Agents awarded the GC

This article concerns agents who operated behind enemy lines in various countries and were awarded the George Cross for their bravery.

Articles about other agents who were awarded the George Cross.

Arthur Banks was born on 6 October 1923 in Llandulas (North Wales), the son of Charles Chaplin and Harriet Margaret Banks. His father, Captain Charles Banks, was a distinguished pilot in the First World War who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his wartime service. Banks attended St Edward’s School, Oxford until 1941.

At the time of the award of his posthumous George Cross, Arthur Banks was a Sergeant in 112 Squadron RAF (VR). As in the case of Flight Sergeant Woodbridge, the events surrounding the death of this very gallant airman only emerged after a post-WWII investigation and subsequent war crimes trial.

On 29 August 1944, Sergeant Banks was the pilot in a Mustang aircraft that took part in an armed reconnaissance of the Ravenna and Ferrara areas. Due to suffering hits from anti-aircraft fire, Sergeant Banks was forced to land his aircraft. He decided, after the aircraft had been destroyed, to try and reach the Allied lines.

He made contact with a group of partisans, among whom he became an outstanding figure for his advice and encouragement in action against the Germans. Early in December 1944, a crossing by boat into Allied territory was planned, but the whole party was captured by German and Italian Black Brigade pro-Axis militia.

After repeatedly stating just his name, rank and number, Sergeant Banks was badly beaten and repeatedly whipped on his back with ox thongs. This treatment continued for 6 days, with Sergeant Banks continuing to refuse to divulge any information apart from his name, rank and number.

After completely failing to break Sergeant Banks, the German forces handed the badly tortured remains over to the Black Brigade forces at Artiano ne Polisine Barracks. After again failing to obtain any information from Sergeant Banks, his naked, battered body was doused in petrol and set on fire. Believing Sergeant Banks to be dead, his body was thrown in to the River Po.

Despite his torture and what must have been agonising pain, Sergeant Banks managed to some how swim to the bank of the River. Unfortunately, it was the barracks’ side of the River and he was almost immediately recaptured by the Black Brigade militia. Sergeant Banks was dragged back to the Barracks.

On 20 December 1944, Sergeant Banks was killed by a shot in the back of his head. He was aged 22 years’ old. Banks’ remains were initially dumped into a dung heap.

After the war, Sergeant Banks was buried in Argenta Gap War Cemetery, grave reference III.A.7. The inscription on his gravestone reads

The righteous are in the hands of God and there shall no torment touch them.

Inscription from Arthur Banks’ gravestone.

The citation for the posthumous award of the George Cross to Sergeant Banks was published in the London Gazette on 5 November 1946:

On 2th August, 1944, this airman took part in an armed reconnaissance of the Ravenna and Ferrara areas. During the sortie, his. aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and he was compelled to make a forced landing.

After the aircraft had been destroyed, Sergeant Banks decided to try to reach the Allied lines. He made contact with a group of Italian partisans, amongst whom, during the following months, he became an outstanding figure, advising and encouraging them in action against the enemy. Early in December, 1944, an attempt at crossing into allied territory by boat was planned. Sergeant Banks and a number of partisans assembled at the allotted place, but the whole party was surrounded and captured.

Sergeant Banks was handed over to the German commander of the district, who presided at his interrogation. During the questioning, Sergeant Banks was cruelly tortured. At one stage, he succeeded in getting hold of a light machine gun, with which he might have killed most of his captors, had not one of the partisans, fearing more severe torture, intervened and pinned his arms to his sides. Sergeant Banks was badly knocked about before he was taken to another prison.

On 8th December, 1944, Sergeant Banks was taken, with a number of partisans, to a prison at Adria. He remained there until 19th December, 1944, when he was handed over to the commander of a detachment of the “Black Brigade”. He was then transferred to another prison at Ariano Polesine.

Here, in the presence of Italian Fascists, he was stripped of his clothing and again tortured. Sergeant Banks was eventually bound and thrown into the River Po. Despite his wounds, even at this stage, he succeeded in reaching the river bank. The Fascists then took him back to the prison, where he was shot through the head.

At the time of his capture, Sergeant Banks was endeavouring to return to the Allied lines, so that he might arrange for further supplies to the partisans. He endured much suffering with stoicism, withholding information which would have been of vital interest to the enemy. His courage and endurance were such that they impressed even his captors. Sergeant Banks conduct was, at all times, in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service, even in the face of most brutal and inhuman treatment.

Arthur Frederick Crane Nicholls was born on 8 February 1911 the son of Joseph Crane and Josephine Crane Nicholls. At the time of the events which ended with the posthumous award of the George Cross, Nicholls was a Brigadier in the Coldstream Guards, attached to the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

In October 1943, Brigadier Nicholls was parachuted into Albania to assist with resistance activities against the German forces then occupying Albania. After the German forces attacked the resistance group in December 1943, Brigadier Nicholls was forced into the Albanian mountains. During the harse winter conditions, Brigadier Nicholls developed frost-bite which became so severe in both his legs that he ordered that both his legs be amputated. This operation was performed without any anaesthetic and by a medically unqualified man. After the operation, Brigadier Nicholls was dragged by two other members of his group as he wished to impart essential information to the Allied authorities.

