An Australian SAS (commando) soldier, Corporal Benjamin Roberts-Smith, was recently awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), for heroic actions in Afghanistan. The Victoria Cross is the highest British military award for valor. It is also the highest military award for nations belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations (which includes Australia, Canada and 52 other countries, and was formerly known as the British Commonwealth). The Victoria Cross is awarded by the monarch (king or queen of England) or, for Commonwealth winners (or their next of kin) not able to get to Britain, by the monarch's representative (the Governor-General).Some commonwealth countries, like Australia, have made arrangements to take over, with permission from Britain, the awarding of the Victoria Cross. Australia did this, starting in 1991. Canada and New Zealand followed within a few years. No Canadians have been awarded this new VC, and only one New Zealander. Two Australians have received the Australian VC, while 96 received the VC before 1991.
Corporal Roberts-Smith earned his VC in June of last year, when, as second-in-command of a SAS patrol seeking to arrest a senior Taliban leader, found themselves under fire from a larger force. Roberts-Smith was key in defeating the ambush force, fearlessly exposing himself to enemy fire as he destroyed two of three machine-guns firing on the SAS troopers, and leading the counter-attack. When the battle was over, 60 Taliban were dead, with only two of the SAS troops wounded.
It was one of those legendary bits of soldiering, combining skill, quick thinking, courage, and a bit of luck. The commander of the SAS unit, a sergeant, was awarded the Star of Gallantry, which ranks right below the VC in Australia. The sergeant's name was not released, as is SAS custom (except for VC winners, who get a lot more publicity).
The Victoria Cross was first awarded in 1856 (during the reign of queen Victoria). The American equivalent is the Medal of Honor. So far, 3,471 Medals of Honor have been awarded, compared to 1,356 Victoria Crosses. The Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1863, during the Civil War (1861-5), and throughout the 19th century was the only award for bravery. But in the early 20th century, the United States created lesser awards (Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross), making Medal of Honor awards much less common. At that point, the Medal of Honor assumed a similar prominence that the Victoria Cross had always had. Each nation of the Commonwealth has different awards that rank below the VC.