded "for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger".

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth survey bomb damage
Although largely intended to mark civilian gallantry, the cross can be given to members of the armed services. And as is the case with the Royal Ulster Constabulary's award, the medal need not go to an individual.

The population of the Mediterranean island of Malta received the honour to recognise their courage under sustained Nazi attacks during World War Two.

Malta - Britain's "unsinkable aircraft carrier" - was of vital importance to the Allied war effort. Its people endured air raids and a naval blockade which almost saw them starved into submission.

Malta's defiance saw the tide of the war turn against the Nazis.

In the years since 1945, few George Crosses have been awarded.

Air stewardess Barbara Harrison was posthumously honoured in 1968, after a BOAC jet crashed at Heathrow airport.

Barry Johnson GC was injured defusing a terrorist bomb
Harrison helped many passengers escape the crippled craft before herself perishing in the wreck.

Several soldiers serving in Northern Island have received the George Cross.

In 1990, bomb disposal expert Barry Johnson was recognised for an attempt to defuse a mortar bomb in Londonderry which left him seriously injured.

Recipients of the medal - which hangs from a distinctive "garter" blue ribbon - are permitted to add "GC" to their names.

Although the cross is given in the name of the monarch, it is awarded on the recommendation of the prime minister.

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23 Nov 99 |  Northern Ireland
RUC awarded George Cross
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