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A guide to military awards

Military awards and medals have not always been part of military life. It was only during the middle years of the 19th century that Great Britain decided to adopt the more continental habit of granting medals to other ranks, though officers had been lucky enough to be rewarded with medals on occasion previously. This article provides a guide to British military awards.


The highest military medal that any serviceman can win in the UK armed forces is the Victoria Cross. Still cast from the bronze of Russian cannons captured during the Crimean War, the cross with its crimson ribbon has become an iconic part of British military life. This medal is awarded for outstanding gallantry in the face of the enemy. Officers in the Army can win the Distinguished Service Order, which is awarded for highly successful command and leadership during active operations These medals for the Army can also be won by service personnel in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, but there are medals which apply more directly to individual branches of the armed forces as well as civilians.


Service personnel in the Royal Navy can, of course, win medals such as the Victoria Cross which up until 1918, was issued with a dark blue ribbon for RN personnel. More specific Navy medals include the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, which is Naval equivalent to the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The first recipients of this award served in the Baltic and the Crimea. Award ribbons for this medal are coloured white with dark blue edges.

Royal Air Force

Honours and awards for the Royal Air Force include the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is also available to Army and Royal Navy pilots. The ribbon for this medal is deep purple and white striped, while the cross itself shows wings and aeroplane propellers. The Air Force cross is also awarded to service personnel in recognition for exemplary gallantry in the air on non-active operations.


Some medals and awards are also given to civilians. Perhaps the most famous of these medals is the George Cross, which was actually given to a whole island, Malta, during World War Two. The Maltese civilians collectively resisted Axis bombardment from 1940, with an especially intense period from January to late July 1942, testing the resolve of people from this small island. King George VI said: "To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and a devotion that will long be famous in history." The medal was conceived in 1940 to reward the gallantry of civilians during air raids on Britain.

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