Men and women who put the “Great” in “Great Britain”.
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1. Sir Douglas Bader (1910–82)
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A gifted athlete and ace acrobatic pilot in the RAF, Bader lost both his legs after crashing his plane practising for an air show, one amputated above and one below the knee. His account of the accident was magnificently reserved:
“Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
What he lacked in limbs he made up for with sheer brilliance. Bader retaught himself to fly with prosthetics and repassed all his certifications. Despite this, his superiors refused to pass him fit for service, and he was retired from flying against his will in 1931.
When World War II broke out in 1939, Bader was given the chance he’d waited for, and on his return to the air quickly established a fearsome record of 20 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damage.
In August 1941, Bader was shot down (probably the victim of friendly fire) and captured. So respected was the fighter ace by German forces that Hermann Göring himself gave the green light for the British to deliver a new prosthetic leg.
Despite his disability, Bader made a number of escape attempts, proving himself such a nuisance he was eventually transferred to Colditz Castle, where he remained until the prison was liberated by US troops in 1945.
2. Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)
Nightingale became known throughout the British Empire as “the lady with the lamp” for her habit of making rounds at night while caring for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War (1853–56), but it wasn’t until she returned to Britain that she came to believe poor hospital conditions were responsible for the majority of deaths among soldiers.
As part of a Royal Commission, she began advocating for better living conditions and sanitary design in hospitals, and as a result helped reduce peacetime deaths in the army.
Not only did Nightingale lay the foundations of professional nursing, she fought for many social reforms, including improved public healthcare for all, abolishing harsh prostitution laws against women, and expanding the acceptance of female participation in the workforce.
She published medical books written in simple English to make knowledge accessible to those with poor literary skills, and helped popularise the graphical presentation of statistics – bar/pie charts etc. – to make data easier to understand.
3. Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821–90)
A captain in the East India Company, Burton was also an accomplished swordsman, geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, poet, Egyptologist, fencer and linguist, speaking as many as 29 languages.
He was one of the first Europeans to complete the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage of Islam. Adopting various disguises during the trek, he used his intricate knowledge of Islamic traditions and understanding of the customs of Eastern cultures to avoid detection, for which he would have been executed.
Later, he was one of the first Europeans to enter the Somali capital, Harar, a city forbidden to Westerners, another act punishable by death, and led expeditions that led to the discovery of Lake Victoria, which many at the time believed to be the source of the Nile (though Burton was never convinced of this).
While exploring Africa, Burton and his company were attacked by Somali Waranye warriors, and he was impaled through the face by a spear, leaving him with two large facial scars.
He wrote over 50 books on everything from swordfighting to sexual practices. He translated the first English editions of Kama Sutra (1883), and The Perfumed Garden (1886), and helped published a complete edition of the The Thousand Nights and One Night aka Arabian Nights (1885–88). Also: that moustache.
4. Captain Flora Sandes (1876–1956)
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The only British woman officially to serve as a soldier in World War I, Sandes was initially a St John Ambulance volunteer, but upon arrival in Serbia was formally enrolled in the Serbian army.
In 1916, Sandes was seriously wounded by a grenade in hand-to-hand combat. For her bravery, she received the highest decoration of the Serbian Military, the Order of the Karađorđe’s Star, and was promoted to the rank of sergeant major.
Unable to continue fighting due to her injury, she spent the remainder of the war running a hospital.
After the war ended in 1918, Sandes was commissioned as an officer (the first woman to be commissioned) and lectured extensively on her wartime experiences in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada and the United States, always appearing in military uniform when delivering her lectures.
5. Captain “Mad Jack” Churchill (1906–96)
John Fleming Churchill (aka “Mad Jack”) was British soldier who fought throughout World War II armed with a longbow, a Scottish sword (a basket-hilted claybeg, which he’s pictured holding above, far right), and a set of bagpipes.
In May 1940 Churchill cut down a German sergeant with an arrow, becoming the only British soldier known to have felled an enemy with a longbow in the war.
His exploits during the war are numerous: he leapt from landing craft and led the charge into battle while playing his bagpipes, captured an entire German-held town with only his sword, and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar.
While leading a raid in 1944, Churchill’s entire party was killed and he was knocked out by grenades and captured, but not before he ran toward the (presumably terrified) advancing Germans playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his bagpipes.
Churchill was released in April 1945. After walking 93 miles to Italy, he demanded to be sent to fight in the Pacific, but by the time he got there Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed and the war ended, much to his annoyance.
If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another 10 years.
6. Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603)
After years of instability brought by the short reigns of her half-siblings, Elizabeth’s 44 years on the throne of England and Ireland provided welcome stability for the kingdom and helped forge a sense of national identity.
Politically and religiously moderate, her reign is famous above all (though not directly attributable to her) for the flourishing of English drama, led by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, and for pirate adventurers such as Sir Francis Drake.
Despite only half-heartedly supporting several ineffective, poorly resourced military campaigns overseas, she did not hesitate to mobilise the British Navy when Spain attempted to conquer England in 1588, leading to one of the greatest military victories in English history: the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
7. Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart (1880–1963)
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A Belgian-born British lieutenant-general who served in the Boer War and World Wars I and II, Carton de Wiart was known as a fierce military commander, and also for being basically indestructible.
During his service he was shot in the face, skull, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a P.O.W. camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. He also lost his left eye, his left hand, and part of his left ear.
In 1916, Carton de Wiart commanded four battalions single-handedly, after the other three Battalion commanders had fallen, marching through the trenches barking orders between dodging bullets, holding ground at all costs. For his gallantry and bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Despite his injuries, he wrote fondly of his experiences in the First World War (the bloodiest conflict in human history):
Frankly I had enjoyed the war.
8. Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson (1758–1805)
Famous for his service in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Nelson’s inspirational leadership, strategic brilliance and unconventional tactics resulted in a number of decisive naval victories.
Of these, the best known and most notable was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where he led 27 British ships aboard HMS Victory, defeating 33 Franco-Spanish ships, sinking 22 without losing a single British vessel.
During the battle, Nelson was shot by a marksman from the French ship Redoubtable, firing from the rigging at a range of about 15 metres. With the fleet well prepared, Nelson gave some final orders to his men and was taken below decks, where he died three hours later.
Nelson became – and remains – Britain’s greatest naval war hero. The victory proved so decisive the French never again challenged the British in a large-scale naval engagement, and Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain were abandoned.
Though his words during the battle and throughout his final hours have been well-documented, perhaps the most famous are these, signaled to the ships under his command on the dawn of battle:
England expects that every man will do his duty.
9. Gertrude Bell (1869–1926)
Gertrude Bell was a writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, archaeologist and spy who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making in the Middle East due to her skill and contacts.
She played a major role in establishing the modern state of Iraq, utilising her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders. As a woman, she could access the chambers of the wives of tribal leaders – forbidden to men other than the husband – giving her access to valuable information and insight.
Bell was highly regarded and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.
10. Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, Churchill was also an historian, writer, and artist.
He served in the British Army as an officer, and once he entered politics was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he held until the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli during World War I forced his departure from office.
During the 1930s, Churchill took the lead in warning about Nazi Germany and in campaigning for rearmament. At the outbreak of World War II, he was again appointed First Lord of the Admiralty.
He became prime minister in May 1940 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. His steadfast refusal to consider defeat, surrender, or compromise helped inspire British resistance, especially during the early days of the war, when Britain stood alone in active opposition to Hitler.
During the war he made regular speeches and radio broadcasts to help national morale, and remained in office until victory over Nazi Germany had been secured.
He is the only British prime minister to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1953), and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
11. Simon Weston (1961–)
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In June 1982, during the Falklands War, Weston was aboard the RFA Sir Galahad with his regiment, the Welsh Guards. The ship, which was carrying ammunition as well as phosphorus bombs and thousands of gallons of diesel and petrol, was bombed and set on fire by Argentine fighters.
Out of his platoon of 30 men, 22 were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of 48 men killed and 97 wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with 46% burns, completely destroying much of his face.
He endured years of reconstructive surgery, including over 70 major operations or surgical procedures. Skin from his shoulders was used to make eyelids, and a nose was later grafted on.
Though the psychological trauma of his wounds took a toll, he credits his mother and his comrades in the Welsh Guards for forcing him “face up to the unavoidable and to be positive about everything, especially my future”.
For his tireless charity work and support of the armed forces, veterans, and those living with disabilities, Weston was awarded an OBE in 1992. In February 2014 he was named the nation’s most heroic figure in a poll of 4,000 Britons.
12. Boudica (died AD 60 or 61)
Boudica’s husband Prasutagus was ruler of the Iceni tribe, a Celtic tribe who ruled parts of pre-Roman Britain. When he died, he left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman emperor.
However, the Romans ignored his will and took the kingdom. Boudica was flogged, and her daughters were raped.
In AD 60 or 61, while the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was leading a campaign on the island of Anglesey, Boudica led several tribes in revolt, and destroyed Camulodunum (now Colchester), before marching on Londinium (London).
The Romans, considerably outnumbered, evacuated and abandoned the fledgling settlement, as Boudica, with 100,000 rebels at her command, burned and destroyed Londinium and Verulamium (modern-day St Albans), killing an estimated 80,000.
As Emperor Nero considered withdrawing from Britain, the Romans regrouped and eventually defeated the Britons. Boudica (depending on the Roman-penned history you believe) either killed herself to avoid capture, or fell ill and died.
13. Sir Ranulph Fiennes (1944–)
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A former member of the SAS, Fiennes is a writer, adventurer and holder of several endurance records. He rose to fame in the ’70s and ’80s, undertaking expeditions such as circumnavigating the world on its polar axis using surface transport only, a feat no-one has repeated.
He became the first person to visit both the North and South Poles by surface means, the first to completely cross Antarctica on foot, and the first to cross the Antarctic completely unsupported. He led an expedition in Oman in 1992, discovering what may be Iram, a lost city mentioned in the Koran.
When a 2000 attempt to walk solo and unsupported to the North Pole failed, Fiennes sustained severe frostbite to the tips of all the fingers on his left hand. On returning home, his surgeon delayed amputation to allow regrowth of healthy tissue. Impatient at the pain his fingertips caused, he cut them off himself with a fretsaw.
In 2003, Fiennes completed seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. This was despite the fact he’d suffered a heart attack four months earlier and had to have a double heart-bypass operation.
And in May 2009, at age 65, he climbed to the summit of Mount Everest, making him the first person ever to have climbed Everest and crossed both polar ice-caps.
14. Sir Nicholas Winton (1909–)
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A British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, Winton has been referred to as the “British Schindler”.
A broker at the London Stock Exchange, Winton visited Prague in December 1938 at the behest of his friend Martin Blake, who had called to ask him to assist in Jewish welfare work. While there Winton established an organisation to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis.
Setting up his office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square, Winton arranged for the safe passage to Britain of 669 children – many of whose parents would perish in Auschwitz – where he found them homes.
He kept quiet about his humanitarian exploits for many years, until his wife Grete found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1988, containing lists of the children, including their parents’ names and the names and addresses of the families that took them in.
His achievements were finally made known to the world in a 1988 episode of That’s Life in which he was reunited with 25 of the children he had saved 50 years before.