MN Awards – Sea

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British Gallantry Awards at Sea

© Bernard de Neumann
The City University, London


     This paper is intended to give a flavour of how the official gallantry award system for acts of heroism at sea has evolved since 1854, and is concerned mainly with awards officially for acts “not in the face of the enemy”. It will not treat awards made by the RNLI (begun 1825), which are mainly, but not exclusively, made to its own people. The first official civilian gallantry award was the Sea Gallantry Medal (more properly known as the Board of Trade Medal for Saving Life) that was initiated by the Board of Trade in 1855 following the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. It is Britain’s oldest official civilian gallantry award. A higher ranking medal, the Albert Medal, awarded in two classes for saving life at sea, was instituted by Royal Warrant of 1866. These, together with unofficial awards, such as those of the Royal Humane Society, the Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners Royal Benevolent Society, the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society, and Lloyd’s of London, were the awards made to merchant seamen, fishermen, and others, for gallantry in saving life at sea until the institution of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1917.

     With the Order of the British Empire came the Empire Gallantry Medal, the then highest award for civilian acts of gallantry. On the military front the Victoria Cross was instituted in 1856, the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal in 1855 and 1874, the Distinguished Service Order in 1886, the Distinguished Service Cross in 1901, the Distinguished Service Medal in 1914. Mentions in Despatches has evolved from a purely clerical list of military personnel who performed meritorious acts, upon which award recommendations were made, to an actual award of a certificate and emblem to be worn on the appropriate war medal. Prior to the First World War this system worked after a fashion, but there must have been instances of civilian gallantry during the Crimea War, and Boer War that could not be rewarded under the then current scheme.


Gallantry Awards during the First World War  (Mercantile Marine)

     During the First World War when Germany’s navy waged unrestricted war upon Britain’s Mercantile Marine, many acts of gallantry by merchant seamen “before the enemy” were performed that could not be rewarded officially within the then existing gallantry award system. Naval awards were frequently made for such acts by making recipients temporary members of the RNR, and sometimes recipients were “awarded” posthumous commissions in the RNR in order to receive posthumous VCs. [This assumes that these Mercantile Marine Masters would have accepted RNR commission, and this is by no means obvious.] Eventually the lower awards were simply made to deserving Mercantile Marine personnel without reference to the rules embodied in the Royal Warrants.

     Many gallant acts by merchant seamen were rewarded by cash payments, and, or, presentations of such objects as gold watches, binoculars, etc. Indeed one Mercantile Marine Master, Captain Charles Fryatt, was shot as a franc-tireur on the 27th July 1916 by the Germans for attempting to ram, on separate occasions, two of their U-boats that were quite clearly threats to his ship, Brussels. He received a gold watch for his gallantry on each occasion, and much publicity in the British press, and this, no doubt ultimately led to him being executed as an example by the Germans. It should be mentioned too, that the Commendation for Brave Conduct award has its roots in the First World War as a semi-formal award similar to the Mention in Despatches, but the system was not formalised until 1939.

     During the First World War Mercantile Marine Personnel received a total of 2 VCs, 23 Albert Medals, 10 DSOs, 101 SGMs, 191 DSCs, 98 DSMs, a host of Commendations, 280 Lloyd’s Silver Medals for Meritorious Service, 17 Lloyd’s Bronze Medals for Meritorious Service, 21 Lloyd’s Silver Medals for Saving Life, and 12 Lloyd’s Bronze Medals for Saving Life.


Gallantry Awards after the First World War

     Following the First World War the gallantry awards system was adapted in recognition of the Merchant Navy’s gallant acts in the face of the enemy. The following is a summary of the position achieved regarding military gallantry awards for the Merchant Navy. This position was achieved by recognising the fact that in times of war the Merchant Navy was in as much, if not more danger than the Royal Navy and that conditions were often indistinguishable.

  • Victoria Cross – Merchant Navy personnel became eligible by Royal Warrant dated 22 May 1920.
  • Distinguished Service Order – Merchant Navy personnel became eligible by Royal Warrant dated 8 March 1943.
  • Conspicuous Gallantry Medal – Merchant Navy Personnel became eligible by an Order in Council dated 17 September 1942.
  • Distinguished Service Cross – Merchant Navy personnel became eligible by an Order in Council dated 18 May 1931. (Distinguished Service Medal – Merchant Navy personnel became eligible by an Order in Council dated 17 September 1942.)
  • Mentions in Despatches – Merchant Navy Personnel received Certificates of Mentions in Despatches during the Second World War. Furthermore they were entitled to wear the “Mentions in Despatches Emblem” for a King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.

     As a stopgap, following the institution of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, BEMs, MBEs, OBEs and CBEs were awarded for both gallantry and for meritorious service. The actual award achieved depended upon rank in society. For those awarded the BEM, bars were awarded for subsequent qualifying acts, unless they “advanced themselves in society” to such an extent that they became eligible for membership of the Order. Those who were admitted to the Order had subsequent qualifying acts recognised by promotion within the Order.

Gallantry Awards during the Second World War (Merchant Navy)

     These days official gallantry awards are classified as being in four levels that relate to the estimated risk of loss of life to the recipient, in attempting their gallant act(s): I being the highest level, and IV the lowest, and the following table of Second World War awards adheres to this system.




