The Making of Canada’s Victoria Cross

Canadian Victoria Cross and British Victoria Cross

Canadian Victoria Cross and British Victoria Cross

Origin

For Canadians, the Canadian Victoria Cross has replaced the original British Victoria Cross created by Queen Victoria on 29 January 1856 and awarded to Canadians during several conflicts between the creation of the award and the end of the Second World War.

The original Victoria Cross was awarded to eighty-one (81) members of Canada’s military forces out of a total of 1,353 crosses and three bars awarded throughout the British Empire so far. The former number includes only those recipients who earned the VC while serving as a member of the Canadian military forces (including Newfoundland) as opposed to Canadians serving with the British forces or British recipients who later moved to Canada or served in our military. Canada’s last surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Ernest Alvia “Smokey” Smith, VC, CM, OBC, CD, (Retired), passed away on August 3, 2005.

The new Victoria Cross was created by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, through letters patent issued on 31 December 1992 as part of a new family of decorations called the Military Valour Decorations which include the Victoria Cross (VC), the Star of Military Valour (SMV) and the Medal of Military Valour (MMV). These decorations recognize acts of valour, self-sacrifice or devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. While both the SMV and the MMV have been awarded since October 2006, the Canadian VC has yet to be awarded.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, CC, CMM, COM, CD, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada and The Right Honourable Stephen Joseph Harper, PC, MP, Prime Minister of Canada, unveil the Canadian Victoria Cross, Rideau Hall, 16 May 2008.

Photo: Sgt Serge Gouin

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, CC, CMM, COM, CD, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada and The Right Honourable Stephen Joseph Harper, PC, MP, Prime Minister of Canada, unveil the Canadian Victoria Cross, Rideau Hall, 16 May 2008.

Announcement of the Manufacture

On the occasion of the Victoria Day weekend in 2008, it was announced that the Canadian version of the Victoria Cross had been manufactured. Her Excellency The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, CC, CMM, COM, CD, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada officially unveiled the Victoria Cross at Rideau Hall on 16 May 2008 in the presence of numerous dignitaries, decorated veterans, current members of the Canadian Forces including recipients of the SMV and MMV as well as representatives of Canada’s youth.

While the Canadian VC has been in existence on paper and in artwork since 1992, the first Cross was manufactured in 2007. Given the historical importance and mystique of this, the highest Canadian Honour, much thought and research went into the concept finally agreed upon. This concept maintains a tangible link with history, the original VC and its Canadian recipients; it creates a link with the birth of our nation and bridges this history with the present and future.

The Victoria Cross Production Planning Group was created under the authority of the Government Honours Policy Committee with representatives of the Office of Secretary to the Governor General, the Department of National Defence, the Department of Canadian Heritage, Veterans Affairs Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint and Natural Resources Canada. This Group initially chaired by Mary de Bellefeuille Percy of the Chancellery and later by André M. Levesque of National Defence, made recommendations which were eventually approved by the Government of Canada and supervised the manufacturing process.

Canadian design by Captain Bruce Wilbur Beatty, CM, CD

Canadian design by Captain Bruce Wilbur Beatty, CM, CD

Design

While it is not possible to ascertain who designed the original VC, it appears that Henry Armstead of the London jewelers firm of Hancocks & Co, the sole manufacturer of the British VC, may be behind the concept. It is also known that both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took a personal interest in the design and manufacture of the VC.

The design of the new cross is identical to the original award, only the motto on the obverse has been changed from “For Valour” to the Latin “Pro Valore”. Captain Bruce Wilbur Beatty, CM, CD (Retired) painted the Canadian design in 1992 on which Her Majesty apposed her signature to signify her approval. Cathy Bursey-Sabourin, Fraser Herald at the Canadian Heraldic Authority, prepared the technical drawings used for the manufacture of the Cross. One small change that was not apparent in the 1992 painting but that was included in the detailed technical drawings is the addition of the fleur-de-lis at either end of the scroll bearing the motto to accompany the traditional rose, thistle and shamrock thereby making a link with the floral elements found in the Royal Arms of Canada.

In accordance with tradition, the service number, rank, initials, name and unit of the recipient will be engraved on the reverse of the suspension bar while the date of the action will be engraved on the reverse of the Cross itself.

Several specimens of naturally occurring copper from Natural Resources Canada’s collection displayed in their relative locations of discovery from the Northwest Territories to Newfoundland and Labrador. These copper specimens along with other Canadian ores were added to the alloy to establish links with all regions of Canada.

