Published in The Sunday Telegraph on 16 January 2011.
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.
THE LIST OF 50 GREAT HEROES
1) Howard Elphinstone, Victoria Cross
Lieutenant Howard Elphinstone, whose courage on the battlefield was matched by his charm as a courtier, was awarded the VC for bravery in the Crimean War. Even en route to the war zone, he was involved in the courageous rescue of four drunken sailors from the sea.
Elphinstone had landed at Balaclava, aged 24, in September 1854 and was twice mentioned in dispatches for his courage later that year. It was, however, for gallantry during the assault on Sebastopol that Elphinstone received his VC.
During daylight on June 18, 1855, Anglo-French forces had conducted a sustained assault on the Redan fort but they had been repelled by the Russians. That night, under cover of darkness, Elphinstone commanded a group of volunteers who searched for scaling ladders and other vital equipment left behind after the abortive attack. It was a hugely dangerous assignment into no-man’s-land. However, the group brought back much of the equipment and some 20 wounded and vulnerable soldiers.
Later, in the final assault on Sebastopol, Elphinstone was “killed”: his seemingly lifeless body was taken from the battlefield and placed with a mound of corpses awaiting burial. Yet his servant, who had been searching for him, recognised his boots and dragged him from the pile. It was then discovered that he was unconscious rather than dead after being struck in the head by a shell splinter. He received urgent medical treatment and made a good recovery, although he never recovered the sight in his right eye.
Elphinstone, who later rose to the rank of major general and was knighted, became a royal courtier who was so admired by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort that he mentored their third son, Prince Arthur.
2) Everard Phillipps, Victoria Cross
Ensign Everard Phillipps was awarded the VC for bravery during the Indian Mutiny – an award that was controversial for two reasons.
First, it was one of six awarded posthumously by Edward VII and, second, its authenticity was later questioned by none other than Hancocks, the official makers of the decoration.
This query makes the decoration the only “unofficial” VC that I have collected.
Phillipps, a keen sportsman and devout Roman Catholic, was commissioned ensign in the Bengal Army in 1854, arriving in India later the same year.
He narrowly escaped death during the mutiny at Meerut in 1857 before becoming involved in attempts to retake Delhi from the rebels. From May to September 1857, Phillipps was at the forefront of ferocious battles, being wounded in action on three occasions.
On September 18, Phillipps was shot and killed during street fighting. At the time, it was impossible to be awarded a VC posthumously but Phillipps’s “many gallant deeds” were noted in the London Gazette, where it was recognised that he would have been recommended for the VC had he survived. Eventually, his VC was announced in 1907 – fully 50 years after his act of bravery – by which time new guidelines made it possible to be awarded a posthumous VC.
Until relatively recently, it was believed that the VC awarded to Phillipps, who served with the Corps of Royal Engineers, and to five other pre-Boer War heroes, had been given to their families at about the same time. However, subsequent research was prompted by the proposed sale of my Phillipps VC at auction, when it became apparent that the box for his decoration was different from the other 1907 decorations.
It emerged that the Phillipps family had a personal connection with Queen Victoria and that my Phillips’s VC was probably presented in the 1870s, perhaps because the Queen felt guilty that his bravery had never been recognised. The official VC issued in 1907 is still in the hands of Phillipps’s descendants.
3) William McDonell, Victoria Cross
William McDonell is one of very few civilians to have been awarded the VC. As a member of the Bengal Civil Service, he was involved in trying to quell the Indian Mutiny as the rebellion spread in 1857. In July of that year, the British were determined that the city of Arrah should not fall because the entire Bihar region might then be seized. McDonell was sent to guide a steamer carrying a military force to the city.
On July 29, a force of more than 400 men marched on Arrah House, but they were ambushed by rebel forces. McDonell was fearless in battle, during which he was wounded. Outnumbered, the British force had to retreat to the River Sone, where McDonell helped the soldiers into small boats so that they could reach the safety of their steamer. It was only when McDonell and his comrades got into the final boat – under heavy fire – that they discovered the rebels had removed the oars and tied the rudder to the side.
With the 35 men in the boat unwilling to get out to cut the rudder free, the injured McDonell braved the fire himself. Miraculously, he was uninjured by a hail of bullets. A Royal Warrant of 1858 extended the eligibility of the VC to civilians who were under the orders of an officer – and McDonell was eventually awarded the decoration in February 1860.
His original VC was stolen during his time in India, when he served as a judge. However, McDonell was later issued with an official replacement and it is this that is now in my medal collection.
4) Charles Gough, Victoria Cross
Charles Gough and his brother, Hugh, are one of only four pairs of siblings to have been awarded the VC. Furthermore, he and his son, John, are one of only three fathers and sons to have been awarded the decoration. As a family, they are unique because no other family has been awarded three VCs.
Charles Gough was born in India but was brought up in Co Tipperary. However, aged 16, he returned to India. Major Gough, a cavalry officer, was awarded his VC for four separate incidents from August 1857 to February 1858 while serving in the Indian Army. It was on August 15, 1857, that he saved the life of his brother after the latter had been injured. He also killed two of the enemy in battle. Three days later, he led a cavalry charge in which he cut down two of the enemy’s sowars (Indian cavalrymen), one of them after prolonged hand-to-hand combat.
In a further act of bravery on January 27, 1858, he lost his sword in fierce combat during which he attacked one of the enemy’s leaders and pierced him with his weapon. Afterwards, Gough was forced to defend himself with his revolver, shooting two of the enemy. Finally, during another battle on February 23, 1858, Gough went to the aid of a comrade and killed the man’s attacker before “immediately afterwards cutting down another of the enemy in the same gallant manner”.
His VC was announced in October 1859. Gough later served in the Afghanistan Campaign of 1878-9 where he was twice mentioned in dispatches. In 1881, Gough was knighted for his services in Afghanistan and 10 years later he was promoted to general.
5) Evelyn Wood, Victoria Cross
Evelyn Wood earned himself an unwanted reputation as “the most accident and sickness prone officer in the British Army” – yet he was also one of the bravest.
Wood had served first in the Royal Navy as a teenager during the Crimean War, taking part in the ill-fated attack on the Redan fort in 1855. Wood had learnt an early lesson that there is little room for sentimentality in war. When looking at the Russian positions through a telescope that he was resting on the head of a sailor, an enemy shell took the man’s head clean off. Wood was stunned, but another sailor shouted: “What the hell are you looking at? Is he dead? Take the carcase away. Ain’t he dead? Take him to the doctor.” Wood was hit and doctors wanted to amputate an arm, but he persuaded them to save it.
During a distinguished military career, Wood suffered many medical ailments. he also had many mishaps: he was badly battered riding a giraffe for a bet, and broke his nose and elbow when his horse ran into a tree.
Wood was serving as a lieutenant during the Indian Mutiny when he was awarded the VC for two acts of bravery. When in charge of a troop of light cavalry, he almost single-handedly attacked a group of rebels and routed them at Sinwaho on October 19, 1858. Subsequently, at Sindhora on December 29, 1858, he heard that 80 rebels had captured an alleged informant whom they planned to hang. Wood and two others launched a ferocious attack on the rebels as they slept, killing some and wounding others. The informant survived unharmed.
Wood’s VC meant that he had received six gallantry and service medals by the age of 22 – yet he lived until he was 82. He also served in the Ashantee War (1873-4) and the First Boer War (1880-1). In the former, the head of a nail fired from a musket entered his chest fractionally above his heart. The surgeon treating him thought he would die, yet he was back serving with his regiment within three weeks.
6) John Chard, Victoria Cross
As a boy, I was fascinated by the film Zulu, starring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. I had nothing but admiration for the real-life group of British soldiers who had held out against a huge Zulu force at Rorke’s Drift under the command of Lieutenant John Chard.
After the Zulu victory at Isandhlwana, they moved on to attack Rorke’s Drift, leading to an order that the garrison had to be held at all costs. As the Zulu force arrived on January 22, 1879, Chard had command of 162 men, of whom at least 33 were admitted to hospital (some estimates put this figure at nearer 80).
As the Zulus advanced, Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead asked the lookout, Private Frederick Hitch, how many enemy there were. “4,000 to 6,000,” came the reply.
Bromhead said: “Is that all? We can manage that lot very well.”
A ferocious eight-hour battle ensued during which, time and again, it looked as though the garrison would be overrun. The Zulus got inside the entrenchments six times, but were driven back at bayonet point each time.
Dawn on January 23 revealed the full extent of the carnage. Lying on the ground were 350 dead Zulus, with a further 500 wounded. The British garrison had lost just 17 men, with a further 10 wounded (two of whom later died). Rorke’s Drift led to the award of an astonishing 11 VCs – the largest for a single military action. Chard’s VC was for great gallantry “in most trying circumstances”.
Chard, who had not enjoyed a great reputation as an officer until Rorke’s Drift, had proved himself in a crisis and later rose to the rank of colonel. I have also purchased another Rorke’s Drift VC: the decoration awarded to Private Robert Jones, who received a bullet wound and four spear wounds. I treasure both as I consider Rorke’s Drift to be arguably the most heroic stand in British military history.
