Stamped with approval: Royal Mail marks the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross

Six recipients are to be recognised with their own designs. Jonathan Brown tells their stories
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The Independent Online

Led attacks on enemy positions

FIRST CLASS - AGANSING RAI

A corporal, or Naik, in the 2nd Battalion 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles in June 1944, Rai found himself and his comrades face-to-face with the Japanese army's 33rd Division in northern Burma. Coming under fire, Rai, 24, led his section uphill, personally killing three of the four soldiers manning an enemy machine-gun nest that threatened the rear of the Allied lines.

When a Japanese anti-tank gun opened fire from nearby jungle, the corporal led another charge, once again killing three of the enemy. However, the Gurkhas soon came under heavy machine-gun fire, this time from a bunker.

Rai attacked single-handed, killing all four occupants. The remaining Japanese troops fled the area. Rai served with the battalion until 1971.

Brave lad withstood enemy fire

1ST CLASS - JOHN "JACK" CORNWELL

John Cornwell, 16, was one of the youngest winners of the Victoria Cross. The East End lad joined the Navy in 1915 and a year later was rated as Boy Seaman First Class, a range-layer for the light cruiser HMS Chester's forward six-inch gun.

At the Battle of Jutland, the Chester came under heavy fire as it led the fleet into combat with four enemy cruisers. Captain Lawson of the Chester wrote to Jack's mother: "The wounds which resulted in his death were received in the first few minutes. He remained steady at his most exposed post... all but two of the 10 [gun] crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one in such an exposed position. But he felt he might be needed, and indeed he might have been; so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God's help to support him."

Saved ship's crew from artillery shell

44p - CHARLES DAVID LUCAS

Midshipman Lucas was serving during the Crimean War aboard the HMS Hecla, a six-gun, steam-driven paddle sloop, which was one of three ships bombarding a Russian fort on the Aland Islands off the coast of Finland. During the battle, an artillery shell landed on the deck.

Ignoring the orders to lay flat, Lucas, 20, ran towards the device, tossing it overboard and saving the lives of those around him. The shell exploded before it reached the sea. Not only did he receive one of the first VCs, from Queen Victoria herself in Hyde Park in 1857, but the young Irishman was immediately promoted to lieutenant and later become a rear-admiral.

Assisted casualties while injured

44p - NOEL CHAVASSE

One of only three men to win the VC twice, the son of the Bishop of Liverpool was a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving on the Western Front in August, 1916. After tending casualties all day under enemy fire, that night he searched no-man's land using the sound of his own voice and an electric torch to attract the attention of wounded men, stranded under the still heavy fire.

The following day, while carrying a stretcher, he was wounded, yet still insisted on going beyond the wire to find more injured men. He was awarded his first VC for those actions and, almost a year later, received the bar to his medal after refusing to leave his post guiding injured men to a dressing station, despite being seriously wounded himself. He went on treating casualties until a shell penetrated his dugout. He died two days later from his injuries.

Flew against a superior enemy alone

72p - ALBERT BALL

He joined the Sherwood Foresters at the beginning of the First World War and was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps the following year. Posted to France in February 1916, by November he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order with two bars.

Flying alone against a technically superior enemy, he claimed 44 kills. Ball was killed in May 1917. He received his posthumous VC for the last fortnight of his life. The official citation notes, "during [this] period Captain Ball took part in 26 combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two and forced several others to land. "Flying alone, on one occasion he fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British planes, he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each occasion he brought down at least one enemy plane."

Awarded the Victoria Cross twice

72p - CHARLES UPHAM

The only combatant soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice - the other two being doctors.

The New Zealand farmer was a lieutenant in Crete, fighting against the invading German paratroops. Three times he routed German machine-gun posts in close-quarter fighting. He was wounded in the shoulder and foot, but at the end of a week of heavy fighting still repulsed a heavy German attack with a Bren gun.

The bar to his VC was earned a year later when Upham was a captain and his unit was surrounded by four German divisions in the North African desert. The New Zealanders broke out with a night-time bayonet charge during which Upham was injured by his own grenades. A month later, by then so badly wounded that he could not walk, he was taken prisoner and held at Colditz. He died in 1992.

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