I am delighted to mark The Sunday Telegraph’s half-century as a newspaper by choosing my 50 great heroes.
The year 2011 is a significant milestone for the newspaper and it also represents a quarter of a century landmark in my interest in courage: it was in 1986 that I purchased my first Victoria Cross (VC).
My general interest in bravery, however, goes back to the days before this newspaper even existed. As a small boy, growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War, I became fascinated by stories of great valour. My father, Eric Ashcroft, had inspired me with his first hand account of the D-Day landings in June 1944, when he and other officers had been told to expect 75 per cent casualties – dead and wounded – as they arrived on Sword Beach. My father’s CO, a colonel, was shot dead at his side shortly after they landed. My father was wounded by shrapnel, but he fought on until he was eventually ordered from the battlefield.
As a small boy, I sat wide-eyed as my father painted a picture of his landing craft crashing through the waves towards Sword Beach, and as he conjured up the sense of fear as he and his men approached the hail of machine-gun fire that would greet them as they raced towards French soil. I felt a surge of pride that my father – Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft – had played such a courageous part in the war effort. Over the years, my interest in bravery grew and gradually it transformed itself into a passion for gallantry medals. Such medals are the tangible record of an individual’s service and courage. When I was in my early twenties, I hoped one day to own a Victoria Cross (VC), the ultimate decoration in Britain and the Commonwealth for bravery in the face of the enemy. Yet I was a man of few means and the cost of such decorations was then prohibitive.
By 1986, when I was 40 years old, my personal circumstances had changed. I had made some money as an entrepreneur and I was in a position to purchase a VC at auction in July 1986. Today the collection – built up sensitively and responsibly – stands at 168 VCs. As it became established as the largest in the world, I wanted the collection to be enjoyed by a far wider audience but the difficulty was how to achieve it.
In the summer of 2008, after considerable behind-the-scenes discussions, I announced that I had donated £5 million to build a new gallery so that my VC collection – estimated by experts to be worth more than £30 million – could go on display at the Imperial War Museum. It was also decided that the gallery would display the 48 VCs and 31 George Crosses (GCs) already in the care of the museum – as well as, eventually, my first GC purchased in the summer of 2010. Whereas the VC, created by Queen Victoria in 1856, is for courage in the face of the enemy, the GC, created by George VI in 1940, is for civilian courage or military gallantry not in the front line.
On Remembrance Sunday last year, HRH The Princess Anne opened the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in front of 350 distinguished guests. The Extraordinary Heroes exhibition at the gallery – for which entry is free – has already been seen and appreciated by thousands of people. Furthermore, in my unofficial role as a champion of courage, I have now written three books on bravery: Victoria Cross Heroes, Special Forces Heroes and George Cross Heroes. All 50 of the heroes in this supplement are individuals whose decorations are part of my medal collection and/or they are individuals who have featured in my three books. Most of the medals highlighted in this supplement can be seen at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery.
The servicemen among the 50 individuals featured span all three Armed Forces – Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – and more than 150 years, from heroic events in the Crimean War to brave deeds in Afghanistan as recently as 2009. Some of the individuals performed spur-of-the-moment bravery – perhaps going to the aid of a wounded friend or launching an assault on the enemy in the heat of battle. Others performed deeds of “cold courage” – calculated actions of bravery such as the work of bomb disposal experts or Special Forces operatives.
Courage is a truly wonderful quality yet it is so difficult to understand. Those who display it are, quite rightly, looked up to by others and are admired by society.
Wiser men than me have struggled to comprehend gallantry and what makes some individuals risk the greatest gift of all – life itself – for a comrade, for Queen and country, or sometimes even for a complete stranger.
Brigadier Sir John “Jackie” Smyth, Bt, VC, MC, was the founder, first chairman and – after Sir Winston Churchill – the president of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association. With typical wisdom, he once wrote: “Who can say whether it takes more courage to attack an angry bull elephant with a spear, than to disarm a very sensitive mine, or to have your toenails pulled out and still disclose nothing, or to dive into a burning aircraft to try to pull out members of the crew when the rescuer was well aware that the plane was carrying bombs which might explode at any moment.”
My list of 50 heroes is not – and could never be – in any way a definitive list of the bravest individuals. Instead, it is a list that is meant to intrigue and inspire. It is intended to provide only a snapshot into my medal collection and an insight into my books on gallantry.
It has been desperately hard to leave out hundreds of other brave men and women. To those who hoped they would be included, but have been disappointed, I apologise. I have deliberately chosen a wide range of acts of bravery performed by a wide range of people from a wide range of ranks (including civilians) and a wide range of nationalities.
Those who want to learn more about the individuals in the list can do so by visiting the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum and by reading my three books on bravery.