7) Alexander Hore-Ruthven, Victoria Cross
Eton-educated Captain Alexander Hore-Ruthven received the VC for an act of great bravery while attached to the Egyptian Army in the Second Sudan Campaign. His decoration was for an incident on September 22, 1898, during the attack on Gedaref.
In the heat of battle, Hore-Ruthven saw that an Egyptian officer had been wounded and that the advancing Dervish enemy were only 50 yards from where he lay. Although the enemy was firing and advancing, Hore-Ruthven raced to pick up the wounded officer and began carrying him towards the 16th Egyptian Battalion.
However, because he was progressing more slowly than his pursuers, Hore-Ruthven two or three times had to stop, put down the wounded man and fire on the Dervishes to check their advance. Nobody who witnessed the incident was in any doubt that the Egyptian officer would have been killed had it not been for Hore-Ruthven’s courage.
During the First World War, Hore-Ruthven continued to cover himself in glory. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1916 for courage at Gallipoli, where he was seriously wounded. Over the next two years, he was mentioned in dispatches five times and was made a Companion of the Bath, a Companion of St Michael and St George, and earned two Bars to his DSO (the equivalent of three DSOs).
The citation for his second Bar read: “His presence and personal bearing at critical times during the fighting was of decisive value, especially during a strong enemy counter-attack. On 20 Oct. at St Louis, he went forward among the attacking troops at a critical juncture, and inspired them to the final effort, whereby the high ground of great tactical value was captured.”
Hore-Ruthven was also one of the few men to be awarded the Croix de Guerre by both France and Belgium.
As he grew older, Hore-Ruthven, who eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general as well as becoming the Earl of Gowrie, became an astute statesman. From January 1936, he was the Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of Australia. His term of office had been due to end in 1939, but he was persuaded to stay on and supervise the war effort.
When he left his post in 1944, he received an astonishing show of affection from the Australian people. In the course of his distinguished career, Hore-Ruthven amassed some 20 medals and decorations.
8) Charles FitzClarence, Victoria Cross
Captain Charles FitzClarence, who was the grandson of the eldest of five illegitimate children born to William IV by his mistress “Mrs Jordan”, was awarded the VC for three acts of bravery during the Second Boer War.
The siege of Mafeking lasted from October 1899 to May 1900 when FitzClarence was on “special duty” in South Africa. On October 14, 1899, he was in charge of a squadron from the Protectorate Regiment, consisting of only partially-trained men who had never seen action. The men were sent to the assistance of an armoured train when they were surrounded by a far larger force. FitzClarence led his men so fearlessly that they not only relieved the train but inflicted a heavy defeat on the Boers, who lost 50 men.
Thirteen days later, FitzClarence led his men in a daring night-time attack on the enemy’s trenches. He was the first man into the trenches and in hand-to-hand fighting he killed four men with his sword, beheading one with a clean blow. He was wounded but was saved from serious injury by his compass case.
On Boxing Day 1899, he distinguished himself again during an action near Mafeking despite being seriously injured by a bullet which passed through both legs. By the time the siege was raised, FitzClarence was known as the “Demon of Mafekeng”, or the “Demon”.
During the First World War, he served as a brigadier general and again distinguished himself in battle. However, on November 12, 1914, during an operation to recover trenches, FitzClarence halted his men and advanced alone. His men heard gunshots and then found him mortally wounded.
Three men carried him back to a safe area, but the “Demon” had experienced his final brush with the enemy.
9) Frank Godley, Victoria Cross
Frank Godley, a keen sportsman, was the first private to be awarded the VC for bravery during the First World War. He had embarked for France and Belgium in August 1914. His battalion, from the Royal Fusiliers, was the first to go to war and arrived at Mons on August 22.
The next day, during heavy fighting, the Germans seized the initiative. Godley had been helping Lieutenant Maurice Dease to man a machine-gun that was defending Nimy Bridge. Dease courageously carried on firing despite a gunshot wound. However, he was eventually hit five times – wounds that cost him his life. Godley was asked to stay on while his comrades retreated – a request that meant he was almost certain to be killed or captured. For two hours, he sprayed the enemy with machine-gun fire while his comrades made their getaway. When he ran out of ammunition, he destroyed the gun and, now wounded, crawled to a nearby road and was taken to a Belgium hospital, where he received medical treatment.
The Germans later took over the hospital and Godley became a prisoner of war. Godley refused to answer questions but he was well treated by his captors, who sent him for skin grafts for his wounds: his back alone required 150 stitches. When he was well enough, Godley went to Doberitz POW camp. While there, a senior German officer told him he had been awarded the VC.
Godley was a POW for almost the entire war. However, at the end of the war, the camp guards deserted, and Godley and others made their way back to Britain. He then learnt that Dease, who had fought so bravely at his side, had been awarded a posthumous VC.
10) Spencer Bent, Victoria Cross
Spencer Bent, who had originally joined the Army at just 14 as a drummer in the East Lancashire Regiment, arrived in France on August 22, 1914, on the first day of the fighting between Britain and Germany. By then aged 23, he was awarded his VC for bravery at Ypres on November 1-2, 1914.
His platoon was holding one of the trenches after a ferocious day of fighting. Bent awoke to find his comrades abandoning their position at a time when there was neither officer nor Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) to give orders (the platoon sergeant was visiting another post). After word had been passed down the line that the battalion had been ordered to retire, Bent started following the others but he then decided he could not leave without his treasured French trumpet and so went to retrieve it.
When he reached the trench, he spotted a soldier crawling around and raised his rifle and demanded that the man identify himself. It was the platoon sergeant, who told Bent that no order had been given to withdraw. He ran after his comrades to call them back.
The next day, the Germans put the British force under a continuous artillery fire. The officer, the platoon sergeant and a number of other men were killed or injured. Bent took command and helped repel several German attacks. This was one of many courageous acts carried out by him, including going into no-man’s land to rescue injured comrades. However, he was eventually badly injured in heavy fighting and it was while he was recuperating in England that he learnt he had received the VC.
Bent returned to France in 1916 and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in 1918.
11) Alfred Richards, Victoria Cross
Sergeant Alfred Richards was one of the famous “Six Before Breakfast” VCs that were awarded to the Lancashire Fusiliers for bravery in landing at W Beach, Gallipoli, during the First World War. The small, sandy cove was so well protected that the defending Turks appeared to have made it impregnable. Nevertheless, it was decided to launch an offensive at 6am on April 25, 1915.
The Turks knew exactly when the attack would happen – a sustained bombardment from heavy guns ended shortly before the assault started. As the soldiers surged onto the beach, scores were mown down in the machine-gun fire and wherever they turned they came under a relentless attack. The Turks had put trip wires just below the surface of the water and the beach was also mined.
Announcing three of the VCs in August 1915, the London Gazette said that the Fusiliers were “met by a very deadly fire from hidden machine-guns which caused a great number of casualties. The survivors, however, rushed up to and cut the wire entanglements, notwithstanding the terrific fire from the enemy, and after overcoming supreme difficulties, the cliffs were gained and the position maintained”.
Richards, 32, was one of those who risked his life to help his comrades. However, he received a serious injury and his right leg was amputated by surgeons just above the knee. He was discharged on July 31, 1915, when his papers read: “no longer fit for war service (but fit for civil employment)”.
Richards was known as the “Lonely VC” as he had no family and was living alone at a home for former soldiers and sailors when his VC was announced in August 1915. However, he married Dora Coombes, who had nursed him during his injuries, in 1916 and served in the Home Guard during the Second World War.
12) William Rhodes-Moorhouse, Victoria Cross
William Rhodes-Moorehouse, the first airman to be awarded the VC, had been fascinated with the then-new challenge of flying in the years before the First World War. During a tour of the United States, he became the first man to fly beneath the spans of California’s Golden Gate Bridge.
When war was declared, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the RAF. With a shortage of pilots on the Western Front, Rhodes-Moorehouse joined 2 Squadron based at Merville, France. On April 22, 1915, the Germans conducted the first gas attack on the Allied troops, and for the next four days they took the initiative around St Julien and Ypres.
On April 26, Second Lieutenant Rhodes-Moorehouse was given the task of bombing the railway junction at Courtrai to prevent reinforcements reaching the German front line. He had been given one of the three targets for four planes. His flight commander advised him to drop just below cloud cover but Rhodes-Moorehouse dropped to just 300ft to ensure a direct hit. He was greeted by a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire and was badly wounded.
Rhodes-Moorehouse had a choice: to land behind enemy lines, receive medical treatment and become a prisoner of war or to try to limp back to base in his plane. It surprised nobody who knew him that he chose the second option. However, he was forced to drop to 200ft to gain extra speed and he was wounded twice more by enemy fire from the ground.
By the time he arrived back at Merville, Rhodes-Moorehouse was mortally wounded and in great pain. He made a perfect landing, but he had to be carried from his plane and soon it was clear that he was dying from a bullet wound that had ripped his stomach to pieces. Rhodes-Moorehouse died the next day and shortly afterwards the Daily Bulletin issued to the troops reported his mission had been a total success and “would appear worthy to be ranked among the most heroic stories of the world’s history”.
His posthumous VC was announced the next month. It later emerged that he had written a “first and last” letter to his newborn son before the mission suspecting he would die on it. The poignant postscript to the note read: “I am off on a trip from which I don’t expect to return but which I hope will shorten the war a bit.”
