Through the prism of an honorary sword of King George VI

A short path to victory lies in everyone showing victory

Inscription on a memorial plaque offered by the town of Wallis, Wales, UK to Stalingrad in 1944

Volgograd, in the early 21st century. The Battle of Stalingrad Museum. In one of the numerous rooms where gifts and tributes from around the world are held, I examine a relic that speaks volumes.

I am looking at a sword, a shining steel blade. The handle is woven with gold. Along the edges of the silver hilt, lions’ heads are laid. The impressive length of this sword (1.2 metres) and the gold and silver inlay on its scabbards (complete with a star, a coat of arms and a monogram) lead one’s thoughts back to the era of kings and queens.

Where did this unusual gift come from? The answer can be found right on the blade itself, acid-etched: “TO THE STEEL-HEARTED CITIZENS OF STALINGRAD, THE GIFT OF KING GEORGE THE SIXTH, IN TOKEN OF HOMAGE OF THE BRITISH PEOPLE”.

This sword asks us to rewind the tape of history back to World War II. In 1939, hostilities broke out between the United Kingdom and Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill, as head of the government, wanted to find solid allies. Among these were the USSR and the USA. Therefore, when Hitler’s Germany attacked the USSR, this was the most important event for the UK for the last two years. Now, Albion had a precious ally in the Soviet Union.

On 22 June 1941, Churchill addressed his people over the radio and said:

[Hitler] wishes to destroy the Russian power because he hopes that if he succeeds in this he will be able to bring back the main strength of his army and air force from the East and hurl it upon this island … His invasion of Russia is no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British Isles … The Russian danger is therefore our danger and the danger of the United States …

Thus, Britain stood on the USSR’s side in the Soviet–German war, and by helping the Soviet Union, the British would also be saving themselves. Yet in spite of this loud and bold proclamation, for a long time the opening of a second front remained mere words.

Ordinary British people, unhappy with their government’s sluggishness, showed their solidarity with the Soviet people by donating to the Aid to Russia Fund. In the autumn of 1942, Stalingrad’s fight for survival was headline news in the war for the whole world. The British followed, with bated breath, these developments on the Volga. The outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad was of decisive importance not only for the USSR and Germany, but also for the UK. It was through Stalingrad that the Germans could have laid their path towards Baku and its oil fields, and then on towards the oil fields of the Near East (which Britain relied on for its energy needs). When the Soviets proved victorious at Stalingrad, the British were jubilant. The Soviet soldiers’ victory, the British saw as a victory for themselves too. And the pain of Stalingrad they felt as their own.

Proof of this solidarity between the Allies was clear in the Arctic Convoys that brought rations, medicines and warm clothing from Coventry, London, Manchester and Sheffield, to Stalingrad during the grim war years.

In the UK National Archives, there is a file dedicated to what Britain should do as a token of recognition for Stalingrad. Amazingly, this was drawn up before the Battle of Stalingrad had even ended, namely on 24 September 1942, when correspondence arrived at Downing Street, addressed to Churchill, with a suggestion that Stalingrad should be decorated for its bravery regardless of the outcome of the battle.

In the UK it is the custom that outstanding people and events are recognized with awards, precious gifts and lofty titles. For the British themselves, it is a high honour to be awarded such a decoration. The most esteemed awards are granted by the royal family. For example, the monarch’s private secretary, after many years of faithful service, is usually given the rank of lord. Elizabeth II has knighted nearly all of the Prime Ministers under her reign.

The UK Foreign Office received an enormous number of letters from ordinary people who were touched by the bravery which the people of Stalingrad showed as they withstood this onslaught. From the steady stream of appeals to the government and from the newspapers’ editorials, one could see that British solidarity was running unusually high. For example, the British pointed to the island of Malta, which had been awarded the George Cross. A reaction to British society’s unanimous sentiment came in October 1942, as correspondence circulated within the government with regard to what token of recognition would be suitable for Stalingrad. The George Cross was not considered appropriate, however, as it was not intended for foreigners and foreign cities. The Military Cross, which was awarded to the French at Verdun, was proposed as an alternative.

The document reflecting these discussions is dated 19 November 1942, the very day when Soviet forces began their offensive at Stalingrad, which subsequently led the USSR to victory. The British only learned about this later, however. In December 1942, Pravda reported that a new military decoration had been created for the defence of Stalingrad. This announcement once again sparked among the British people calls to somehow recognize the city on the Volga, and there were discussions about forging medals from gold, decorating them with diamonds, and so on.

It is generally typical for the British to be so meticulous when it comes to any honours. For example, Kenneth Rose, author of a biography of George V, has written of how long and painstaking the process was of choosing the exact crown which the King would wear before his Indian subjects in 1911–1912.

Thus, in the best English tradition, the debate on the most appropriate way to recognize Stalingrad was drawn out, and only in late February 1943 did Churchill finally approve the recommendation that this heroic city be awarded a ceremonial sword as a gift from the King.

In February 1943 George VI consented to Churchill’s proposal and issued a decree that a kingly sword be prepared as a gift to Stalingrad.

