One of the few? The story of Charity Bick (Youngest recipient of the George Cross)
July 10th 1940 is widely regarded in the UK as the start of the Battle of Britain, when German air force planes began bombing British shipping in the English Channel and the RAF took to the skies to drive them off. The Germans regard the Battle as starting on August 12th, the first day they launched attacks, on radar stations, airfields and factories, on the UK mainland.
The evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk had finished on June 4th, and a short pause in fighting took place. The British began to prepare for the German invasion which everyone believed was imminent: the Germans celebrated their victory over France with a series of Victory parades, culminating in a massed march by a large part of the German army through the centre of Paris on June 14th.
Invasion had not been considered when the UK declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, but bombing of factories towns and cities had, and the British government was well aware of what the German air force had done to Spanish cities as it supported the forces of General Franco during the 3 years of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Local Government was asked to set up Air Raid control centres (West Bromwich built one in a reinforced section of the Town Hall basement. It is still there today), oversee the evacuation of children to rural areas, and ensure the building of sufficient air raid shelters for the entire population. Air Raid Precautions were rapidly introduced, with volunteer Air Raid Wardens recruited to carry out a wide range of duties – enforcing a night-time blackout, distributing gas masks, guiding people to air raid shelters, carrying messages during air raids and performing emergency rescue and fire -fighting roles. Charity Bick, a 14-year-old employee of Cruxson Gerrard and Co. of Oldbury, from Maud St., West Bromwich (behind the Lyng primary school now,) claimed to be 16 and, no questions asked, was one of many local people recruited as volunteer Air Raid Wardens in 1939. But apart from a few false alarms and exercises, nothing much happened for nearly a year.
The air raid sirens didn’t sound in West Bromwich until 25th July, at 1135pm. But it was a false alarm. It wasn’t until the 166th alarm, at 7.00pm on November 10th, that the first bombs (5 of them) fell on West Bromwich, destroying several houses and a water main near Shaftesbury St. and Law St. in Tantany. But, this time at least, nobody was seriously injured.
No more bombs fell until after the 185th warning, on Tuesday 19th November. West Bromwich was pounded by waves of German aircraft, with bombs falling from 7.30pm until 4.30am on the morning of November 20th. Charity Bick was on duty that night. An official report recorded:
During a very heavy air raid, Miss Bick played an heroic part under nerve-racking conditions. At the outset when incendiary bombs began to fall she assisted her father, a Post Warden, to put out one of these, in the roof of a shop, with the aid of a stirrup pump and bucket of water. The pump proved to be out of order, but nothing daunted she proceeded to splash the water with her hands and eventually put out the fire. While endeavouring to get out of the roof the charred rafters gave way and she fell through to the room below and sustained minor injuries.
Miss Bick and her father then returned to the A.R.P. Post. Almost immediately high explosive bombs began to fall and a terrific explosion nearly shook them off their feet. They discovered that a bomb had destroyed two houses opposite and another one nearby. The Wardens attached to the Post were all on duty, so she borrowed a bicycle and rushed out to take a message to the Control Room amidst shrapnel from guns and falling bombs. She made repeated attempts to get through and several times had to dismount and fall flat on the ground for safety. Covered with dirt and grime she eventually delivered the message.
She made three journeys from her Post to the Control Room, a distance of approximately one and a quarter miles, during the height of the raid, and made further journeys afterwards.
Miss Bick, by acting as a means of communication between the Wardens’ Post to which she was attached and the Control Room, did very valuable work and released other Wardens for duty. She displayed outstanding courage and coolness in very trying circumstances.
Charity was awarded the George Cross for her actions that night, and she remains the youngest ever recipient of the United Kingdom’s highest award for civilian bravery, awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.
As well as her George Cross, Charity was given a new bicycle by the management of Cruxson Gerrard, and Charity Bick Way in West Bromwich is of course named in her honour. Her portrait was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Commission in 1942, and now hangs in the Imperial War Museum. Aged 18, Charity joined the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1943, retiring in 1962. She died in Scotland in 2002.