13) Albert Jacka, Victoria Cross
Lance Corporal Bert Jacka received the first VC awarded to a serviceman from the Commonwealth during the First World War. An Australian born on a dairy farm in Victoria, Jacka and a small group of men were ambushed by the Turks nearly a month after the Gallipoli landings of April 1915.
It was at 3.30am on May 20, 1915 that a party of Turks crept up to Jacka’s trench and threw eight bombs into it. Three men were killed and all the other men, except Jacka, were injured. He kept up a relentless fire against the enemy to halt their advance and then asked a volunteer to keep up a steady fire as he went along several trenches, crossed no-man’s land and ambushed the Turks from the rear. He shot five Turks and bayoneted two more. “Well, I managed to get the beggars,” he declared the next morning.
Another of the volunteers had killed two more Turks as they had tried to escape. A dangerous and daring action against the enemy had been a total success and Jacka’s VC was announced two months later.
He was rapidly promoted and was awarded the Military Cross for actions at Pozieres on August 5, 1916. Jacka was twice injured during a daring attack on the Germans that saw fierce hand-to-hand fighting and an unlikely victory by a far smaller Australian force of just eight men against scores of the enemy. “If we stay here they are bound to capture us and I would sooner be dead than a prisoner,” Jacka had told his comrades before they killed many Germans and took a further 50 prisoner.
He later spoke of his anger that he had not been awarded a Bar to his VC for his bravery at Pozieres. He regarded this gallantry as six times more demanding than his bravery at Gallipoli. However, Jacka was awarded a Bar to his MC for several one-man patrols in which he personally guided British tanks into position.
He was finally removed from the war by a mustard gas attack on May 15, 1918, which led to him twice undergoing surgery to save his life. Jacka had received £500 put up by a Melbourne businessman for the first Australian to be awarded the VC. After the war, he was elected Mayor of St Kilda in his home country.
14) Sidney Woodroffe, Victoria Cross
Sidney Woodroffe, who was educated at Marlborough College and Cambridge University, joined the Rifle Brigade two days before Christmas 1914 and travelled to France in May of the following year. He received a posthumous VC for conspicuous bravery at Hooge, Flanders, on July 30, 1915.
Second Lieutenant Woodroffe’s father, who eventually lost three of his four sons in the Great War, received a letter from Lieutenant R C Maclachlan which spelt out exactly how courageous his 19-year-old son had been. The officer wrote: “Your younger boy was simply one of the bravest of the brave and the work he did that day will stand out as a record hard to beat… When the line was attacked and broken to his right he still held his trench, and only when the Germans were discovered to be in the rear of him did he leave it. He then withdrew his remaining men very skilfully away to a flank, and worked his way alone back to me to report.
“He finally brought his command back, and then took part in the counter-attack. He was killed out in front, in the open, cutting wire to enable the attack to be continued. This is the bald statement of his part of that day’s action. He risked his life for others right through the day and finally gave it for the sake of his men. He was a splendid type of young officer, always bold as a lion, confident and sure of himself, too. The loss he is to me personally is very great, as I have learnt to appreciate what a sterling fine lad he was. His men would have followed him anywhere.”
Woodroffe’s VC, for conspicuous bravery, was announced in September 1915 – just five weeks after he lost his life.
15) George Peachment, Victoria Cross
At 18, Private George Peachment was one of the youngest ever to be awarded the VC.
He enlisted in his home town of Bury, Lancashire, in 1915 and went to France later the same year serving with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. The Battle of Loos began in earnest at 6.30am on September 25, 1915.
When the British used poison gas, it drifted back on their own men forcing many “over the top” to escape the fumes. Two enemy machine-guns took a terrible toll on the advancing British soldiers.
The attack faltered and, after many had taken cover in shell holes, those who survived began to struggle back to their own trenches. Peachment was one of those who did not return due to his courage in going to the aid of his commanding officer.
The London Gazette detailed his bravery when it announced his VC on November 18, 1915: “During very heavy fighting, when our front line was compelled to retire in order to reorganise, Private Peachment, seeing his Company Commander, Capt Dubs, lying wounded, crawled to assist him. The enemy’s fire was intense, but… Private Peachment never thought of saving himself.
“He knelt in the open by the officer and tried to help him, but while doing this he was first wounded by a bomb and a minute later mortally wounded by a rifle bullet. He was one of the youngest men in his battalion, and gave this splendid example of courage and self-sacrifice.”
Dubs survived and wrote a moving letter to Peachment’s mother: “Your son died the finest death that man can die, he showed the greatest gallantry a man can show; and I hope these facts may help you in your sad loss, together with the fact that he was spared all pain and suffering.”
16) Jack Cornwell, Victoria Cross
Jack Cornwell had always longed to be a sailor but when he left school his parents, desperate not to lose him at sea, persuaded him to take a job as a tea boy on the Brooke Bond van instead. However, when the Great War broke out, Cornwell, aged 14, was given the chance to join the Royal Navy.
On May 31, 1916, when he was still only 16 and serving on HMS Chester, the Navy came up against the German High Seas Fleet off Jutland. During fierce fighting, Cornwell was seriously injured. Rather than sheltering from the mayhem he remained at his gun, standing alone, awaiting orders in an exposed position until the action was over. By then, dead and wounded crew lay all around him, and Cornwell died two days later from his injuries in Grimsby.
His mother learnt of her son’s death in a letter from the ship’s captain who praised “so brave a lad” and added: “His devotion to duty was an example for us all…” The captain said Cornwell had refused to leave his post. “But he felt he might be needed, and, indeed, he might have been; so he stayed there, standing and waiting, under heavy fire, with just his own brave heart and God’s help to support him. I cannot express to you my admiration of the son you have lost.”
Cornwell was placed in a pauper’s grave but, when news of his bravery spread, the public demanded a more fitting send-off. His body was exhumed and he was buried with full military honours. The epitaph on his new grave read: “It is not wealth or ancestry but honourable conduct and a noble disposition that maketh men great.”
His subsequent VC was announced in September 1916. The Daily Telegraph of November 26, 1919, said Cornwell set an example “of how English boys should live and how English boys should die”.
17) Noel Chavasse, Victoria Cross and Bar
Noel Chavasse is one of just three men to be awarded the VC and Bar – the equivalent of a double VC. A qualified doctor, he served in France and Belgium with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War and was attached to the 10th King’s (Liverpool Scottish) Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in June 1915, when he spent 48 hours in no-man’s land searching for and tending wounded troops. Afterwards, he asked one of his sisters to buy 1,000 pairs of socks and other comforts out of his own money for the men in his battalion.
Captain Chavasse was awarded the VC for bravery at Guillemont on August 9-10, 1916, when he tended wounded men all day under a heavy fire and then searched for other injured soldiers at night in front of the enemy lines. During daylight hours the next day, he rescued still more men despite being wounded. During the two days, it was estimated he saved the lives of 20 men.
At the third Battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917, an attempt was made to recapture the Passchendaele Ridge from July 31. On the first evening, Chavasse received a skull wound. He had his injury bandaged but he refused to be evacuated. Time and again, under heavy enemy fire, he went into no-man’s land to search for and treat wounded soldiers.
In the early hours of August 2, weary, hungry and in great pain, Chavasse was finally taking a rest at a first aid post, when it was struck by a shell. He now had at least six injuries but crawled half a mile to get help for the wounded. By now his face was unrecognisable and he had a major wound to his abdomen. As he lay dying, he dictated a letter to his fiancée in which he explained that “duty called and duty must be obeyed”. He died at 2pm on August 4, 1917, aged 32. The Bar to Chavasse’s VC was announced in September 1917 when the citation praised “his extraordinary energy and inspiring example”. He was the only man to be awarded the VC and Bar during the Great War and he has at least 12 memorials dedicated to him – more than any other VC holder in the world. I bought Chavasse’s decorations privately from St Peter’s College, Oxford, in 2009.
18) William Leefe Robinson, Victoria Cross
William “Billy” Leefe Robinson, who was born on his father’s coffee estate in India, joined the Royal Flying Corps from the Worcestershire Regiment in 1915. The First World War was the first conflict for centuries in which British civilians were in fear of their lives from a foreign invader because the Germans used Zeppelins in bombing raids up and down the east coast. In April 1916, Lieutenant Leefe Robinson had his first chance to shoot down one of the airships but he failed to do so.
However, on the night of September 2 the same year, he had a second opportunity to become a national hero. At 1.10am, having been in the sky two hours already, Leefe Robinson, who was with an observer, caught sight of a Zeppelin in two searchlight beams over Woolwich, south-east London. He set off in pursuit but lost it in the clouds. However, searchlights over Finsbury in north London again spotted the airship – one of 16 sent over that night in a massive raid.
Once again Leefe Robinson, by now desperately short of fuel, set off in pursuit in his BE2c 2963 plane. After the Zeppelin had dropped its bombs, Leefe Robinson emptied two drums of ammunition into the airship but it seemed impregnable. He broke off before making another attack from astern, emptying his last drum into the airship’s twin rudders. Suddenly a reddish glow appeared inside the airship then, moments later, it burst into flames. Thousands of Londoners looked up and cheered as the airship plunged from the sky. After Leefe Robinson landed at Sutton Farm airfield in Essex, he was lifted shoulder high to the edge of the airfield.
His VC was announced in near record time: just two days later. It soon brought him fame and riches – well over £4,000 was donated from well-wishers – and he was promoted to captain. After his plane was shot down over France early in 1917, he became a prisoner of war.
He was particularly badly treated because of his fame and, although he was released at the end of the war, he was in poor health. Leefe Robinson died in December 1918, aged 23.
19) Ernest Pitcher, Victoria Cross
Ernest Pitcher, who had joined the Royal Navy aged 14, volunteered for service on Britain’s Q-ship fleet during the First World War. Q-ships – gunships disguised as a merchant ship – were devised to target German U-boats.
After the U-boats had proved their effectiveness at sea, a pattern emerged whereby the submarine, to preserve its costly torpedoes and to allow it to plunder its victim’s cargoes, surfaced close to a supposedly unarmed merchant ship and demanded its surrender. As the U-boat surfaced to collect its booty from a “surrendering” merchant ship, the disguised gunship would blow it out of the water.
Petty Officer Pitcher was serving in SS Dunraven on August 8, 1917, when, at 11.43am, a U boat surfaced and opened fire from its deck gun. Dunraven’s commander, acting in the manner of a panicking merchant captain, sent out distress flares and also fired rounds from the ship’s paltry two-and-a-half pounder gun, as if this was the only weapon it possessed. The U-boat fired a torpedo at which point the commander generated a cloud of steam to simulate boiler trouble and dispatched a “panic party” to make it look as if the ship was being abandoned.
The submarine scored three quick hits on Dunraven’s poop. This caused a fire but Pitcher and his comrades in the gun crew refused to leave the “red-hot deck” because this would have given the game away. There was also an explosion on board before the U-boat could be fired upon but eventually the Q-ship showed her true colours and exchanged fire with the submarine until the U-boat ran out of ammunition and fled.
Pitcher, who was later promoted to chief petty officer, was awarded the VC in November 1917 on behalf of his whole gun crew. By this time the Q-service was being wound down as it was agreed that this form of warfare had reached a stalemate.
20) Wilfrith Elstob, Victoria Cross
Wilfrith Elstob had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross as the First World War entered its final months. However, it was for his bravery in commanding the 16th Battalion, the Manchester Regiment, that he was awarded the VC.
Since its earlier capture by the 2nd Manchesters, a strategic landmark in France was known as Manchester Hill. In March 1918, as the Germans prepared a massive onslaught, Temporary Lieutenant Elstob had left his men in no doubt of the importance of the hill, pointing to it on a blackboard and saying: “Here we fight and here we die.”
The German attack began at 6.30am on March 21, 1918 and afterwards, as the fog lifted, a huge enemy force was seen marching on the hill. Elstob sent a message to his brigade commander: “The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill until the last man.”
His inexperienced force was surrounded and outnumbered but Elstob fought ferociously, killing an entire enemy bombing party using only his revolver. When his ammunition ran out, he threw bombs and fired on the enemy with his rifle, continuing long after he was wounded. “You are doing magnificently boys! Carry on – keep up a steady fire and they’ll think there’s a battalion here,” he told his men.
In the afternoon, after receiving three further wounds, Elstob told his sergeant: “They can’t damn well kill me.” At 3pm, Elstob spoke to headquarters over the radio and said there were very few men left and the end was near. As the enemy prepared for its final assault from 25 yards, Elstob was called on to surrender. “Never!” came the reply.
Elstob, aged 29, was killed in the final hour of the fighting, and a handful of wounded and battered men eventually surrendered at 4pm. One survivor later recalled Elstob’s final words: “Tell the men not to lose heart. Fight on!”
21) Manley James, Victoria Cross
Manley James joined the Gloucestershire Regiment in 1914 when he was 18, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. He was invalided home after being severely injured in the thigh on the third day of the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. Yet by early 1917, James was back with his regiment and he was awarded the Military Cross for his “total disregard of danger and brilliant initiative” during an action.
Temporary Captain James was much admired by his men. On March 21, 1918, the first assault of the German Spring Offensive was launched and the Gloucesters were subjected to one of the most intensive bombardments of the war. “A” Company, which James commanded, suffered 75 per cent casualties. On March 23, the stragglers came out and two eyewitnesses said that James had been killed during the retreat from Cambrai.
His VC was announced in June 1918, when it was noted he was last seen firing a machine gun single-handed after being wounded for a third time. The citation said: “Capt. James, by his dauntless courage and magnificent example, undoubtedly enabled the battalion to be withdrawn before being completely cut off.”
Most people were convinced his award would end up as a posthumous one. In fact, James was taken as a POW; he made a full recovery from his wounds and was released after the Armistice.
James fought in the Second World War in which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His citation of 1942 said: “Personally as brave as a lion, he was at the same time careful and solicitous about how he committed his troops.”
James eventually reached the rank of brigadier and after the war commanded the British Air Forces of Occupation in Germany. He was made an MBE in 1958.
22) Edward Mannock, Victoria Cross
Edward “Mick” Mannock was 27 years old and working as a labourer in Turkey when the Great War broke out. When Turkey entered the war on Germany’s side, he and other British workers were arrested and imprisoned. After he was regularly beaten, he tried to escape but he was caught and put into solitary confinement, where his health deteriorated.
However, the American Consulate secured his release and, by July 1915, he was back in Britain. Mannock joined the Royal Army Medical Corps but quickly showed a talent for flying. He arrived in France on April 1, 1917, and four days later joined his first operational unit, 40 Squadron.
On May 7, he had his first success when he and five others shot down a kite balloon – a manned, gas-filled balloon used for reconnaissance – five miles behind enemy lines. On May 25 and June 1, he was convinced he had “kills” but he decided to bide his time until he could make an unquestionable claim: the following week he sent an Albatross D.III crashing to earth from 13,000ft.
In September 1917, his courage and skill were rewarded with a Military Cross (MC) and a Bar (second MC) followed within a further month. In May 1918, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and later he was also awarded two Bars to the DSO. In June 1918, he was promoted to major. Mannock was shot down and killed aged 31 – after he had made what he believed was his 73rd “kill” – on July 27, 1918. He died because he disregarded his own strict rule by making a couple of low passes over the wreckage along with another pilot in a second plane. Mannock’s plane was hit and caught fire; then the left wing fell away and he plunged into a spin.
Lieutenant Donald Inglis, who had been flying with his friend and saw him die, spoke after he was forced to make a crash landing in his own aircraft. After being pulled from his battered plane, a distraught Inglis cried: “They killed him, the b——s killed my major. They killed Mick.”
Mannock was buried in an unmarked grave by a German soldier and, a year later, was awarded a posthumous VC and credited with 50 official “kills”. The citation concentrated on his efforts in June and July 1918 and praised his “fearless courage, remarkable skill, devotion to duty, and self-sacrifice, which has never been surpassed”.
23) Daniel Beak, Victoria Cross
Daniel Beak, who served on the Western Front with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was awarded four bravery awards during the last two years of the Great War. His first award, the Military Cross, was announced in the London Gazette in January 1917 for leading his men into an attack with “great courage and initiative”.
In July the same year, it was announced he had been awarded a Bar to the MC “when he continually dashed forward, under heavy fire, to reorganise the men”.
In July 1918, Beak was award the Distinguished Service Order for preventing many comrades being cut off during a night-time attack by the enemy which left the right flank of his division in “a dangerous position”.
Temporary Commander Beak was awarded the VC in November 1918 for bravery in August and September of that year. Part of his citation read: “For most conspicuous bravery, courageous leadership and devotion to duty during a prolonged period of operations. He led his men in attack, and, despite heavy machine-gun fire, four enemy positions were captured. His skilful and fearless leadership resulted in the complete success of this operation and enabled other battalions to reach their objectives.
“Four days later, though dazed by a shell fragment, in the absence of the brigade commander, he reorganised the whole brigade under extremely heavy gunfire, and led his men with splendid courage to their objective…His fearless example instilled courage and confidence into his men, who then quickly resumed the advance under his leadership.”
Beak served in France early in the Second World War, during which he was promoted to major general.
24) Richard West, Victoria Cross
Richard West was another of the most decorated officers of the First World War. As the conflict drew to a close, he had displayed bravery that meant he was awarded three awards: the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, and the Military Cross. He had also been mentioned in dispatches three times. However, it was for incredible bravery in late August and early September 1918 that Acting Lieutenant Colonel West was awarded the VC.
Announcing West’s posthumous decoration in October 1918, the London Gazette detailed how West had courageously died: “It was intended that the battalion of Light Tanks, under the command of this officer, should exploit the initial Infantry and Heavy Tank attack.
“He therefore went forward in order to keep in touch with the progress of the battle and arrived at the front line when the enemy were in the process of delivering a local counter-attack. The Infantry Battalion had suffered heavy officer casualties, and its flanks were exposed.
“Realising that there was a danger of this battalion giving way, he rode out in front of them under extremely heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and rallied his men. In spite of the fact that the enemy were close upon him, he took charge of the situation and detailed non-commissioned officers to replace officer casualties.
“He then rode up and down in front of them in face of certain death, encouraging the men and calling to them: ‘Stick it, men; show them fight, and for God’s sake put up a good fight.’ He fell, riddled with machine-gun bullets. The magnificent bravery of this very gallant officer at the critical moment inspired the infantry to redoubled efforts, and the hostile attack was defeated.”
25) Eric Wilson, Victoria Cross
It says everything about the bravery of Eric Wilson that he was awarded a posthumous VC for bravery during the Second World War – yet he went on to live for another 68 years after his award was announced.
Acting Captain Wilson’s bravery had been officially recognised in October 1940, two months after he had displayed great bravery in Somaliland, an isolated corner of Africa. He had been in command of an exposed machine-gun post manned by Somali soldiers in the key position of Observation Hill.
The enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11 1940: it was the start of a five-day battle in which many of Wilson’s men were killed or wounded as they took on a far larger force. On August 11, Wilson had been badly wounded in the right shoulder and left eye. Yet he fought on until August 15, when, by now suffering from malaria, the post was overrun. His VC citation ended noting that: “The enemy finally overran the post at 5pm on August 15 when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed.”
In fact, he had been knocked unconscious in the final round of fighting and after waking up, surrounded by dead comrades, he was taken as a prisoner of war. Four months after Wilson’s “Last stand in the Desert”, a captured RAF officer was surprised to meet the “late” Captain Wilson in prison and informed him of his award.
A few weeks later preparations were almost complete for a mass escape by tunnel when the prisoners woke up to find all their captors but the commandant gone before the arrival of British troops.
I was fortunate enough to meet Wilson in his twilight years when he was the oldest living recipient of the VC. He was self-effacing, mild-mannered and charming.
In 2005, Wilson needed funds for family reasons and so I agreed to purchase his VC. However, it was agreed that the decoration and his other medals should remain in his possession until his death.
Wilson was a true gentleman and one of just two men in the 155-year history of the VC to “come back from the dead”. He died in December 2008, aged 96, meaning that his VC and other medals are now on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum.
26) Stuart Archer, George Cross
Stuart “Archie” Archer pursued a career as an architect until, in January 1940, he was commissioned as an officer into the Corps of Royal Engineers. He quickly became a veteran bomb disposal expert and, by the end of August 1940, he had already dealt with some 200 bombs. These incidents included difficult and dangerous work on August 27, 1940, when he had to deal with the first enemy bomb fitted with a new type of delayed-action fuse. This was deliberately designed to kill the bomb disposal expert – and others within range – after the bomb had initially failed to detonate.
On September 2, 1940, Acting Lieutenant Archer was presented with his most difficult challenge after four of the most sustained days of bombing of the entire Second World War. At 9am Archer had been told that a large number of unexploded bombs were hampering attempts by firefighters to control a major blaze at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s refinery near Swansea. Close to a fierce blaze, he was shown four unexploded bombs, one directly under an oil tank. Archer and his men worked in searing heat to tackle the devices. He showed amazing coolness and courage suspended upside down as he tackled his daunting task.
Three bombs exploded near the team but Archer and his men avoided injury. After more than four hours, Archer made the device safe. He emerged from his experience as the first person to pull out a fuse from an anti-withdrawal booby trap and live to tell the tale. His GC was announced in September 1940 when his citation said he had “enjoyed unbelievable immunity from death and showed sustained nerve and courage of the highest order”. Archer, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, will be 96 next month and is the oldest living recipient of the GC.
27) Brandon Moss, George Cross
Brandon Moss, one of seven children, was serving as a special constable in the Coventry Constabulary when his home city came under a sustained attack from the Luftwaffe in the autumn of 1940. A total of 437 aircraft drooped 394 tons of high explosives and 127 parachute mines on the night of November 14-15. Under a full moon, the city’s 250,000 population endured 11 hours of relentless attack, which cost 380 lives.
Much of the city centre, including Coventry’s historic cathedral, was destroyed by the infamous bombings. No individual did more that night for Coventry than Moss. He initially stood defiantly as the bombs dropped and surveyed the devastation all around him. Amid the chaos and carnage, a bomb had dropped directly on one house, demolishing it and burying three occupants beneath the rubble. With collapsing debris and leaking gas, the situation looked as hopeless as it was dangerous. However, Moss, working on his own, cleared a tiny space through the ruins and crawled through to find the three occupants alive. One by one, he led the residents to safety.
As soon as he finished, he learnt that more people had been buried in a neighbouring property. Moss dodged falling beams and debris to pull another person out alive, while four other dead bodies were recovered from the house. Moss had worked for more than seven hours – from 11pm to 6.30am the next day – without a break to save the four lives. Moss was awarded the GC in December 1940 when the citation praised his “superhuman efforts and utter disregard for personal injury”.
After building up the world’s largest collection of VCs, I purchased my first GC – along with Moss’s service medals – in the summer of 2010.
28) Charles Upham, Victoria Cross and Bar
Charles Upham is one of just three men ever to receive the VC and Bar – the equivalent of a double VC. He is also the only combative soldier to receive the double decoration – the other two men were medical officers who heroically tended to the wounded.
The former New Zealand sheep farmer was as tactically astute as he was brave and is widely considered to be the most outstanding soldier of the Second World War. After the German invasion of Greece in April 1941, Second Lieutenant Upham, who was a platoon commander, joined the force to repel the invaders and was awarded the VC for nine days of skill, leadership and heroism in 1941.
From May 22-30, on the island of Crete, he destroyed enemy posts and penetrated deep behind enemy lines. He personally killed 22 German soldiers while leading his isolated platoon out of danger. Yet during this time he was suffering from dysentery and two serious wounds. Upham was awarded the Bar to his VC for bravery on July 14-15 1942.
His New Zealand force was stranded after being promised armoured support in Egypt that never arrived. So Upham led his company in a “savage attack” on German and Italian strong-points, destroying a tank, several guns and vehicles with his favourite weapon – the hand grenade. He fought on long after his arm was shattered by a machine-gun bullet, but eventually, virtually unable to move from exhaustion and his wounds, he was taken as a prisoner of war.
As a POW, he was nicknamed “Pug” – for pugnacious. He was branded as “dangerous” by his captors and, after trying to escape, was imprisoned in Colditz. Upham was freed by advancing US troops in April 1945.
29) Geoffrey Keyes, Victoria Cross
Admiral’s son Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes was awarded the VC for one of the most daring missions of the Second World War. Before the war, Keyes had joined the Army’s Royal Scots Greys before volunteering for the newly formed Commando organisation in the summer of 1940.
He embarked for the Middle East in January 1941 and by the autumn he had won over General Headquarters Cairo to sanction an attempt to destroy the German HQ 250 miles behind enemy lines at Beda Littoria, Libya. Furthermore, the intention was to capture General Erwin Rommel, the commander of the Afrika Korps. Keyes was one of some 59 men who were transported to enemy-occupied territory in two submarines and, then, small boats. However, in rough seas and torrential rain, only 36 made it ashore.
By the fourth night, Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Keyes and his men were a few hundred yards from their “objectives”. After dispatching a covering party to block off the approach to the house, Keyes and two other men crawled to the main house where they attacked the occupants with gunfire and grenades on the night of November 17-18, 1941. Keyes, 24, emptied his revolver in the first room “with great success”, but he was shot as he entered the second room and died. Only two men made it back to British lines after 37 days in the desert.
It later emerged that Rommel had never used the targeted building. Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, comforted Admiral Sir Roger Keyes over the loss of his son during Operation Flipper, telling him: “I would far rather have Geoffrey alive than Rommel dead.”
30) Mahmood Durrani, George Cross
Captain Mahmood Durrani was the only Japanese POW to be awarded the GC and survive his brutal ordeal. After Malaya was overrun by the Japanese in 1942, Durrani and a small group from the Indian State Forces were cut off from their comrades. They remained in hiding for three months before they were betrayed by the enemy-sponsored Indian National Army (INA).
While he was in a POW camp, Durrani not only refused to join the INA, but he did all he could to gather intelligence on this subversive organisation and its attempts to infiltrate members into India. Durrani even acted as a double agent setting up a school to send men back to India “to champion the Nationalist ideology of the Indian National Congress”.
In fact, the men had been hand-picked by Durrani to spy for Britain. The Japanese eventually became suspicious of his activities and tortured him to try to identify his accomplices: burning cigarettes were repeatedly stubbed out on his legs. When Durrani was handed over to the INA, he was even more brutally tortured and condemned to death.
In prison, he suffered from dysentery and near starvation, going for days without food or water. However, Subha Chandra Bose, the INA leader, insisted on extracting a confession from his defiant prisoner before he executed him and Durrani’s life was eventually spared by the Japanese surrender.
He was awarded the GC for his “outstanding example of deliberately cold-blooded bravery” in May 1946.
In his autobiography, The Sixth Column, Durrani wrote of how he had survived his ordeal as a POW: “I laughed contemptuously in my mind at the futile attempts of my torturers to defeat me in keeping my sacred resolve.” After the war, Durrani served with distinction in the Pakistani army.
31) Odette Sansom, George Cross
Odette Sansom was the first woman to be awarded the GC – and few recipients can have done more to earn the decoration. French-born Odette Brailly – her maiden name – married an Englishman and was living in Britain when the Second World War broke out.
After volunteering information to the War Office on German-occupied France, she was recruited to the Special Operations Executive, which had been formed after the fall of France. Sansom, who had three young daughters, was motivated by her love of France and Britain and she was determined to work with the French Resistance.
In October 1942, she landed in France from a fishing boat and worked in Cannes with Peter Churchill, the leader of the so-called Spindle circuit. However, after carrying out vital intelligence work, she and Churchill were arrested. They came up with a cover story that Churchill was related to the Prime Minister and that they were married – and this may have saved their lives.
However, at the notorious Fresnes prison outside Paris, Sansom was brutally tortured during numerous interrogations. Her back was burned with a hot iron and her toenails were pulled out, but she gave nothing away.
In June 1943, she was sentenced to death but she was instead reprieved and taken to a concentration camp in northern Germany. After spending two years in solitary, she was handed over to the Allies by the German camp commandant at the end of the war. She was awarded the GC in August 1946 when her citation praised her “courage, endurance and self-sacrifice of the highest possible order”. Her marriage did not survive and she later married, first, Peter Churchill, and later, Geoffrey Hallowes, another Resistance fighter. Sansom was the only one of the three female Resistance workers awarded the GC to survive her ordeal at the hands of the Germans.
My admiration for Sansom is matched by my respect for Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, the two women GC recipients who were killed in captivity.
Captain Selwyn Jepson, the senior recruiting officer for the SOE during the war, told how he had recruited women – despite widespread opposition to the move – because they were better at undercover work than men.
“Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men,” he said in an interview after the war for the Imperial War Museum.
32) Frederick Peters, Victoria Cross
Frederick “Fritz” Peters, who was awarded five bravery awards spanning the two world wars, was one of the most decorated Canadians of the Second World War.
He had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War, being awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1915 and the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1918. Peters was awarded a Bar to his DSC for bravery early in the Second World War.
Thereafter, he enjoyed a fascinating career after being posted to the Directorate of Naval Intelligence. While at the so-called “School of Spies”, he worked with Guy Burgess and Kim Philby at a training centre in Hertfordshire that was geared to developing operations for the special services.
Acting Captain Peters received his VC for a daring mission to seize a vital position in the well-defended harbour of Oran, Morocco, in the early hours of November 8, 1942.
Peters was in charge of two Royal Navy ships, HMS Walney and HMS Hartland, that were operating with the Special Boat Squadron. Peters was on board Walney which released three canoes manned by SBS men with “mobile mines”.
He steered the ship as it rammed an enemy destroyer and then headed towards the jetty in the face of a point-blank fire from shore batteries, a destroyer and a cruiser. The Walney reached the jetty on fire and went down with colours still flying. Blinded in one eye, Peters was the only survivor from the 17 men on the bridge.
For this act of bravery, he was awarded the American DSC, as well as the VC. Yet five days after his great act of valour, Peters’ plane, flying from Gibraltar to England, crashed off Plymouth killing all five passengers. He died never knowing of his last decorations.
33) William Sparks, Distinguished Service Medal
The Cockleshell Heroes raid was one of the most daring Special Forces raids of the Second World War. It was planned and carried out by the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment, which later became a section of the new Special Boat Squadron.
Twelve men in six Cockle Mark II canoes were chosen to target shipping in Bordeaux in German-occupied France. The aim of Operation Frankton was to carry limpet mines on the canoes, which would be planted on some 12 merchant ships. After a three-day journey up the Gironde estuary, travelling only at night, the intention was for the men to scuttle the canoes and escape through France to Spain.
The party, led by Major “Blondie” Hasler, was taken by submarine close to the mouth of the estuary. Before they had even set off, Hasler had warned them that their personal safety came second to the success of the mission.
One of the canoes was damaged as it was taken out on deck and its two-man crew therefore had to remain on the submarine, leaving five canoes and 10 men. They then lost three canoes and six men on the journey up the estuary, leaving only two canoes and four men to carry out the mission in December 1942.
Hasler and his partner, Corporal William “Bill” Sparks split up from their two comrades, placing the mines on boats in different areas of the harbour. After carrying out the mission successfully, the four men scuttled the two canoes and split up into pairs for their journey to northern Spain.
“See you in Granada. We will keep a couple of pints for you,” Sparks shouted to his two comrades as they disappeared. After hiding out for weeks, Hasler and Sparks made their journey on foot and by train, eventually trekking over the Pyrenees to Spain: they were the only survivors because the eight others had been lost at sea or had been captured, tortured and executed.
In June 1943, Hasler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Sparks was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. I had been enthralled by the story of the Cockleshell Heroes ever since I was a boy: the film The Cockleshell Heroes came out in 1955, when I was just nine years old. I was therefore thrilled to be able to purchase Sparks’ gallantry and service medals when they came up for auction in 1988.
34) Hugh Seagrim, George Cross
Major Hugh Seagrim and Lieutenant Colonel Derek Seagrim, who were brothers, represent the only instance of a VC and GC being awarded to members of the same family. The latter’s award was posthumous for valour in Tunisia, north Africa, in March 1943.
Hugh Seagrim served with the 19th Hyderabad Rifles in Burma from early 1943. He was part of an elite special group that was fighting the Japanese with hit-and-run tactics in the Karen Hills. By the end of 1943, the Japanese intensified their efforts to track down the group, code-named Force 136.
In order to put pressure on Seagrim, they arrested 270 Karens, including village elders: many were killed and others were tortured. In March 1944, the Japanese got a message to Seagrim that they would end their campaign of reprisals if he gave himself up.
Despite being aware of the horrors that awaited him, he surrendered on March 15, 1944. In September, he and eight others captured from his patrol were court-martialled and condemned to death.
After the sentences were announced, Seagrim addressed the court and urged that only he should die – because the other men were simply obeying orders. After the initial plea was rejected, he wanted to launch another appeal but his men decided if their commander was going to die, they would die with him.
Seagrim, a vicar’s son who wanted to be a missionary after the war, went bravely to his death on September 14, 1944, aged 35. His GC, personally approved by Lord Mountbatten, was awarded two years later.
Seagrim was also awarded a posthumous MBE and a posthumous Distinguished Service Order. After the war, his mother, Annabel, wore his GC and her son Derek’s VC at a parade in East Sussex: it is believed to be the only time that anyone has worn both decorations in public.
35) Forest Yeo-Thomas, George Cross
Forest Yeo-Thomas, who was widely known as “Tommy”, was so disappointed that he had been too young to serve in the British Army during the First World War that he served in the US Army, apparently from around 1918-22. After joining the RAF in 1939, he underwent radar training and left France on one of the last boats before the Germans invaded. As a fluent French speaker, he also received training as an intelligence officer.
On February 25, 1943, he was parachuted into France to join the Free French Secret Service. For the next two years, he showed incredible courage under the code name of “White Rabbit”. He sometimes spent several weeks in France on daring missions.
However, after being parachuted into France in February 1944, he was betrayed to the Gestapo and he was caught and tortured.
At one point, after his wrists were cut by chains, he suffered blood poisoning and nearly lost his left arm. He nevertheless made two escape bids and his punishment was four months in solitary confinement. During this time, he was tortured relentlessly but revealed nothing.
More escape attempts took place later but, as the war drew to a close, he eventually succeeded in leading a party of 10 French POWs through German patrols to American lines. He was awarded the GC in February 1946 for his “most amazing fortitude and devotion to duty”.
Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas had already been awarded for Military Cross (MC) and Bar (a second MC) for bravery earlier in the war. He was also decorated by both France and Poland for his exceptional courage.
36) Anthony Greville-Bell, Distinguished Service Order
‘The great thing about Major Tony,” said one SAS corporal, “is that he doesn’t get you killed unless he absolutely has to.” This was the tribute to Major Anthony Greville-Bell from one of his men after the officer had led a highly successful SAS sabotage team for 73 days behind enemy lines before a 300-mile trek back to the Allied Forces.
Operation Speedwell, which took place between September and November 1943, had been devised by Captain PH Pinckney. The aim was to target the main troop-carrying railway lines in northern Italy.
Greville-Bell, an Australian, was in one of the “sticks” – small groups of men parachuted into different areas. In his stick, there were seven men and he was second-in-command. But he had to take command when Captain Pinckney went missing in action. Although Greville-Bell had been injured in the drop (he had broken two ribs), he led his party, which destroyed three trains and put the railway out of action for 19 days.
Yet his diary entry later revealed how close he had come to having to drop out of the mission on day three: “Walked again, but was in great pain, and was finished after two miles. Decided to have one more night’s rest and if not able to keep up would send Daniels and Tomasso [his comrades] on without me.” Later Greville-Bell even stopped off in the Tuscan mountains to train an army of Italian partisans, subsequently writing: “The guerrillas were not all that good, but the chianti was excellent.”
Afterwards, suffering from near starvation and in appalling weather, Greville-Bell led his party across the Apennine mountains and through enemy lines to safety.
During the mission, he had suffered from snow blindness and frostbite. Greville-Bell was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in September 1944 for “unfailing judgment in most difficult circumstances and inspiration to those under his command”.
