For Valour

The June 1946 front cover of “The Sketch”, an illustrated weekly journal, recording that the crew that went Head of the River in Oxford’s 1946 Summer Eights was stroked by a winner of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

18 September 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is not finished with the Trinity College, Oxford, First Eight.

My recent piece on Richard Hillary noted that his greatest achievement in rowing was to stroke a Trinity College, Oxford, crew to Head of the River in 1938, a position that a Trinity boat had not held since 1864. The boat club repeated this achievement again in 1939. I finished with the sombre fact that, by 1945, six of that 1938 First Eight had died in the Second World War. Remarkably, in the first post-war Eights Week in 1946, Trinity went Head again, a feat that they repeated in 1947, 1948 and 1949 (and something that they have not done since). Also remarkable was that, like the stroke of the 1938 crew, the stroke in 1946 was also a war hero: Richard Wakeford VC (1921 – 1972).

Wakeford wearing his Victoria Cross ribbon.

Richard Wakeford went to Westminster School in 1934, aged 13. A December 1944 edition of the school magazine, The Elizabethan, wrote:

He showed early promise as an oar and, possessed of a grand physique, rowed in the First VIII at Henley and Marlow in 1938 and 1939. At the end of the summer term of 1939 he was appointed Head of Water…, a barren honour, alas, when war broke out and the Putney waterside was deserted. Very understandably he chafed more than most at the enforced evacuation (of the school) to Sussex. Football was anathema to him, but he found some compensating outlet for his energies as Head of House and as an Under Officer in the (Officer Training Corps).

Wakeford joined the army in late 1940, was soon commissioned and by early 1943 was serving in Tunisia. Here he was mentioned in dispatches, promoted to captain, and was wounded by a bullet in the forearm. For his actions on 13 and 14 May 1944, at Cassino, Italy, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The citation for Wakeford’s VC as published in “The Elizabethan”.
Wakeford receives his Victoria Cross from King George VI.
The Trinity College, Oxford, First VIII, Head of the River, 1948. Picture courtesy of Trinity College, Oxford.

A website on Victoria and George Cross winners says that Wakeford went to Trinity College, Oxford (not Trinity, Cambridge, as stated by Wikipedia and several other Internet sources) in 1945 ‘but due to the severity of his wounds to his hands, has to abandon a career in medicine and switch to law… Affected by his war wounds throughout his life, he died suddenly aged just 51…’ This seem strange as it does not match with someone fit enough to stroke a boat to Head of the River. Whatever the actual facts, the words of the recommendation for Wakeford’s VC remain valid:

As an example of utter selfless devotion to duty, magnificent leadership, relentless determination and unflinching courage, this officer’s action cannot be surpassed.

The Victoria Cross.

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