The use of an obtuse title with the word acquire instead of earn in it was purposeful as Victoria Crosses can be acquired but not earned. Currently the unissued medals total seven waiting to be awarded. They are valued at a paltry £1.80 each. Essentially this junk metal is worthless. On the other hand, the issued medals are estimated to be worth between £150,000 & £250, 000. The physical differences between the two versions are the details engraved on its rear: the name of the recipient, the Regiment & the date of the action.
Terse and Concise.
A brief description of the action is officially recorded but the true details are often never known because, as is their nature, the recipients often refuse to discuss the action in detail.
This opinion piece exposes details of how one airborne soldier – Major Robert Caine, “acquired” his gong & what it took to prize those remarkable details out of him.
The first consideration if one wishes to earn a prestigious medal for bravery is to choose one’s country of birth wisely. With national criteria being so variable, he should have selected Germany as his homeland as without an extreme deed of heroism, he would undoubtedly been awarded an Iron Cross albeit Second Class.
Adolf Hitler restored the Iron Cross in 1939 as a German decoration (rather than a Prussian one), and continued the tradition of issuing it in various classes. The Iron Cross of World War II was divided into three main series of decorations with an intermediate category, the Knight’s Cross, instituted between the lowest, the Iron Cross, and the highest, the Grand Cross. The Knight’s Cross replaced the Prussian Pour le Mérite or “Blue Max”.
Of the 1939 variant of the Iron Cross, an estimated 5,000,000 of the Class II were issued whereas only [sic] 450,000 of the First Class variety were earned. Even at the Knights Cross level, an estimated 7300 were awarded. It is only at the level of Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves with 890 recipients that one starts to obtain parity with the number of Victory Cross issued during WW2. To make the odds strictly comparable, one must add the 160 recipients of Oak Leaves & Swords & the Diamonds with 27 & the Golden Diamonds awarded to Hans Ulrich Rudel, the audacious Stuka pilot. Finally the Grand Cross went to Herman Goering for the French Campaign; presumably for bravely sitting so fastidiously behind his desk at the Luftwaffe’s head office in Berlin!
No wonder any photo of a WW2 German soldier will invariably show an Iron Cross, an Eisernes Kreuz, hanging around his neck. Instead of being Hollywood fiction, this was a reality. My father-in-law was one of those who earned an Iron Cross as he had fought in Russia for three years.
On the other hand, the British were more parsimonious with their issue of Victory Crosses with only 1351 being issued since its introduction in 1857. WW2 only saw 186 being awarded.
The Victory Cross is cast from the barrels of guns captured during the Crimean War. Apart from the seven medals which were cast some decades ago, there is only sufficient metal to cast another 80.
The second criteria to earn one, is to be drafted into war post haste. With the end of Empire, the possible British involvement in a war has declined significantly. So again Britain is not an ideal place unless one first creates the war in which Britain will feel duty-bound to respond by sending in ground troops & not just use the Tornadoes to bomb the recalcitrant enemy.
Bravery beyond the call of duty must be the third hurdle to cross. With the ever stricter standards of recognition for bravery, most are now only awarded in an action which results in the recipient being killed. Hence they are posthumously awarded but is a medal without a life worthwhile? Just a tiny caveat to this criteria; one can no longer earn a Victoria Cross in saving some fellow soldier if one saves oneself in the process as it will not be regarded as a selfless act.
Major Caine was undoubtedly plucky, fearless & valiant.
From its inception, Major Caine’s mission as part of Operation Market Garden, the capture of a series of bridges in Holland, was in jeopardy. His Caine’s case, it was twofold: the weather had prevented a surprise attack on day 1 & the South Staffordshire Regiment would only be arriving by air on day 2 of the battle. Furthermore with the Germans being forewarned of an attack had moved a heavily armed panzer unit into the Arnhem area.
What would lightly armed airborne troops do against the Waffen SS but be slaughtered. And that is precisely what would occur. With the landing zone 8 miles from the bridge, Major Caine set out on foot with his 400 men. They could only get within 2000 yards of the bridge where one of the two Panzer Divisions was blocking their path. A massacre ensued in which 300 of the 400 men who set out were killed.
They were ordered to retreat to a hill called Den Brink & dig in. This was impossible. Their puny airborne trenching tools were unable to overcome the thick roots of the trees infesting the area. In this exposed position another 40 men were killed leaving 60 of the original 400 alive.
