Yesterday, Battle of Britain Day, I went to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to undertake a particularly pleasant task: to thank those who have been responsible for putting six more prestigious gallantry medals on long-term loan at the Extraordinary Heroes exhibition.
The IWM and I are enormously grateful to have received two Victoria Crosses (VCs) and four George Crosses (GCs) from either the recipients themselves or their relatives, and these decorations are now on display at the museum’s Lord Ashcroft Gallery.
Each decoration has a wonderful story of bravery behind it and the six medals are a splendid addition to the VC and GC collection which has now been on display at the new gallery for ten months.
The gallery was opened in November last year by HRH The Princess Royal to display the world’s largest collection of VCs, which I had amassed since 1986. Initially, my 162 VCs went on show along with 48 VCs and 31 GCs already in the care of the IWM.
Since then, I am delighted to report that the success of the gallery has surpassed all expectations. It has been visited by an estimated 200,000 people and visitors spend an average time of 54 minutes – three times longer than anticipated – studying the exhibition. Visitors are clearly interested by what they see and they have repeatedly expressed their gratitude that an individual’s collection has gone on public display (and with free admission).
Yesterday the IWM hosted a reception for some 40 guests, essentially to thank those men and women who have been responsible for the most recent loans of the decorations.
The VC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry medal awarded for bravery in the face of the enemy. The two new VCs that have now been loaned are those awarded to Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Thomas Esmonde and Temporary Brigadier General George Grogan.
Captain Esmonde, who served with the 18th Regiment (later The Royal Irish Regiment), was awarded the VC for bravery at Sebastapol during the Crimean War. On June 18, 1855, after being involved in an attack on the Redan fort, he risked his life to assist in rescuing wounded men from exposed situations. On the same day, he rushed to a spot where a fireball from the enemy had just lodged and extinguished it before it could explode, thereby saving his men from a lethal blast.
Brigadier General Grogan, who served with The Worcestershire Regiment and commanded 23rd Infantry Brigade, was awarded the VC for great bravery in France at the end of the First World War. On May 17, 1918, he showed utter disregard for his own safety as he rode up and down the front-line encouraging his men as they came under heavy artillery, trench mortar, rifle and machine-gun fire. When his horse was shot from under him, he continued encouraging his men on foot until another horse was brought for him. As a result of the heroic actions of this officer and his men, the line was held.
The GC is Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious medal for gallantry away from the front-line. The four new GCs that have been loaned are those awarded to Dr Wilson Baldwin, Jack Bamford, Trooper (later Lance Corporal of Horse) Chris Finney and Staff Sergeant (later Warrant Officer Class 2) Kim Hughes.
Dr Baldwin was the assistant works manager at a munitions factory during the Second World War. On November 20, 1942, there was an explosion at his factory on Bramble Island, near Harwich, Essex. After the blast, Dr Baldwin risked his life as he fought heroically to limit the damage to the premises. For his bravery, Baldwin was awarded the Edward Medal (EM): a decoration which was “translated” to the GC in 1971 when the EM was phased out.
Jack Bamford was, aged 15, the youngest person ever to have been awarded the GC, an honour he holds to this day. Mr Bamford showed astonishing bravery when a fire broke out at his family’s home in Nottinghamshire on the night of October 19, 1952. He braved fierce flames and intense heat to save his two younger brothers, aged six and four, who had become trapped in their bedroom. He received horrendous burns as a result of the rescue, scars he bears to this day. When I researched my latest book, George Cross Heroes, Mr Bamford, now 74, told me: “I had to get them [his brothers] out. I couldn’t leave them, could I? I never thought of what might happen to me – I didn’t have time to think about it.”
Trooper Finney, formerly of the Household Cavalry Regiment, is the youngest serviceman to have been awarded the GC and is also believed to be the only one to receive the decoration as a result of a “friendly fire” incident. During the Second Gulf War, Trooper Finney, then 18, and his comrades were in southern Iraq on March 28, 2003, when they were fired on by two Coalition ground-attack aircraft who had mistaken them for enemy troops. Finney had scrambled from his burning Scimitar, a “mini tank”, when he saw that the vehicle’s gunner was trapped in the turret. Despite flames, smoke and exploding ammunition, he dragged his comrade to safety. With his troop leader also injured, Trooper Finney broke cover, ran back to the burning vehicle and radioed a report to headquarters on what had happened. He then returned to help the injured gunner, only to be attacked by the same aircraft with cannon fire, which resulted in him being wounded in the lower back and legs. Despite his injuries, he attempted to rescue another comrade from a second Scimitar before collapsing from his wounds. Now aged 27 and no longer in the Army, Mr Finney has made a good recovery from his injuries.
WO2 Hughes, who serves with the Royal Logistic Corps, was awarded his GC for incredible bravery in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2009. As a high-threat Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (IEDD) operator, he was called to the scene of an IED minefield being watched by the enemy. By then, two IEDs had already exploded, killing two people and seriously injuring five others (one of whom later died from his wounds). Knowing his comrades needed urgent medical help, WO2Hughes (then a Staff Sergeant) carried out a highly dangerous “manual neutralisation” of one device. As he cleared a path to the dead and injured, he carried out two further “manual neutralisations” on IEDs before then tackling a further four more IEDs. His GC citation described his courage as “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance disposal ever recorded in Afghanistan.”
The six loaned medals have now gone on display at the gallery along with five more VCs that I have bought in recent months.
Yesterday Diane Lees, the Director General of the IWM, gave a short speech to guests during which she was kind enough to thank me for my £5 million donation, that enabled the Lord Ashcroft Gallery to be built, and for putting my VC collection on display at the museum.
However, my thanks are to the IWM: I am thrilled that my medal collection has gone on display at such an internationally-respected venue and I am equally delighted that so many members of the public are, like me, fascinated and in awe of the bravery of our servicemen and our civilians.
Last night I hosted a reception at the House of Lords to mark the official launch of the Felix Fund, the bomb disposal charity. I am backing the new charity and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank its early supporters and those who have worked so hard to get the charity off the ground.
My 200 guests included members of 11 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Regiment and their families, philanthropists, EOD defence suppliers, journalists and Felix Fund trustees, staff and volunteers. I am sure the charity will succeed and I wish it well.
Anyone wanting to know more about the Felix Fund should read an article I wrote last weekend for The Sunday Telegraph.
Read this story on Conservative Home.