Page last updated at 06:10 GMT, Thursday, 6 May 2010 07:10 UK

Historian records bravery of Flintshire men of steel

Three Flintshire soldiers have been awarded the Victoria Cross
A memorial for Flintshire VC winner Fred Birks was held at St Matthew’s Church, Buckley

Neil Prior
BBC Wales news

Since it was first struck on 29 January 1856 to award heroism in the Crimean War, only 1,356 Victoria crosses have been awarded.

Considering it is available to all British troops, as well as servicemen of any nationality fighting under British command, Wales has punched above its weight with 90 recipients of the honour.

Even more remarkably, three of those 90 hailed from a small north-east corner of Wales, the Flintshire town of Shotton.

Now the three, Harry Weale VC, Fred Birks VC and Bernard Warburton-Lee VC, will be honoured by local historian and author, Alister Williams, as part of a series of lectures on Flintshire history sponsored by the European Rural Development Fund for Wales.

They were all ages, all classes… just ordinary men who achieved extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances
Alister Williams, historian

Mr Williams has devoted his life to the VC winners with Welsh connections, ever since his grandparents moved into a house in Caernarfon, and uncovered the story of Wales' first VC, General Sir Hugh Rowlands.

General Rowlands earned the honour at the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimea in November 1854, over a year before Queen Victoria conceived of the medal.

Alister Williams said: "I often get asked about what the men had in common, and quite honestly there is nothing. They were all ages, all classes… just ordinary men who achieved extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances."

Fred Birks was born in Buckley in 1894 and moved to Shotton at only 14 years old to work as a labourer at the steel works.

Having emigrated to Melbourne in 1913 to find work, he returned to Europe as a soldier following the outbreak of World War I.

In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, he was awarded the second highest honour available to the ranks, the Military Medal.

Welsh soldier Fred Birks won the Victoria Cross
2nd Lt Birks won both the Military Medal and the Victoria Cross

Yet in February 1917 he was awarded an even rarer honour. As a 2nd Lt in the 6th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force, he won his Victoria Cross at Passchendaele on 21 September 1917.

Fred Birks saved dozens of his men when he stormed a German machine-gun position and clubbed the gunner to death with his jammed rifle.

He later died leading a group of men in digging their colleagues out of a no man's land shell hole.

Just under a year later, on 26 August 1918, another Shotton steel worker proved himself worthy of the VC by attacking a machine-gun installation just a few miles away in Bazentin-le Grand.

Gladly, on this occasion, Lance-Corporal Harry Weale VC of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers survived to tell the tale. He returned to raise a family and live in Rhyl until his death aged 62 in 1959.

Alister Williams explained that he was a man with a clear sense of his own destiny.

He said: "In 1917 Harry 'Got a Blighty', as they termed it, when he inhaled mustard gas after a German attack on his trench.

"Despite his wife begging him to accept a medical discharge from the Army, he was determined to go back and finish what he'd started. As he left home to return to France, he told his wife, 'Don't worry my love, the next time you see me I'll have the VC' - and he did!"

The third Flintshire VC was awarded to a navy officer.

In April 1940 Captain Bernard Warburton-Lee, from Redbrook, commanded a flotilla of Royal Navy destroyers that engaged a much larger group of Nazi ships sheltering in the Narvik fjord off the coast of Norway.

Simply to go over the top in World War I was an act of bravery I can't imagine
Alister Williams, historian

His VC was earned for the courage he showed in ordering his ships into the fjord through several miles of icebergs in near white-out fog.

Whilst the attack was a huge success, Captain Warburton-Lee himself was killed when a chance shell - fired blind through the fog - struck the bridge of his ship.

Alister Williams hopes to bring these stories to life in his lecture at Castell Alun High School on 11 May.

He said: "Plenty of people who deserved Victoria Crosses never got them, mainly because of the slightly antiquated rules which require the act of bravery to have been witnessed by a senior officer.

"But one thing you could never say was that anyone awarded the VC didn't deserve it. Simply to go over the top in World War I was an act of bravery I can't imagine. So to have done something so outstanding, above and beyond that, is truly amazing, and a story worth repeating."

Organised by Cadwyn Clwyd's Community Heritage Project, the lecture is just one in a six month series of public talks highlighting Flintshire's history.

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