Photo: David Ashe, Natural Resources Canada

Several specimens of naturally occurring copper from Natural Resources Canada’s collection displayed in their relative locations of discovery from the Northwest Territories to Newfoundland and Labrador. These copper specimens along with other Canadian ores were added to the alloy to establish links with all regions of Canada.

Metal Content

Some of the mystique of the original Victoria Cross is linked to the metal used in its fabrication. The British Victoria Cross is reputed to have been manufactured using bronze from Russian cannons captured at Sevastopol (formerly known as Sebastopol) during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. While there is no solid proof of the origin of the metal used at the origin, the story is taken to be true. What is certain, however, is that this original supply was exhausted by the end of 1914, and since then, the majority of Crosses have been made from the cascabels (the bulbous shaped metal protuberance at the breech end of a cannon which is used to secure the recoil cables) of a pair of Chinese cannon, the origins of which remain uncertain. The only remaining cascabel is held by 15 Regiment The Royal Logistics Corps at Donnington, Telford (UK) and must be under armed guard, in the presence of an officer, when it is taken out of its vault. The barrels of the Chinese cannon (with their cascabels missing) are located outside the Officers' Mess at the Royal Artillery Barracks at Wollwich (UK).

To preserve the important historical link between the original VC (and its Canadian recipients) and the new Canadian decoration, it was deemed imperative that the metal used in the manufacture of the original VC be included, but at the same time, there was a strong desire to make this a distinctly Canadian decoration. It was therefore decided to mix metals to achieve a balanced representation between the past, the present and the future. There are three main components in the Canadian VC alloy:

  • Commemorate the 100th anniversary of the writing of In Flanders Fields and explore the interactive exhibit.
  • Original gunmetal used in the manufacture of the British Victoria Cross. With the approval of Her Majesty The Queen, a slice of the remaining cascabel was kindly provided to Canada by the British Ministry of Defence. The piece was cut during a private ceremony attended by Ministry of Defence and Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (London) officials.
  • The Confederation Medal is a large commemorative medallion, which was commissioned by the Government of the new Dominion in 1867 to commemorate the creation of modern Canada through Confederation. The medal, which is 76 mm in diameter, was designed by Joseph Shepherd Wyon and struck by his firm, Wyon & Co, in London (UK). The medal bears on the obverse the effigy of Queen Victoria (who created the VC in 1856 and made Canada a Dominion in 1867) and an allegorical representation of Confederation on the reverse in the form of four female figures representing the four new provinces grouped around the mother-like figure of Britannia with the British lion at her feet. One was struck in solid (22K) gold and presented to Queen Victoria; 50 were struck in Sterling Silver and presented to high dignitaries of the Canadian State such as the Governor General, Ministers of the Crown and Lieutenant-Governors and 500 were struck in bronze (actually copper with a bronze finish) and presented to other officials such as the Fathers of Confederations, Senators and Members of Parliament at the time of Confederation and some institutions. The medal in question was never allocated and was found a few years ago in a vault of the Department of Canadian Heritage. That department later transferred it to the Chancellery of Honours to be included in the manufacture of the VC. This element represents the birth of Canada as a nation (read detailed article on the Confederation Medal by Darrel E. Kennedy); and
  • Metal found naturally or mined in all parts of Canada, including copper, zinc, lead, etc., to bridge the history of the other two components with the Canada of today and tomorrow.

Once the decision was made concerning the make-up of the medal, the expert metallurgists of Natural Resources Canada worked on the formula to be attained following extensive research including testing the Victoria Crosses held by the Canadian War Museum. Once all the required elements were gathered, they were melted together in an induction furnace to create the unique alloy of which the new Canadian Victoria Cross would be made. This operation took place at the Materials Technology Laboratories of Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa, on 7 December 2006 in the presence of most members of the Planning Group and resulted in seven large ingots of Canadian VC alloy.

The exact metallic content or proportions of the various component parts will not be revealed to prevent forgeries.

Example of wax “positive” impression of the Victoria Cross alongside the engraved pattern with “negative” or backwards image of the insignia.

Photo: David Ashe, Natural Resources Canada

Example of wax “positive” impression of the Victoria Cross alongside the engraved pattern with “negative” or backwards image of the insignia.