To escape utter annihilation, they retreated to Oosterbeek. Major Caine was now a clearly angry man & with the adrenaline flowing, he took decisive action to prevent the remaining men from being wiped out. He commandeered a PIAT, a crude short range anti-tank weapon only designed to destroy light tanks but advancing on his position was a 57 tonne Tiger 1 tank. Without concern for his own safety, he stood in the open & fired at the Tiger. The projectile went harmlessly underneath the tank. As this weapon could only be cocked with the barrel vertical, he cocked it again & loaded it. Again he fired. Again he missed as the projectile again exploded harmlessly beneath the tank.
With their hearts in their hands, his comrades observed as he again loaded the PIAT but this time he lay down straight in the path of the advancing Tiger & fired. If it had hit the frontal armour, it would not have penetrated it & he would either have been squashed under the Tiger’s tracks or been shot. Remarkably the projectile hit the track & the tank slewed to a halt allowing Cain to escape in the resulting melee.
With tank # 1 destroyed, he was now like a man with a mission. He stalked his next Tiger & shot it as well. Then Caine’s luck ran out. Standing next to a building so as to conceal himself, he fired at Tiger #3 as it approached. The projectile clipped the building & promptly exploded 10 feet from him. His face was blackened & pockmarked with 40 pieces of shrapnel. He had to be assisted out of the line of fire as he was unable to see. Dazed & semi-comatose, he lay down behind cover some 100 yards from where he had been wounded.
With the re-capture by the Germans of the main Arnhem Bridge over the River Rhine, the focus of the remaining 3900 airborne troops out of an initial total of 12,000 was to hold a horse-shoe defence around Oosterbeek. Major Caine’s unit was assigned the most difficult sector, that against the river. The Germans realised that if they could sever the link to the Rhine, the rest of the enemy could be rolled up & destroyed piece-meal.
Major Caine was damned if the Germans would get that right. In order to motivate his men, he again started stalking Tiger. The exact number destroyed on his one-man missions would never be known but anecdotal evidence suggests that it could be six. Once all available PIAT ammunition was exhausted, he used a 2 inch mortar as a PIAT by holding it in his arms.
Finally on day 5, they were given the order to retreat across the Rhine. Caine refused to cross until he had scavenged a razor & had a shave. Despite looking disreputable with his shredded clothes from the premature explosion, he still needed to shave so as not to look like a dissolute soldier. Such was his pride.
Surely for such bravery, the criteria gallantry of the highest order would be satisfied. It did. The Ministry of Defence concurred. Major Caine had now met most of the criteria.
Now come even tougher hurdles to cross. The awardee must be modest & display taciturnity towards his own deeds. Nobody likes a braggart, especially the British. Again one’s country of birth is important in this regard as some nations such as America are less unforthcoming about such deeds.
Major Robert Caine too met this penultimate requirement with flying colours. On his death in 1974 not by the marauding Germans but by a perfidious & even more dangerous foe, cancer, his daughter was still blissfully unaware of his audacious acts in 1944 & that he was the holder of a Victoria Cross.
That is amazing. He had clearly forgotten to tell his family that he was a VC recipient.
The absolutely final hurdle that he had to cross was for his daughter to marry a celebrated TV presenter who would make it a personal mission to uncover more to the story than the bland 10 line Ministry of Defence resume.
This Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear did with gusto. He tracked down survivors of the battle & recorded their views on his late father-in-law’s actions over those days. All confirmed the citation’s skeletal synopsis but they added the muscles & the vitality back to an unsung hero for in their minds they were convinced that his actions should have resulted in his death, not once, but multiple times. They have nothing but the highest praise for his actions yet Caine never boasted over a beer with friends about Arnhem & Oosterbeek.
For that he deserves more than the Victoria Cross.
A modest man had not placed his life above that of his fellow troops & his regiment.
This is the epitome of a worthy holder of the Victoria Cross.
For him it was not a Bridge too Far.
Other Articles on History:
This Day in History: 6th June 1944 – D-Day
The largest beach landing in history
Stalin: Abandoned on his Death Bed
The Narvik Landings Fiasco: In its wake why was its progenitor Churchill appointed as Prime Minister
Hitler: Was he complicit in the death of his half-niece Geli Raubal?
The Victoria Cross: What it takes to Acquire One
Nazi Germany: Was there Passive Resistance?