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Goff: New Zealand's Victoria Cross winners

Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Defence


12 April 2006

Speech Notes

New Zealand's Victoria Cross winners

Speech at the launch of
'In the face of the enemy: the complete history of the Victoria Cross and NZ'
and the opening of
The Highest Honour –150 years of the Victoria Cross exhibition
Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum
Waiouru, 12 April


General Jerry Mateparae, General Don McIver, Colonel Kevin Burnett, Major Chas Charlton, families of Victoria Cross winners, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure and honour to be here today to open this exhibition, The Highest Honour - 150 Years of the Victoria Cross and to launch the book, In The Face of the Enemy: the Complete History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand, by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson.

We mark this year, 2006, as the Year of the Veteran in New Zealand. It is also 150 years since Queen Victoria signed the warrant instituting the Victoria Cross. It is fitting for us to mark both events in this, the Army Memorial Museum, which is dedicated to recording the experiences and achievements of the men and women of the New Zealand Army.

The Victoria Cross is made out of bronze rather than any precious metal. The medal itself is not of value, but rather what it represents. It is the symbol of extraordinary courage, in the face of an enemy.

It is not a decoration based on rank. It is awarded irrespective of rank to those whose valour merits recognition. Edward, Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son, described the Victoria Cross as “the most democratic and at the same time the most exclusive of all orders of chivalry”.

This exhibition and the book outline the history of the Victoria Cross and those very few New Zealanders who have won our highest award for bravery.

In 1999, the Victoria Cross of old became the Victoria Cross of New Zealand. The criteria for awarding a Victoria Cross remain much the same as before. Persons recommended for the Victoria Cross of New Zealand must have demonstrated “most conspicuous gallantry, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy or belligerents”.

The high threshold set to win this medal is reflected in the fact that no New Zealander has won it in the 61 years since the Second World War.

This exhibition is the most comprehensive ever put together in New Zealand about the Commonwealth’s highest award for battlefield bravery. It features no fewer then 18 Victoria Crosses, either drawn from the museum’s own collection or generously loaned by other institutions or individuals. Archives New Zealand has lent a number of significant artworks for the exhibition, which also features personal artefacts that belonged to Victoria Cross recipients.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Major Charlton, Windsor Jones and the other members of the museum team involved for their hard work in putting it together.

Anyone who visits this exhibition, or who reads In the Face of the Enemy, will learn a great deal about the extraordinary New Zealanders who have won the Victoria Cross.

Yet I believe those men would endorse the view expressed by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson that the award of gallantry decorations, including the greatest of them, the Victoria Cross, can be something of a lottery.

This is because extreme courage can go unrecognised, or not be fully recognised. This is not a reflection on those who receive the awards; it is a necessary acknowledgement that granting awards for bravery is a complex and difficult process.

The analysis of the way various factors featured in the chain of decisions that lay behind the award of each Victoria Cross is one of the areas in which In the Face of the Enemy breaks new ground.

The book deals with cases where New Zealand servicemen were recommended for the Victoria Cross but did not receive it. Haane Manahi, a lance-sergeant in the 28th Maori battalion, was one such case. Manahi displayed outstanding courage and leadership, leading three men 500 feet up a near-sheer face of a mountain, silencing machine gun posts and capturing 60 prisoners.

Over the next 30 hours, he won the VC time and again. His citation for the VC was signed by those who witnessed his exploits and supported by the entire chain of command including Generals Alexander, Montgomery, Freyberg and Kippenberger. Yet a nameless person at the War Office countermanded the award and he received a DCM instead.

We are working with the Manahi family and the Manahi VC Committee to see if his case can be reconsidered; acknowledging, however, that the consistent position of the Palace since the late 1940s has been not to revisit such decisions.

I welcome the fact that Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson have again ensured that the feats of Haane Manahi and others like him who deserved but did not get the VC will not be forgotten.

Something else that you may detect in both the exhibition and the book is that the New Zealanders who have won the Victoria Cross appear on the surface to be fairly ordinary men. Yet all had special qualities that were sometimes evident before they performed their deeds of valour.

Sir Charles Bennett, for instance, described Second Lieutenant Moananui-Kiwa Ngarimu as always being “in control of the situation” and a man who could be relied upon to carry out any job he was given.

Another New Zealand VC who appeared on the surface to be ordinary was Cyril Bassett. His eldest daughter only discovered that her father had won the Victoria Cross at Gallipoli when her class at primary school studied the campaign.

Like so many survivors of the holocaust that was the Great War, Bassett seems to have felt somehow guilty about surviving the conflict in which so many of his friends and thousands of his comrades-in-arms had died.

On one of the rare occasions on which he discussed his service he said: “when I got the medal I was disappointed to find I was the only New Zealander to get one at Gallipoli, because hundreds of Victoria Crosses should have been awarded there . . . all my mates ever got were wooden crosses”.

A generalisation that clearly applies to the New Zealand Victoria Cross winners was that they were not men who revelled in war. Rather, they saw war as an awful duty, yet one that required them to give of their best.

For example, shortly after he won his Victoria Cross in 1942, Keith Elliott wrote to the pupils of his old high school that, “if this war can bring about peace evermore, it will be worth the waste and destruction it is causing”.

Charles Upham, the only combatant to have won a VC and bar, was a particular hero of mine from my school days when I read Kenneth Sandford's biography, 'Mark of the Lion'.

What impressed me was not just his remarkable courage and skill but his humility and integrity.

When he returned home after five years service abroad, a generous province raised 10,000 pounds to enable him to buy a farm. He graciously declined the offer, agreeing instead that it should be used to provide scholarships.

"The military honours bestowed upon me," he said, "are the property of the men of my unit as well as myself, and were obtained at considerable cost of the blood of this country…

"Under no circumstances could I consent to any material gain for myself for any services…"

Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson and HarperCollins Publishers have produced an outstanding book, which deserves to be a reference point on the Victoria Cross and New Zealand.

Our experiences in war and conflicts have played a key role in developing our sense of national identity. In order to properly appreciate this fact, we need to preserve our military heritage and improve our understanding of this part of New Zealand’s history. The Army Museum and its Navy and Air Force equivalents have an important part to play in this process.

The service museums could not thrive without the support of the New Zealand Defence Force, which underwrites their work and fosters research and writing on New Zealand military history.

Most of the New Zealand Victoria Cross winners, who feature in this exhibition and in this book, were killed in the service of their country or suffered serious wounds or psychological scars that troubled them for the rest of their lives. The families of this distinguished group of men will know this better than anyone.

I want, therefore, to take this opportunity to thank all the relatives of Victoria Cross winners, both those who are here today and those that could not join us, for what your relatives did in defence of our nation and the values we hold dear.

It is now my pleasure to formally declare open, ‘The Highest Honour-150 Years of the Victoria Cross’, and to launch 'In the Face of the Enemy: the Complete History of the Victoria Cross and New Zealand' by Glyn Harper and Colin Richardson.

ENDS

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