Manufacture

While a private firm, Hancocks & Co Jewelers of London, UK, has always manufactured the British Victoria Cross, the Canadian VC was manufactured in Canada, by the Government of Canada, mainly as a team effort between the specialists of the Royal Canadian Mint and Natural Resources Canada.

The Engraving Department of the Royal Canadian Mint, under the guidance of Master Engraver Cosme Saffioti, created the pattern which would be used to create the moulds for the casting process. A team from Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa, under the leadership of Dr. John E. Udd, Dr. John E. Dutrizac (both of the Mining and Minerals

Sciences Laboratories -CANMET), and Peter Newcombe (of the Materials Technology Laboratory-CANMET), cast the rough medals which were then returned to the Mint for hand finishing and assembly. The first casting of VC pieces using the special Canadian VC alloy took place on 26 January 2007. The more detailed manufacturing steps are as follows:

  • technical drawing are prepared by the Canadian Heraldic Authority;
  • using the technical drawings, the engraving department of the Royal Canadian Mint sculpts the main elements of the design (Crown and lion) in plaster;
  • the plasters are then scanned in order to convert the relief images into electronic data;
  • using these main elements the engravers complete the sculpting on computers using state of the art sculpting software;
  • once sculpting is complete, the data are sent to a computer-controlled engraving machine for production of the steel dies;
  • dies, which are negative images, are cut for the obverse and reverse of the Cross as well as for the suspension bar;
  • the dies are further hand enhanced, polished, and prepared by the engraver for striking;
  • the dies are used to strike a pewter pattern of the insignia (positive image);
  • using the pewter pattern, the Materials Technology Laboratories of Natural Resources Canada make rubber molds of the component parts (negative image);
  • the rubber molds are used to produce wax patterns which are positive representations of the VC component parts;
  • the wax pieces are attached to a wax trunk creating a wax tree;
  • the wax tree is immersed in liquid ceramic which is then left to dry;
  • the dried ceramic block with its embedded wax tree is heated in a kiln, hardening the ceramic and melting the wax which escapes through the bottom of the ceramic mold thereby creating a void (negative image) in the ceramic in the shape of the VC parts (this is called the lost wax process);
  • the molten VC alloy is then poured into the ceramic mold through the trunk of the tree filling the VC shaped cavities;
  • after a cooling period, the ceramic mold is broken away, revealing the bronze tree of VC parts (the entire casting process is repeated until a sufficient quantity of good quality pieces are produced);
  • the parts are detached from the tree, cut and returned to the Mint to be finely hand worked and chased to highlight the details and correct any minor imperfections;
  • holes are pierced at the top of the cross and in the suspension bar;
  • the Cross and bar are assembled with a ring fashioned from wire made of the same material as the Cross;
  • the assembled Cross is patinated in a traditional dark brown finish and then slightly polished to relieve the patina on the raised parts, highlighting the details;
  • a protective coating is then applied to the finished Cross;
  • the Cross is then engraved where appropriate (as for the specimens);
  • the finished VC is mounted with its distinctive crimson ribbon using a bronze suspension pin; and
  • the finished product is placed in the special leather-covered wooden presentation case bearing the inscription ‘V.C.’ and ‘CANADA’ impressed in gold block letters on the lid.

At the end of the production cycle, 20 genuine crosses as well as six (6) second award bars will be produced and deposited at the Chancellery of Honours, Rideau Hall, for safekeeping. The remaining genuine alloy produced according to the original formula will also be kept by the Chancellery of Honours in the shape of marked ingots in case future generations need to cast more VCs.

In addition to the genuine VCs, eight (8) specimen VCs have been manufactured using the same tooling and method but made of plain brass finished in the same manner as the genuine VCs. These specimens are clearly marked (the reverse of the suspension is engraved SPECIMEN and the reverse of the cross bears the numbers S-1 to S-8 and the year of manufacture) and are intended for display and historical purposes by specific institutions. They are:

  • S-1 and S-2: Royal Collection (note that these first two specimens where forwarded to Buckingham Palace and presented to Her Majesty on Accession Day 2007, the 55th anniversary of Her Majesty’s Accession to the Throne. The Queen has directed that one of the specimens be put on display at Windsor Castle.)
  • S-3: Rideau Hall
  • S-4: National Defence
  • S-5: Library and Archives Canada for the National Numismatics Collection
  • S-6: Canadian War Museum
  • S-7: Royal Canadian Mint
  • S-8: Natural Resources Canada
Date modified: