Sometimes circumstances conspire to ensure that two of my passions overlap. Indeed, this happened yesterday in south-west London when bravery and education became intertwined.
Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC addressed 200 students from the Ashcroft Technology Academy and they were gripped by what he had to say. Lance Corporal Beharry was a truly inspirational speaker and he captivated his young audience, who were largely just 12-years-old. He spoke of his own impoverished roots and troubled background having come to Britain as a teenager from the Caribbean island of Grenada.
Having neglected his education, he fell in with the wrong crowd (some of whom are now dead and others in prison). He opted for a career in the Army because he feared otherwise he would have got caught up in a life of crime. Yet Lance Corporal Beharry told the academy students that they could achieve whatever they wanted. It was clear from the number of questions that he was asked after his speech just how he had inspired students and that he had spoken to them at their level. Even after his speech, Lance Corporal Beharry found time to chat with youngsters and show them his service and gallantry medals, including his VC.
I had the privilege of introducing Lance Corporal Beharry because of my role with the academy. In my introduction, I left the audience in no doubt that they were about to enjoy the privilege of being addressed by one of the bravest men that any of us would ever encounter. In today’s world, the word “hero” is overused but make no mistake: Lance Corporal Beharry is a genuine hero not just for what he twice did in the heat of battle in 2004 but for how he has recovered from quite appalling head injuries since then.
Eight years on, he continues to serve in the Army and he is genuinely frustrated at not being able to serve again on the front-line. However, I commend Lance Corporal Beharry for, with the blessing of the Army, going to schools and colleges to motivate students by talking about his experiences. His VC was remarkable for many reasons. It was the first VC since the Falklands War of 1982. Since 1969 no-one had been awarded the VC and lived to tell the tale. Yet Lance Corporal Beharry, who serves with the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, reached unbelievable levels of courage as a private serving in Iraq in 2004. At the time, he was the driver of a Warrior armoured vehicle.
In the first incident on May 1 2004, his company had been asked to take supplies to the coalition forces in the troubled city of Al Amarah. Lance Corporal Beharry was the driver of a platoon commander’s thirty-tonne Warrior, which came under attack from insurgents firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). The initial attack left the commander and the gunner concussed and other soldiers wounded. The vehicle’s radio system was also taken out. Not knowing if his comrades were dead or alive, Lance Corporal Beharry instinctively closed the driver’s hatch and drove off.
Further RPG attacks left the Warrior on fire and thick, black smoke filled the vehicle. Lance Corporal Beharry therefore opened the armoured hatch, quickly assessed the situation and decided the best course of action was to drive out of the ambush. He drove the Warrior through a barricade, not knowing if it had been booby-trapped, and led five other Warriors towards the safety of the outpost. Then, however, another RPG flashed towards him. The resulting explosion forced flames down the hatch, over him and towards the gunner in his turret, and it simultaneously took out the Warrior’s periscope.
As a result, Lance Corporal Beharry had to drive for nearly a mile with his hatch up and his head exposed to enemy fire. Only when he reached the perimeter of the outpost did he pull the handles which set off the fire extinguishers and immobilised the vehicle. Then he collapsed from sheer exhaustion and needed medical treatment. However, just six weeks later, he was back at the controls of a Warrior as part of a quick-reaction force tasked with cutting off a mortar team that had attacked the coalition forces in Al Amarah.
Again in the lead vehicle, Lance Corporal Beharry was moving rapidly through the dark streets when the Warrior was ambushed from the rooftops. One RPG hit its frontal armour six inches from Lance Corporal Beharry’s head, resulting in serious head injuries, while others hit the side and turrets, incapacitating the whole crew and wounding several of them. Under intense fire, in great pain and bleeding heavily, Lance Corporal Beharry reversed the Warrior out of the ambush area and into a wall, where he lost consciousness. The crew of other Warriors were therefore able to save him and his comrades.
Through his two heroic acts, Lance Corporal Beharry, then aged just 24, had saved an estimated 30 lives. However, he fell into a coma as a result of his injuries and was given very little chance of surviving. Yet he eventually emerged from the coma and embarked on a long and slow road towards recovery. His second act of bravery was particularly praised when his VC was announced in the London Gazette on March 18 2005. His citation read: “Beharry displayed repeated extreme gallantry and unquestioned valour, despite intense direct attacks, personal injury and damage to his vehicle in the face of relentless enemy action.”
After the announcement of his VC, he was fêted by his fellow-soldiers and his superiors. General Sir Mike Jackson, then Chief of the General Staff, stated: “It’s the most extraordinary story of one man’s courage and the way in which he risked his life for his comrades, for his own young officer in particular, not once, but twice. I can’t remember when I was last as proud of the Army as I am today.” Lance Corporal Beharry was presented with his VC by the Queen on April 27 2005. “You are very special,” she told him, before adding, with masterly royal understatement, that she does not get to present the VC very often. Yesterday Lance Corporal Beharry told students this had been the “proudest” but also the “scariest” day of his life.
Lance Corporal Beharry’s VC is currently on public display, having been loaned to the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in central London. The gallery contains the largest collection of VCs in the world, along with VCs and George Crosses (GCs) already in the care of the museum. The gallery does what it says on the “tin”: it seeks to intrigue, inspire and amaze. Yesterday Lance Corporal Beharry did all these and more: I suspect the 200 students who shared his company and his thoughts spent a day they will never forget.