However, the weather conditions and Brigadier Nicholls medical condition worsen. On 11 February 1944 Brigadier Nicholls died aged 33 years’ old.

Brigadier Nicholls is buried within Tirana Park Memorial Cemetery, Albania. The inscription on the gravestone is the Latin phrase “Nulli Secundus” or “Second to None”.

Brigadier Nicholls’ George Cross award was published in the London Gazette on 26 February 1946:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE GROSS, in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner, to:

Major (temporary Lieutenant-Colonel) (acting Brigadier) Arthur Frederick Crane NICHOLLS (62269), Coldstream Guards (London).

London Gazette 26 February 1946.

David Russell was born on 30 March 1911 in Ayrshire (Scotland), the son of James and Jessie Russell. At the time of the events leading to his posthumous George Cross award, David Russell was a Lance-Corporal in the 22nd (Motorised) Battalion, New Zealand Infantry.

Like so many other escaped prisoners-of-war, Lance-Corporal Russell had obtained civilian clothes and was living with an Italian peasant, Giuseppe Vettorello. He was well-known and liked by the people of the locality. According to Giuseppe Vettorello, Lance-Corporal Russell maintained contact with a number of other ex-prisoners-of-war, visiting them regularly by bicycle.

On 22 February 1945, Lance-Corporal Russell was arrested by a patrol of Italian Fascist troops near the house of Giuseppe Vettorello. Giuseppe Vettorello was also arrested on suspicion of having harboured Lance-Corporal Russell. Their captors were members of a mixed German-Italian police regiment. Both prisoners were taken to the Headquarters of Oberleutnant Haupt at Ponte di Piave.

Here an attempt was made to force Lance-Corporal Russell to betray Giuseppe Vettorello, but he refused to do so, denying that he had ever seen him before. According to an Italian soldier who was present, Lance-Corporal Russell was beaten up by Haupt, but maintained his silence. Thanks to Lance-Corporal Russell’s loyalty, Giuseppe Vettorello was released.

The Germans were evidently convinced that Lance-Corporal Russell had been in contact with other ex-POWs and Partisans, and were determined that he should disclose their whereabouts. He was chained to a wall in a stable, and told that, unless he gave the required information within three days, he would be shot. Again, on the testimony of two Italians who were present, Lance-Corporal Russell was beaten up, but he resolutely refused to speak.

A civilian who took him food tried to persuade him to save his life, but he replied, “Let them shoot me”. Haupt’s interpreter, an Italian says: “The behaviour of the Englishman was splendid, and it won the admiration of Haupt himself”.

On the third day, 28 February 1945, Lance-Corporal Russell was shot. He was 34 years’ old.

After the war, Lance-Corporal Russell’s remains were exhumed and on 22 October 1945 reburied in Udine War Cemetery, Italy in Plot IV, Row D, Grave 2.

Lance-Corporal Russell’s award of the George Cross was published in the London Gazette on Christmas Eve 1948:

The KING has been graciously pleased, on the advice of His Majesty’s New Zealand Ministers, to approve the award of the GEORGE CROSS, in recognition of gallant and distinguished services whilst a prisoner of war in German hands (prior to September, 1945) to:

No. 30169 Lance-Corporal David RUSSELL (deceased), 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

London Gazette 24 December 1948

On 29 December 1948, The Times newspaper contained the following information about David Russell:

The award of the George Cross to Lance-Corporal David Russell, of 22 Battalion, 2nd NZEF, was for an act of loyalty and gallantry which cost him his life before a German firing squad in Italy in February 1945.

Russell was working in Hawkes Bay before the war and joined up on the day that war broke out. He went into camp soon afterwards and sailed with the 2nd Echelon.

He was born in Scotland, where his Father and Sisters now live. Russell was captured in the Western Desert in July 1942, before El Alamein. He was taken to Italy and, after escaping from a prison camp, lived with a peasant family, meanwhile keeping in touch with other prisoners of war living in similar fashion near by. He was captured by Italian troops in February 1945 and handed over to the Germans, who beat him up. Russell kept his silence and refused to incriminate his shelterer, who was arrested at the same time but was released when Russell refused to acknowledge he knew him.

The Germans, who were convinced that Russell had been in touch with other prisoners, chained him to a stable wall with the ultimatum that he would be shot in three days if he did not give the required information. Russell resolutely refused to speak and told his warder “Let them shoot me”. After further beatings he was shot on the third day.

The official report says there can be no doubt that Russell, in the midst of enemies and in face of death, bore himself with courage and dignity of a very high degree. He was a hero to the local Italians, who put an expensive headstone over his grave.

Categorised as GC