Later, after being promoted to command a squadron, he received two serious wounds in two further missions to Occupied France – one before and one after the D-Day landings in June 1944.
37) Bruce Ogden-Smith, Distinguished Service Order
By the end of 1943, the Allies were actively planning to invade German-occupied France and thereby create a second front. With the United States now part of the war, the Allies were able to plan from a position of strength. Operation Overlord was the code name given to the long-awaited invasion of France.
In turn, Operation Neptune was the code name given to the naval assault phase of Operation Overlord. Before the details of the invasion could be formulated, intelligence was needed about the nature of the beaches that the Allies intended to land upon.
Enter Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith, one of the most courageous and colourful characters of the Second World War. Ogden-Smith had already taken part in a daring intelligence-gathering raid on German-occupied Sark in October 1942, when he was given an extraordinary new task. He was asked to swim secretly in the dead of night to French beaches to conduct “beach reconnaissance”. By now, he was part of the Commandos’ fledgling Special Boat Squadron.
The success – or failure – of the Normandy landings depended on obtaining detailed and accurate information of the beaches. So Ogden-Smith and a comrade were taken close to the shore by a small landing craft – and then left to swim ashore in a waterproof suit, with a torch, compass and other equipment. They were also armed with a waterproof Colt .45 and a fighting knife in case they encountered enemy soldiers.
After getting samples of sand from the beach, the men swam hundreds of yards out to sea and flashed their torches to be retrieved. Ogden-Smith was awarded the Military Medal (MM) and Distinguished Conduct Medal for two daring missions during December 1943 and January 1944. He missed his June 6, 1944 investiture to receive his MM – because he was on Omaha Beach taking part in the D-Day landings.
38) Norman Jackson, Victoria Cross
Sergeant Norman Jackson was awarded the VC for a quite astonishing act of bravery on the night of April 26, 1944. Serving in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, he had completed his scheduled tour of 30 operations on April 24, but volunteered for one more “for luck” shortly after being told his wife had given birth to their first son.
Jackson was the flight engineer on a Lancaster which had successfully dropped its bombs over Germany, when it was suddenly attacked by a fighter at about 20,000ft. The Lancaster received several direct hits and a fire started near a fuel tank on the upper surface of the starboard wing.
Although wounded, Jackson received the captain’s permission to climb onto the wing, wearing his parachute pack and clutching a fire extinguisher, to try to put out the flames. The plane was travelling at 200mph and, to make matters worse, the parachute opened and the canopy and rigging lines spilt into the cockpit. Undeterred, Jackson continued but he slipped and dropped his fire extinguisher.
Soon the fire spread and Jackson’s face, hands and clothing were badly burned. Next he was dragged through the flames and fell towards the ground with his partially-inflated parachute burning. The captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft – and four of the remaining crew landed safely and two perished.
Jackson was found badly injured by German civilians and was later paraded as a POW in a “pitiable state”. He made two unsuccessful attempts to escape but was returned to Britain on V-E Day and was later promoted to Warrant Officer. Jackson’s VC, awarded for one of the most remarkable stories of the war, was announced in October 1945.
39) Andy Mynarski, Victoria Cross
The story behind Warrant Officer Andy Mynarski’s VC is one of the most remarkable in the history of the decoration. Mynarksi, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, was a member of a seven-man crew flying Lancaster bombers. They were a closely-knit team and had flown a dozen sorties together.
The gunners, Mynarski and Pat Brophy, were isolated from the rest of the crew and had grown particularly close. Before going to bed, Mynarski used to give Brophy an exaggerated salute and say: “Good night, sir!”
On June 12, 1944, their Lancaster took part in a bombing raid but en route was badly hit by a German fighter plane. Three explosions rocked the plane at 12.13am and soon afterwards the captain ordered the crew to bail out. However, just as Mynarski was about to jump, he saw Brophy was struggling to free himself.
Mynarski crawled to the rear of the plane but was forced back by the flames. Before jumping in his burning clothes, he saluted Brophy and spoke what his friend, even though he could not hear him, knew were three words: “Good night, sir!”
Brophy was hurtling to what seemed a certain death but, just before the Lancaster slammed into a French field, its port wing hit a large tree which ripped off the burning wing and cushioned the fall.
Brophy, who had instinctively adopted the crash position even though he was convinced he was about to die, miraculously survived, meaning the only member of the crew to perish was Mynarski: he died from severe burns. Brophy only told the full story when he was released as a POW in 1945.
Mynarksi was awarded the VC in October 1946 for “valour of the highest order”. Meanwhile, Brophy later wrote: “I’ll always believe that a divine providence intervened because of what I had seen – so the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend.”
40) Agansing Rai, Victoria Cross
Agansing Rai is the only Gurkha VC in my 168-strong collection. Rai, who had the rank of naik, was serving in the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles with the 17th Indian – or so-called “Black Cat” – Division during the Burma Campaign of 1944.
The fighting on June 24 and 25 had been exceptionally fierce and the Japanese enemy, who had superior forces, had captured two posts.
On June 26, a company from the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles was dispatched to recapture the positions. During the attack, the company became pinned down by heavy and accurate machine-gun fire from “Mortar Bluff”.
Rai, appreciating a further delay would result in heavier casualties, fearlessly charged the position, personally killing three of the four crew. Inspired by this incredible act of bravery, the section surged forward across the bullet-swept ground and routed the enemy garrison.
However, the Gurkha position then came under heavy fire from a 37mm gun. Rai, aged 24, again led his men towards the gun and soon only three of his section were left standing. They eventually took the position after Rai killed three enemy soldiers and his men killed two more.
Finally, Rai took part in an assault on “Water Piquet” when, advancing with a grenade in one hand and a submachine gun in the other, he killed four enemy soldiers who were firing from the bunker. The citation for his VC announced in October 1944 praised Rai’s “calm display of courage and complete contempt for danger”.
Rai and his men had helped to thwart Japanese ambitions to invade India. Rai received his VC in 1945 from the Viceroy of India, Field Marshal Lord Wavell.
41) James Magennis, Victoria Cross
James Magennis’s VC was the first gallantry medal that I ever purchased – at a Sotheby’s auction in 1986. Acting Leading Seaman James “Mick” Magennis was awarded his decoration for bravery close to the end of the Second World War.
Magennis, who served in the Submarine Branch of the Royal Navy, had volunteered for “special and hazardous duties”, which meant working with “midget submarines”, or X-craft. By the spring of 1945, he was the diver in a three-man midget submarine, XE.3, which was tasked with sinking the Takao, a Japanese cruiser, in the Johor Straits, Singapore.
The craft was towed to the area by a conventional submarine and, by 3.03pm on July 31, 1945, it was positioned directly under the Takao. Magennis slid out of the submarine’s “wet and dry” compartment and placed limpet mines on the cruiser, chipping away barnacles for half an hour to attach the magnetic explosives.
Lieutenant Ian Fraser now attempted to release two larger side charges, each with two tons of high explosive, but one stuck to the midget submarine. For a time, the submarine was also wedged beneath the Takao on a falling tide. It seemed the three men would be blown up by their own explosives, due to detonate in six hours’ time.
Magennis, exhausted and whose hands had been shredded by the barnacles, now slipped into the water again and eventually freed the charge. The crew raced to safety and the charges later detonated, sinking the Takao.
42) Derek Kinne, George Cross
Joiner’s son Fusilier Derek Kinne was captured by the Chinese communist forces on April 25, 1951, during the Korean War. From the moment he was seized, he had two priorities: to escape and to raise the morale among prisoners.
Kinne first escaped within 24 hours but was recaptured within days as he attempted to rejoin the British forces. During a harsh one-month march to prison camps, Kinne emerged as an outstanding leader who inspired his fellow prisoners. His treatment as a POW was worse than his comrades because he consistently defied his captors.
After refusing to inform on his comrades – and for striking a Chinese officer who had assaulted him – he was beaten up and tied for periods of 24 hours. He was even made to stand on tiptoe with a noose around his neck so that if he relaxed he would have been throttled.
In June 1952, Kinne escaped a second time but was again recaptured. From July 1 to 20, he was kept in a tiny box cell where he was made to sit to attention all day and was denied any washing facilities. In October 1952, he was sentenced to 18 months in solitary confinement for trying to escape.
After an armistice was signed between the two warring sides in July 1953, Kinne was freed the following month after 28 months of brutal treatment. He became known as “the man North Korea could not break”.
His GC was awarded in April 1954 and his citation said: “His powers of resistance and his determination to oppose and fight the enemy to the maximum were beyond praise.”
Kinne wrote vividly about his treatment in his 1955 autobiography, The Wooden Boxes. Today he lives in the United States and celebrated his 80th birthday last week .
43) Sekonaia Takavesi, Distinguished Conduct Medal
Soldiers do not come any tougher than Sekonaia Takavesi. He became – in the words of one of his Army superiors – “a legend in his own time within the SAS”.
Takavesi, who was born in Fiji, became a member of the SAS two years after joining the Army in 1961. In the early Seventies, he took part in the secret war in Oman against the Adoo rebels. By July 1972, the Adoo were looking for a major victory in their conflict with the Sultan’s troops and his SAS allies.
