The George Cross was instituted by King George VI on 24 September 1940 and ranks second only to the Victoria Cross in order of precedence. Intended primarily for award to civilians for acts of gallantry, it may also be awarded to members of the armed forces for actions for which purely military honours are not normally awarded. Provision was made in the Royal Warrant for a bar to be granted where a second award is made, but as yet no bars have been awarded. The George Cross superseded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry, and a supplement to the London Gazette dated 22 April 1941 stipulated that recipients of that medal who were living on 24 September 1940 should return it to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, Whitehall, and receive in its place a George Cross.
The total number of George Crosses issued up to 31 July 1965 is 246. One was awarded to the Island of Malta, and 94 were awarded to members of the armed services and 39 to civilians, making a total of 134 crosses. The remaining 112 crosses were issued in exchange for Empire Gallantry Medals, of these 63 were for the armed services and 49 were for civilians.
There has been only one award of the George Cross to a New Zealand serviceman and there have been no awards to New Zealand civilians to date. Another New Zealand serviceman previously awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal now holds the George Cross in its place.
Lance-Corporal David Russell, of the 22nd Battalion, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, who was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, was taken a prisoner of war in the Western Desert in July 1942. Escaping from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, he operated with partisans behind the enemy lines in assisting other escaped prisoners to make their way back to the Allied lines. The story of his recapture, superb loyalty, gallantry, and ultimate death at the hands of his German captors was pieced together only after almost three years of investigations, and, on receipt of the full report, Russell was recommended for the George Cross. The final sentence of the citation reads: “There can be no doubt whatsoever that Lance-Corporal Russell, in the midst of his enemies and in face of death, bore himself with courage and dignity of a very high order”. The announcement of the posthumous award of the George Cross published in the London Gazette dated 24 December 1948 stated that it was for “gallant and distinguished services as a prisoner of war in German hands prior to September 1945”. The “David Russell Memorial Ward” of the Napier Hospital, where he worked prior to the Second World War, commemorates his gallantry and his association with that institution.
Pilot Officer (later Squadron-Leader) Sidney Noel Wiltshire, a New Zealander serving with the Royal Air Force, was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal for prompt and courageous action on 21 October 1929 when the aeroplane he was flying crashed and caught fire on landing. Having extricated himself from the wrecked machine he found that his companion was caught by the foot and could not get out. Wiltshire re-entered the flames and helped his companion to get clear, sustaining burns to his face and neck. His companion's clothing was well alight and but for Wiltshire's action he would undoubtedly have lost his life. As it was, he was badly burnt. This medal was later exchanged for a George Cross in terms of the London Gazette announcement of 22 April 1941.
by Capt. Geoffrey Troughear Stagg, F.R.N.S.N.Z., R.N.Z.A. (retired), formerly President of the Royal Numismatic Society of New Zealand, Wellington.
- Royal Warrant, The George Cross, dated 24 Sep 1940. London Gazette, dated 31 Jan 1930, 22 Apr 1941, and 24 Dec 1948. Gallantry, Wilson Sir A., and McEwen, Captain J. H. F. (1939)
- Prisoners of War, Mason, W. W. (1954).