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80th anniversary of the only Naval Battle of Britain VC winner

Jack Mantle artwork
4 July 2020
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Thursday July 4 1940. Six days before the Battle of Britain officially began. The crew of HMS Foylebank were settling into the day’s routine in Portland Harbour – as their breakfast settled in their stomachs.

It was a little after 8.30am when the howl of air-raid sirens sounded across Portland and the crew of HMS Foylebank, a 5,500-tonne merchantman turned into a floating anti-aircraft battery to defend the harbour and naval base, went to their action stations.

One month had passed since the Dunkirk evacuation, a fortnight since France had sued for peace. More than half a million British and Allied troops had been brought back from France, but almost all their equipment had been left behind.

The euphoria of Dunkirk spirit had passed, replaced by a stark realisation that Britain was locked in a mortal struggle for her very existence.

Churchill had vowed Britons would “defend our island, whatever the cost may be” fighting “on the beaches… on the landing grounds… in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Withstanding the Nazi onslaught would be the nation’s “finest hour”, but the premier warned his people that the “whole fury and might of the enemy” would be hurled at them.

And now, this Thursday morning, it began.

Mantle’s superior thought his actions worthy of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. That was elevated to the Victoria Cross, announced in September 1940 and presented to his parents by George VI the following summer.

“Jack didn’t seem to be the heroic type,” his surprised mother Jeannie May said. “He was a quiet, earnest boy. He had an intense dislike of pain, and was always afraid of the dentist . . .”

Jack Mantle remains the only sailor to win the Victoria Cross for actions in the UK itself. The medal can be seen at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, while the seaman lays at rest in Royal Naval Cemetery on Portland.

This is the first of three features on the role of the Royal Navy in the Battle of Britain.

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