The sword was forged at Wilkinson Sword by the old and esteemed British master Tom Beasley, who came from a long line of swordsmiths. By this time Beasley was eighty-three years old, and in his own words this blade was the finest he had ever forged, though he had already forged weapons for five British monarchs. In an old black-and-white newsreel held at the Battle of Stalingrad museum, the master swordsmith, without even turning away from his forge, claims that he has put everything he has ever learned from the age of eight (the year he started out) into this gift to the people of Stalingrad, whose hearts he felt were truly made of steel.

On 21 February 1943, the King sent a telegram to Mikhail Kalinin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet:

It was the unyielding resistance of Stalingrad that turned the tide and heralded the crushing blows which have struck dismay into the foes of civilization and freedom. To mark the profound admiration felt by myself and the peoples of the British Empire, I have given commands for the preparation of a Sword of Honour, which it would give me pleasure to present to the city of Stalingrad. My hope would be that this gift might commemorate in the happier times to come the inflexible courage with which the warrior city steeled herself against the powerful and persistent onslaughts of her assailants, and that it might be a token of the admiration not only of the British peoples but of the whole civilized world.

The Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet sent a telegram to King George VI in reply on 23 February 1943:

I ask Your Majesty to accept my most sincere gratitude for your gift, which represents such a high appraisal of the Red Army’s achievements in the battle against our common enemy. The British people’s numerous manifestations of their friendship towards the Red Army serve as testimony to the firm alliance between our countries. I have informed the Stalingrad municipal authorities of your decision to award this city the Sword of Honour forged at your command which will doubtlessly be accepted with gratitude both by the defenders of Stalingrad and by the people of the entire USSR, as a symbol of the brotherhood in arms between the peoples of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Before the sword was sent off to Stalingrad, the British had an opportunity to admire this gift from the King, destined for that city which had proved victorious. The sword was placed on public display in Coventry. Money was also raised there for a charitable fund to assist Stalingrad. Gradually, bonds were forged between two cities that had suffered a similar fate, Stalingrad and Coventry.

I should also note that a similar offering to Russia had already been made by King Edward VII. A kingly sword was presented to Nicholas II in commemoration of the English king’s visit. That gift bears the English inscription “For His Imperial Majesty Emperor of All Russia Nicholas II from His Loving Uncle Edward Reval 1908”, and it is kept today in Tsarskoye Selo. Of course, these two gifts meant very different things.

In time, when the sword ordered by George VI had already been forged and had arrived in Stalingrad, it was put on display, among other such gifts, for all honoured visitors of Stalingrad. The famous American writer John Steinbeck held it in his hands. He wrote down his impressions of this royal gift in his A Russian Journal. In this book, the great writer recounts rather callously his 1947 journey through a USSR where the destruction of the war was still evident. When Steinback visited Stalingrad, where, at an unimaginable toll, the course of the war had reversed, he showed the smugness of a man who had never witnessed fighting firsthand. Steinbeck criticized the lofty personalities of those who made such useless gifts and suggested that half a dozen bulldozers should be presented instead so that Stalingrad could more easily be cleared of all its rubble. Apparently he only had a superficial understanding of events and writes of the defenders of the city, “They were little people who had been attacked and who had defended themselves successfully”.

That history was different, later generations of Stalingraders know from the documentation of the war, the sculptures and memorials, as well as the memoirs of those who are able to distinguish courage in others, because they themselves possess it.

In 1999 in the Imperial War Museum’s park in London, a Soviet memorial was erected for the over twenty-seven million Soviet people who perished in World War II. This monument was the work of the talented Volgograd sculptor Sergei Shcherbakov. Previously an identical sculpture, resembling a mournful female silhouette holding a bell over her bowed head, had already been installed near Volgograd in the village of Rossoshki, where fierce fighting took place in the autumn of 1942. In the centre of the memorial stands the statue of the “Mourning Woman”. On either side of it stretch long rows of military gravestones with soldiers’ names, dates of birth and the same last date for everyone: “42 … 42 … 42 … 42”.

How many of our boys were laid to rest here? A bell tolls for them and the lives they were robbed of. Those who have come after the war, after the destruction it wrought, have no doubt that only great people, with great spirit, are capable of such a great victory.

This is confirmed in the account of Ivan Maisky, who visited Stalingrad in the autumn of 1943:

The city lay in ruins … Only here, face to face with these consequences of the great battle, have we begun to better understand and grasp what happened here just a few months ago, what incredible will, strength, energy, decisiveness and dedication one must have needed to live through all this, withstand it and then smash the cruel enemy.

We left Stalingrad deeply shaken by the great historical drama that unfolded here, and also inspired by the new life springing up which we encountered at every step among those sacred ruins.

We can also look through the chronicles of World War II. Tehran, November 1943. The leaders of three Allies against Hitler’s regime have come together for a conference: the USSR, USA and Britain. The main item on the agenda is finally opening a second front in Europe, an opening which had already been postponed multiple times. It was precisely at this time, during this historic meeting in Iran, that Churchill handed the King’s sword of honour to Stalin.

Valentin M. Berezhkov, an interpreter with the Soviet delegation, passed over in his memoirs the fact that due to a hand injury which Stalin had received in his childhood, Stalin dropped the sword at this solemn instant. However, footage shot during the event captured this episode.

