THE VICTORIA CROSS AWARDED TO ORDINARY SEAMAN JOHN HENRY CARLESS, ROYAL NAVY, WAS BEQUEATHED TO THE PEOPLE OF WALSALL BY A MEMBER OF HIS FAMILY.
20 October 2007


( select to enlarge )
Medal entitlement of Ordinary Seaman John Carless
Royal Navy ( HMS 'Caledon' )

  • Victoria Cross
  • 1914-15 Star
  • British War Medal ( 1914-20 )
  • Victory Medal ( 1914-19 )

A month after the award of the Victoria Cross to John Carless was published in the 'London Gazette' his parents travelled to London to receive his VC from the hands of King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 22nd June 1918.

John Carless's Victoria Cross passed in turn, from his parents to his brother William, and then to his nephew John Henry Carless, who was named after him. On his death in 1986, the Cross was bequeathed to Walsall Council on behalf of the town.


The action in which John Carless earned his Victoria Cross took place on the 17th November 1917 in the mine-infested waters of the Heligoland Bight, in what was the last 'big ship' engagement of the First World War. The German High Seas Fleet was increasingly employed in minesweeping operations designed to ease the passage of U-boats. To Admiral Beatty such sorties represented a rare chance to lure a portion of the enemy fleet into a trap. His strategy was simple but effective: to establish more extensive minefields, thereby forcing the German minesweepers and their battleship escorts to venture deeper into the North Sea.

The battle proved to be frustrating and inconclusive owing mainly to the action taking place in a smother of smoke made by both fleets. During the battle, HMS 'Caledon', the ship in which Ordinary Seaman John Carless was serving as a rammer to No. 2 gun, was struck by two 6-inch shells that wrecked the upper chart house and exploded on the lower bridge, raining shards of shrapnel on to the exposed gun crews below. In that moment two signalmen were killed and the ship's captain wounded. The heaviest loss was among the men around No. 2 gun. Two were killed outright and all but three were injured, some greviously. Incredibly, the hand-worked gun was still operable, and despite the terrible carnage, PO Greenfield set about keeping it in action, helped by an uninjured 17-year-old sight-setter, and John Carless, the gun's rammer.

Carless presented a pitiful sight. His stomach had been laid bare and he was bleeding profusely from a fatal wound to the abdomem, but his sole thought was to keep the gun working. Officers manning the lower bridge watched in awe as Carless lifted one shell into the gun and then helped clear away the other casualties spread around the gun. He collapsed once but again got up, tried again and cheered on the new crew. He then fell and died.


[ London Gazette, 17 May 1918 ], Battle of Heligoland, North Sea, 17 November 1917, Ordinary Seaman John Henry Carless, Royal Navy.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. Although mortally wounded in the abdomen, he still went on serving the gun at which he was acting as rammer, lifting a projectile and helping to clear away the other casualties. He collapsed once, but got up, tried again, and cheered on the new gunís crew. He then fell and died.

He not only set a very inspiring and memorable example, but he also, whilst mortally wounded, continued to do effective work against the Kingís enemies.


John Carless's service in the Royal Navy had already been marked by a high degree of gallantry. When a hospital ship sank, he was among a party of volunteers who assisted in the hazardous rescue of hundreds of passengers. On another occasion he braved a serious boiler-room fire to save an injured stoker trapped by the flames.

The day following the battle, while still at sea, the British bured their dead. There were nineteen in all, five from the 'Caledon' including John Henry Carless. His name is engraved on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

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Iain Stewart, 20 October 2007