Military History

The Highest Honour #16 | John Edmondson | Hughie Edwards

By The Cove May 3, 2021


Corporal John Hurst 'Jack' Edmondson VC (1914 - 1941, 26yo)

John Hurst Edmondson was born on 08 October 1914 at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Having served from March 1939 in the 4th Battalion, Militia, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 May 1940 and was posted to the 2nd/17th Battalion. Later that month he was promoted to acting Corporal. 

The 2nd/17th Battalion with other components of the 9th Division were sent to Libya and reached Marsa Brega before an Axis counter-attack forced them to retreat to Tobruk. The siege of the fortress began on 11 April 1941. Two days later the Germans probed the perimeter, targeting a section of the line west of the El Adem Road near Post R33. This strong-point was garrisoned by the 2nd/17th's No.16 Platoon in which Edmondson was a section leader. The enemy intended to clear the post as a bridgehead for an armoured assault on Tobruk.

Under the cover of darkness, thirty Germans infiltrated the barbed wire defences, bringing machine-guns, mortars and two light field-guns. Lieutenant Austin Mackell, commanding No.16 Platoon, led Edmondson's five-man section in an attempt to repel the intruders. Armed with rifles, fixed bayonets and grenades, the party of seven tried to outflank the Germans, but were spotted by the enemy who turned their machine-guns on them. Unknown to his mates, Edmondson was severely wounded in the neck and stomach. Covering fire from R33 ceased at the pre-arranged time of 2345h. and Mackell ordered his men to charge. Despite his wounds, Edmondson accounted for several enemy soldiers and saved Mackell's life. When the remaining Germans fled, the Australians returned to their lines. Although Edmondson was treated for his wounds, he died before dawn on 14 April 1941. The Germans' armoured attack that morning was thwarted, partly due to the earlier disruption of their plans. Edmondson was buried in Tobruk war cemetery. He had not married.

His Victoria Cross, gazetted on 04 July, was the first awarded to a member of Australia's armed forces in World War II. In April 1960 Mrs Edmondson gave her son's medals to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, where they are displayed alongside his portrait (1958) by Joshua Smith. At Liverpool a public clock commemorates Edmondson, as do the clubrooms used by the sub-branch of the Returned Services League of Australia.

Air Vice Marshall Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC (1914 - 1982, 68yo)

Sir Hughie Edwards was born on 01 August 1914 at Fremantle, Western Australia. After working in a shipping agent’s office, a racing stable and a factory, Edwards enlisted in the Permanent Military Forces in March 1934 and served with the 6th Heavy Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, which manned the defences of Fremantle. His stay in the army was brief as, much to his surprise, he was accepted as a cadet in the Royal Australian Air Force on 15 July 1935 and sent to No.1 Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria. He was not a natural pilot but on graduation was rated as 'above average’.

He soon became proficient on the new Blenheim bombers and was promoted to Flying Officer in May 1938, but in August he flew into a cumulo-nimbus cloud and his aircraft iced up and went into an uncontrollable spin. After baling out his crew, he managed to escape at low altitude but his parachute caught on the radio aerial and he 'rode’ the aircraft to the ground. He was critically injured and spent much of the following two years recovering, afraid that he would be unable to take part in World War II, which had broken out in September 1939.

By sheer determination and constant pressure on the medical authorities, in April 1940 Edwards finally gained permission to resume flying. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant, he sustained only minor injuries when he crashed in October after becoming lost in a nationwide blackout. In February 1941 he joined No.139 Squadron, again flying Blenheims. The squadron was engaged in the dangerous task of attacking German convoys off the coast of Europe as well as bombing nearby targets on land. Edwards had another accident but survived unscathed. With the heavy loss of crews, life expectancy being only a few weeks, promotion came quickly to the survivors and in April he was made acting Squadron Leader. In May Edwards became the commander of No.105 Squadron as an acting Wing Commander.

On 04 July 1941 a group of twelve Blenheims led by Edwards made a daylight attack on the German city of Bremen. His bombers had to fly under high-tension wires, through a balloon barrage and into intense anti-aircraft fire. The surviving aircraft were riddled with holes. Four of the attacking force were shot down and Edwards’ own Blenheim returned with a wounded gunner, a smashed radio rack and a large part of the port wing shot away. For this gallant action Edwards was awarded the Victoria Cross. 

In February 1943 Edwards was promoted to Acting Group Captain and placed in command of the large RAF station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, which became the base from which No.460 Squadron, RAAF, operated until the end of the war. Edwards found his first substantial command—of a large number of Australian ground and air crews—a challenging task. He soon started operations on Lancaster bombers, almost certainly doing more trips than he was allowed. Losses were heavy in the battle of the Ruhr and the battle of Berlin, but morale never faltered, due in large part to his example. He was very popular with his crews, provided they did not have to fly with him: he was a poor pilot with more enthusiasm and courage than ability.

Survived by his wife, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died suddenly of subdural haematoma after a fall on 05 August 1982 at Darling Point and was cremated. The most highly decorated Australian of World War II, he had been respected by all with whom he came in contact and revered by those with whom he served. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds his medals, his portrait (1944) by Stella Bowen and a painting (1982) by Ray Honisett of the episode in which he won his VC. A bronze statue of him by Andrew Kay was erected in Kings Square, Fremantle, in 2002.


Portrait

Biography

The Cove

The home of the Australian Profession of Arms.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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