Compressed file


At the Moscow Kremlin on 2 February 1944, on the anniversary of the final routing of Nazi German forces at Stalingrad, the sword was handed over to a delegation from Stalingrad. D. M. Pigalev (representing Stalingrad) accepted the King’s gift from Marshal Semyon Budyonny with the words: “By accepting this sword, we declare that we will keep it as a symbol of the budding military cooperation between the peoples of the USSR and the United Kingdom.”

At the same time as this ceremony in Moscow for handing over the sword, the Soviet ambassador to the UK, Fyodor Tarasovich Gusev, held a reception in London for the English master craftsmen who had been part of the sword’s making. They were invited to the Soviet embassy in London and there, each of these eighteen men, received a personally-dedicated photo album with scenes of Stalingrad before, during and after the battle. The album for Professor R. M. Y. Gleadowe, who was responsible for the sword’s overall design, was handed over to his widow.

Some feel that the new Soviet ambassador, who had arrived to replace Ivan Maisky, was incapable of establishing such a trusting relationship with Churchill as his predecessor Maisky had done. When Maisky was recalled to Moscow from London, this caused some consternation among the British leadership, who had enjoyed a good rapport with Maisky and admired his wit, his intelligence and his diplomacy. When Churchill was informed that Gusev had been appointed the new ambassador, the Prime Minister was hurt. He met with this “newcomer” only on very rare occasions, when strictly necessary.

What caused this unexpected change of diplomatic staff on Moscow’s part?

Here is what Stalin himself had to say about it: “We were forced to recall Ambassador Maisky, who has been too quick to justify the actions of the British as they sabotaged the opening of a second front in Europe.” Later, when Churchill praised ex-Ambassador Maisky, Stalin replied that Maisky talked too much and did not know how to keep his mouth shut.

Stalin’s suspiciousness is well known. It is possible that under these circumstances, his rotation of ambassadors anticipated later observations in the field of diplomacy. The famous Russian diplomat Viktor Popov has noted that in diplomatic jargon today, one speaks of “localitis” in reference to a diplomat long resident abroad becoming too sympathetic to local interests and acquiring a sort of pride in the place of his or her assignment. There are objective grounds for this: it is assumed that after many years of living far away from one’s native country, a diplomat loses touch with his or her own people, comes to side with the country of assignment and ceases to identify its flaws.

Even if we accept that Ambassador Maisky came involuntarily to love the country he was living in, we certainly cannot deny the vital work he did as a diplomat. One needs to only look at his memoirs to get a sense of this man’s authority, superb mind and role in facilitating Soviet–British cooperation. Maisky’s firm position with regard to the UK Foreign Office has also been mentioned by the Russian diplomat Oleg Sakun, who points to a telegram, later published, from the US ambassador in London and dated 13 June 1941, that is, shortly before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. In this telegram it is mentioned that the Soviet ambassador had been confidentially informed about the huge concentration of German forces on the Russian–German border.

Churchill, too, valued his relationship with Ambassador Maisky: they often met, discussed the course of the war and planned the opening of the second front.

Over Churchill’s long and active life, a great many politicians strove to win Churchill’s respect. Biographies mention Churchill’s admiration of the young John F. Kennedy, and in connection with this they describe an episode from their first meeting on board Onassis’s yacht. Kennedy tried in every possible way to get the esteemed politician’s attention, but it had no effect on Churchill. The American then expressed his disappointment to his wife. Jacqueline Kennedy looked at his creased suit and quipped, “I think he thought you were a waiter, Jack.”

Here are Maisky’s curious parting words as ambassador:

To be fruitful, ties have to be living and active. Fruitful ties are frequent meetings for work and outside of work, showing friendship, inviting the other party to the theatre or to lunch. Wishing them a happy birthday or sending them some interesting book. Maintaining such ties requires time and effort. They cannot be neglected for long. They must constantly be fledged.

I look at the King’s sword through the glass and through the decades, and I try to understand the true meaning of this gift. This sword presented to us was a recognition of our victory, as well as a recognition of our growing authority abroad. And of course, this gift was a sign of natural admiration for the victor!

Today this sword of honour (just as old as the Victory at Stalingrad) has one more meaning: to strengthen the bonds of friendship between Russia and the UK. In 1990 Volgograd was visited by Princess Anne (the Queen Mother’s granddaughter). She also visited the museum and held her grandfather’s ceremonial sword in her hands.

In 1967 this gift from George VI was displayed at a joint English–Soviet exposition in London. In 1979 Londoners had the opportunity to see it again at the USSR Industrial Exhibition. In 1982, in a number of UK cities – London, Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Coventry – the work of the English master goldsmith and silversmith Leslie Durbin was exhibited; Durbin was responsible for the decorations on the famous sword. Among his creations that were displayed, this honoured gift to the people of Stalingrad received the attention it deserved. One imagines that this was certainly not the last visit that the King’s sword made back to its birthplace.

A chapter from An English Queen and Stalingrad: The Story of Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon (1900–2002) by Natalia Kulishenko, published by Glagoslav Publications B.V. in 2020