On the morning of July 19, the Adoo launched a carefully planned attack to capture the small market town of Mirbat on the Arabian Sea. The SAS heard the Adoo attack a small detachment of Dhofar Gendamerie before waves of enemy soldiers headed towards the British Army Training Team (BATT) house.
Trooper Talaiasi Labalaba initially fired the 25-pounder gun alone (for maximum affect the gun should be manned by five men). When Labalaba was wounded, Trooper Takavesi picked up his self-loading rifle and ran from the BATT house to the gun-pit, dodging a hail of bullets as he went. Eventually, Labalaba was shot dead, leaving Takavesi alone for 15 minutes until two more comrades ran to his aid, one of whom was fatally wounded.
The Battle of Mirbat became a turning point in the war. Takavesi, awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in April 1974, rose to the rank of staff sergeant, having survived injuries which would have killed a lesser man. In 1980, he was also involved in the Iranian Embassy siege in London.
44) James Beaton, George Cross
By the spring of 1974, Inspector Jim Beaton had been Princess Anne’s protection officer for less than a year. Shortly before 8pm on March 20 that year, he was in the front seat of her Daimler when the Princess, then 23, was returning to Buckingham Palace from an engagement in the City.
Captain Mark Phillips, her then husband, her lady-in-waiting and her driver were also in the vehicle when a white Escort swerved in front of it in The Mall. The driver of the Escort got out and, as Beaton went to see what was wrong, the man drew a revolver and shot him.
Despite being shot in the right shoulder, Beaton drew his handgun. His first shot missed and then his gun jammed. As the assailant tried to force the Princess from the car, Beaton entered the back of the car through the rear passenger door and crawled across to protect the Royal couple, being shot a second time, this time in the hand.
Beaton now tried to knock the man over by opening the rear passenger door quickly, but the gunman fired again, hitting Beaton in the stomach and pelvis. Beaton remained conscious but he was no longer able to offer any resistance.
Passers-by and police eventually thwarted the kidnap attempt by Ian Ball but not before three other men were shot and injured. Beaton made a full recovery and his GC was announced in September 1974.
45) Michael Lane, Military Medal
During a career in the SAS spanning more than 18 years, Michael “Bronco” Lane rose from trooper to major. In a deadly fighting force where heroics were not uncommon, Lane was nevertheless a modern-day SAS legend.
During May 1976, Sergeant Lane took part in the Army Mountaineering Association’s expedition to Mount Everest. After reaching the summit, he and Sergeant John Stokes encountered “white out” conditions as they made their descent.
As darkness fell, they were some distance from their camp, still situated at 27,500ft. They were forced to bivouac at night on an exposed and dangerous knife-edge ridge. Lane and Stokes knew their chances of surviving the night in some of the worst conditions ever seen on Everest were slim.
By morning, they were barely alive and Lane had fed Stokes oxygen from his own bottle to keep him alive. The two were exhausted and frost-bitten but incredibly they made it down the mountain.
Lane lost all 10 toes and the five digits on one hand but did he feel sorry for himself? Not a bit. He even went on to climb Everest again and remained in the SAS.
The expedition leader who successfully recommended Lane for the British Empire Medal wrote: “I consider the conditions under which they reached the summit of Everest to be the worst under which the mountain has ever been climbed. There are few mountaineers who could have survived such conditions.”
In 1979, Lane was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in Northern Ireland after he had special boots made for him and the safety catch to his Armalite rifle extended so it could be operated by his shortened fingers.
Lane had a black sense of humour – he preserved his frostbitten toes and fingers in formaldehyde in the SAS’s regimental mess.
Lane, who was in the control room during the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980, still keeps fit by cycling and hill walking.
46) Ian McKay, Victoria Cross
Sergeant Ian McKay was awarded the VC for incredible bravery while serving in the Parachute Regiment during the Falklands War of 1982. Known simply as “Mac”, he made his first tour of Northern Ireland when he was 17. By the time the Falklands War broke out, he was married with two children.
During the night of June 11-12, the Paras launched a secret attack on an enemy battalion on Mount Longdon, an important objective in the battle for Port Stanley. After the initial target was secured, McKay, a platoon sergeant, was ordered to clear the northern side of the long east/west ridge at a time when the enemy was now fully alerted to their presence.
At one point, the platoon commander took McKay and some other men to reconnoitre a position. However, the commander was shot in the leg and McKay took over. He decided to convert the reconnaissance into an attack. Taking three men with him, he broke cover and charged the enemy position. They braved a hail of fire and on reaching the position, McKay killed the enemy with hand grenades. He was killed at the moment of victory and fell dead on the bunker.
His posthumous V C was announced in October 1982 and the citation said: “Undeterred he performed with outstanding selflessness, perseverance and courage. With a complete disregard of his own safety, he displayed courage and leadership of the highest order, and was an inspiration to all around him.”
47) Johnson Beharry, Victoria Cross
Private Johnson Beharry was the first man since 1969 to survive the action for which he was awarded the VC – a sign in itself of just how difficult it had become to receive the decoration.
Born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, he joined the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment aged 22 in August 2001. He became the driver of Warrior armoured vehicles, and served in Kosovo and Northern Ireland prior to being posted to Iraq.
He was awarded the VC for two acts of bravery in Iraq in 2004. On May 1, Beharry’s company had been asked to take supplies to coalition forces in the troubled city of Al Amarah. The platoon commander’s Warrior, driven by Beharry, came under attack from Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Beharry drove off but further RPGs left his vehicle on fire and thick, black smoke filled the Warrior.
Beharry opened the hatch and drove the Warrior through a barricade, followed by five other Warriors. The vehicle was then hit again, forcing Beharry to drive for nearly a mile with his hatch up and his head exposed to enemy fire. On June 11, his Warrior was ambushed again and an RPG hit its frontal armour just six inches from Beharry’s head. Despite his serious head injuries and in dreadful pain, he reversed the Warrior out of the danger zone, before collapsing unconscious. His two acts of bravery were estimated to have saved 30 lives.
His VC was announced in March 2005 when General Sir Mike Jackson, then the Chief of the General Staff, said: “I can’t remember when I was last as proud of the Army as I am today.” Despite his horrendous injuries, Beharry still serves in the Army.
48) Matthew Croucher, George Cross
Matt Croucher served with 40 Commando, Royal Marines, in Helmand, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Herrick VII from 2007-8. The son of two teachers, Croucher was based in the Sangin Valley.
On February 9, 2008, he was part of a 40-strong group tasked with searching a Taliban compound, which was suspected of being a bomb-making factory. The men had located the site and regrouped when Croucher felt a tension below his knee and heard the distinctive noise of a “pin” ejecting from a hand grenade.
He knew he had three to five seconds before the grenade exploded. After shouting: “Grenade! Take cover!”, Croucher made a split-second decision to twist his body so that his day sack was on the grenade and he was lying on top of it.
When the grenade exploded, Croucher was thrown into the air. Not only had he saved his comrades’ lives, but he received only minor injuries himself.
He was awarded the GC, rather than the VC, because it was decided that he was not “in the face of the enemy” when the grenade went off.
49) Kim Hughes, George Cross
Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes, of the Royal Logistic Corps, went to Helmand province, Afghanistan, in April 2009 as a high-threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) operator.
Already an experienced bomb-disposal expert, Hughes took part in Operation Panther’s Claw and worked closely with the Danish Battle Group. By August 2009 Hughes was tasked with providing close support to 2 Rifles Battle Group during an operation to clear a route south-west of Sangin.
On August 16, he was called to an IED minefield – what the Army described as a “harrowing and chaotic situation” – where two devices had exploded, killing two people and injuring five more.
When he reached the first casualty, he found another Victim Operated Improvised Explosive Device (VOIED) within a metre of the casualty. He carried out a high-risk “manual neutralisation” knowing that any error would have been fatal for both men.
Hughes then turned to help the remaining casualties and to retrieve the dead. As he cleared a path to the victims, he found two more devices and again carried out high-risk manual neutralisations. Finally, he disposed of a further four more devices.
His GC was announced in March 2010 when his citation said: “Dealing with any form of IED is dangerous; to deal with seven VOIEDs linked in a single circuit, in a mass casualty scenario, using manual neutralisation techniques once, never mind three times, is the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.”
50) Olaf Schmid, George Cross
Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid, of the Royal Logistic Corps, had already dealt with 70 confirmed Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in five months, as his tour of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, was drawing to a close.
On numerous occasions from June to October 2009, he had displayed exceptional courage to help his comrades and civilians. In an incident on October 8, Schmid had conducted a high-risk “manual neutralisation” to save the lives of numerous Afghans.
On October 31, he had already dealt with three IEDs near Forward Operating Base Jackson, when a searcher found a command wire running down an alleyway they were using. Schmid and his team were trapped in the alleyway not knowing in which direction the IED had been placed.
He seized the initiative and eventually traced the wire to a complex command-wire IED which incorporated three linked and buried main charges. However, as he dealt with the device, it exploded. He had sacrificed his life, aged 30, for the sake of his comrades.
Schmid’s GC was announced in March 2010 and his citation read: “His selfless gallantry, his devotion to duty, and his indefatigable courage displayed time and time again saved countless military and civilian lives and is worthy of the highest recognition.”
For more information, visit:LordAshcroftOnBravery.com