Last night I was able to combine three of my greatest passions: bravery, philanthropy and the iconic film Zulu. Half a century after watching Zulu for the first time, I saw it as part of a red-carpet, royal gala night at the Odeon in Leicester Square.
Fifty years ago, as a teenager, I watched the film with an old girlfriend in a packed cinema in Maidenhead, Berkshire, where I lived with my family. Yesterday evening, I saw it during a glittering fund-raising night that was attended by HRH Prince Harry and many other distinguished guests.
Before the screening and behind the scenes, Prince Harry took a keen interest in the two VCs from my medal collection that were awarded for gallantry at Rorke’s Drift, the battle that inspired Zulu and that is arguably the greatest defence in British military history.
I brought the medals with me to the gala evening to show the Prince, a Household Cavalry officer who shares my fondness for Zulu and watches it at least once every Christmas. From our conversation, it was clear that Prince Harry knows a thing or two about gallantry and campaign medals.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a great supporter of Prince Harry. The Prince is a likeable and courageous young man who served his Queen and country in Afghanistan when he could easily have produced any number of excuses not to do so.
Nearly a decade ago, I visited South Africa specifically to see the sites of the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. I chartered a helicopter and David Rattray, the renowned historian, acted as my guide. David was a wonderful storyteller and a delightful man, and I was heartbroken when, seven years ago, he was shot dead by armed robbers, aged just 48.
So I took great pleasure in being reacquainted with David’s widow, Nicky, at the event last night having not seen her for so long. She was accompanied by her and David’s eldest son, Andrew, who has taken on some of his father’s work and who now sounds just like him.
Zulu was digitally re-mastered and adapted to the wide-screen for last night’s screening but it was still, unmistakably, the same film that I have enjoyed dozens of times over the decades and that never ceases to thrill, amaze and inspire.
The film, starring (Sir) Stanley Baker and (Sir) Michael Caine, tells of the desperate defence of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift by 139 men against more than 4,000 Zulus led to the award of eleven Victoria Crosses (VCs).
That defiant stand and the raw courage of those defending the outpost in South Africa on January 22 1879 was captured brilliantly on screen when Zulu was first shown publicly in January 1964.
At that time, I was already fascinated by the concept of bravery and captivated by a sense of admiration for anyone who had been awarded the VC. Despite having read up on the Anglo-Zulu War prior to seeing the film, I was struck by a feeling of awe at how such a heroic group of men, outnumbered by around 30 to 1, could fight so bravely to repulse their ferocious attackers.
The 11 VCs for the one action were announced in the London Gazette on May 2 1879 and those to receive Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy included Lieutenants John Chard and Gonville Bromhead, the two most senior officers at the battle. In the film, they are played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine respectively.
The film helped to transform my early interest in bravery into a passion for gallantry medals, in general, and the VC, in particular. However, it was not until I was 40, having made a little money as an entrepreneur, that I was in a position to purchase my first VC. Nearly three decades later, I now own more than 180 VCs, by some way the largest collection of such decorations in the world.
Two of the VCs have a special place in my heart – the Rorke’s Drift decorations awarded to Lieutenant (later Colonel) Chard, who rallied his men in the face of overwhelming odds, and Private Robert Jones, who battled to prevent scores of Zulus from attacking wounded and sick patients. It was these Chard and Jones VCs that I showed to Prince Harry last night.
The event raised money for three leading charities: Walking With The Wounded, The David Rattray Memorial Trust and Sentebale, Prince Harry’s African charity that helps vulnerable children in Lesotho.
I am happy to reveal that Walking With The Wounded will be one of the charities that will benefit from the author’s royalties of my new book, Special Ops Heroes, which will be published later this year.
I helped to sponsor and support last night event that had a number of surprise elements including a video message from Michael Caine, whose other commitments meant he was unable to be present last night. Zulu gave him his big break as an actor and, for this reason, he described it in his video message as probably the most important film of his career.
I had been looking forward to last night for several months and it certainly did not disappoint. Indeed it was a special evening in honour of an exceptional film and the fond memories will live with me for a long time to come.
* Lord Ashcroft’s VC and GC collection is on public display at Imperial War Museums, London. For more information, visit: www.iwm.org.uk/heroes. However the IWM is closed for redevelopment work until July 19. For details about Lord Ashcroft’s VC collection, visit www.lordashcroftmedals.com. A full write-up on the Chard and Jones VCs appears in his book Victoria Cross Heroes: see www.victoriacrossheroes.com for more details.