George Cross



Empire Gallantry Medal






Commander of the Order of the British Empire



Officer of the Order of the British Empire



Member of the Order of the British Empire



Distinguished Service Order



Distinguished Service Cross



Albert Medal

I to II


George Medal



Distinguished Service Medal



Sea Gallantry Medal



British Empire Medal



Mentions in Despatches






Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea

I to IV




     The Empire Gallantry Medal was revoked by Royal Warrant in favour of the George Cross on 24 September 1940. All living EGM recipients had to exchange them for the George Cross. A further Royal Warrant of 15 December 1971 revoked the Albert Medal, and all living recipients were deemed to be holders of the George Cross, and offered the opportunity to exchange their AM for a GC. Not all took the opportunity.


After the Second World War

    In 1993 a further attempt was made to rationalise the gallantry awards system, and presumably through governmental and Royal Navy ignorance, a major injustice to the Merchant Navy resulted from the harmonisation of the various grades of military awards: viz. as far as it affects this discussion:

(i) Eliminating the Distinguished Service Medal in favour of the Distinguished Service Cross, and,

(ii) Eliminating the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and awards of the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry, to create a new award the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross (CGC) in their place,

     British Merchant Navy personnel were eligible for all Royal Navy gallantry awards: a right, which they earned through their unstinting devotion to duty in times of war, yet they were not consulted about these changes. At the present time the CGC is not available to Merchant Navy personnel, despite the fact that appropriate ranks of the Merchant Navy were eligible for the DSO, and CGM; this is remarkably unfeeling in the light of the acknowledged contributions and high casualty rate of the M.N. in many wars, including the Second World War in which the M.N. took higher casualties than any of the armed services, which drew special mention by HM The Queen on V.E. Day in 1995. At present (2002) merging of the third level awards, DSC, DFC, and MC, into one nominal award, DSC say, is under consideration.

     Thus the Merchant Navy is now eligible for 3 of the 4 levels of Naval Gallantry awards, and it is no longer clear whether they are eligible for the DSO for distinguished service.


Current practice regarding gallantry awards

     It is now apparently the practice to consider all gallantry awards as being in four levels as follows:




Victoria Cross

George Cross


Conspicuous Gallantry Cross

George Medal


Military Cross

Distinguished Service Cross

Distinguished Flying Cross

Air Force Cross

Queen’s Gallantry Medal

Sea Gallantry Medal


Mention in Despatches

Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct


The Criteria for the levels: Level I awards are intended for acts where it is estimated that there was a 50%, or more, chance of not surviving them. For level II it is estimated that the probability of survival is between 50% and 75%, (by the author’s extrapolation) for level III the probability of survival is between 75% and 87.5%, and for level IV the probability of survival is between 87.5% and 93.75%.


Posthumous Awards

     A few words about posthumous awards are necessary. During the Second World War, the Victoria Cross, George Cross, Empire Gallantry Medal, Albert Medal, and Sea Gallantry Medal were awarded posthumously because such was allowed by their Royal Warrants. Other second and third level awards were not available for posthumous award until well after the Second World War (1977 for the George Medal). Any person whose act reached the standard set for a second or third level award, but who died before their award was decided received a posthumous M.I.D. or Commendation, if not entitled to the Albert Medal or Sea Gallantry Medal. Generally posthumous awards are made when the recipient dies before the award is decided.


Concern for the future of the Sea Gallantry Medal

     As regards the Sea Gallantry Medal, a letter from Lewis Moonie, MP, concerning the author’s 1999 query regarding the location of the SGM Register, quotes from Gallantry by Wilson and McEwen:

“There is no record of the numbers issued previous to 1887; the relative papers have been destroyed and the register cannot be traced; it seems to have been no one’s business to preserve for posterity a recital of deeds as noble as any in the annals of our race. No account of the awards is published in the London Gazette. From 1887 to 1921 a list of names, with a bald summary of the occasion for which the medal was awarded, is available and is here reproduced. From January 1922 onwards a full record is available and is here reproduced, in summarised form.

This reflects the general lack of interest and public concern that seems to pervade all matters concerning the general understanding and appreciation of the valuable contribution the British Merchant Navy makes to the strategic posture of the United Kingdom, and what she stands for. In both World Wars, and during more recent conflicts such as in the South Atlantic, the British Merchant Navy made critical and vital contributions to their success. In the First World War they lost 15,313 personnel plus a further almost 6000 serving under T124 articles with the RN, and 2,479 ships, and in the Second World War they lost more than 4000 vessels including 2,500+ ships, and 34,902 personnel (including women) with a further 10,427 wounded or taken prisoner, a higher rate of loss than any of the “fighting services”. The above medal statistics illustrates their tremendous courage, audacity, and esprit de corps, during the Two World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and may be surprising to members of the general public, yet it is certain, due to the lack of a coherent gallantry award system, that many acts remain unrecognised officially.


Now awards of the SGM are apparently in abeyance, and the author suspects that as an award its use is about to be withdrawn by the government. Once more the Merchant Navy is not being consulted, yet as has been stated above the award is Britain’s oldest official civilian gallantry award. If you are concerned about this possible slight to the past glories of Britain’s Merchant Navy, please contact Bernard de Neumann (the author).