How teenage hero Jack Bamford became the youngest ever recipient of the George Cross

  • 23 September, 2015
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Express on 23 September 2015.

John “Jack” Bamford

More than 60 years on Jack Bamford still bears the scars to remind him of his selfless bravery.

As a blaze ripped through his family’s home he had only seconds to decide whether to risk his own life in order to save those of his two younger brothers.

Although only 15 at the time Mr Bamford did not hesitate. “I had to get them out. I couldn’t leave them, could I? I never thought about what might happen to me – I didn’t have time.”

His actions over the next 10 minutes or so resulted in him becoming the youngest ever recipient of the George Cross (GC).

He was left with such severe burns to his face, neck, chest, stomach, back, arms and hands that he was left fighting for his life.

Even now the tips of his ears are missing having melted away in the inferno that so nearly claimed the lives of several family members. Tomorrow Mr Bamford, now 78, will be one of at least 15 GC recipients, some of whom have come from Australia and New Zealand, to attend a series of events in London to mark the 75th anniversary of the medal.

The award was instituted by George VI in 1940 to recognise supreme civilian bravery and military gallantry. John Bamford, known to family and friends as Jack, was born in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, the second of six children.

His father was a horse and scrap metal dealer who also worked as a coal miner. Jack left school at 15 and went to work at the Moorgreen colliery in Nottinghamshire fitting conveyor belts.

At about 2am on Sunday October 19, 1952, a fire broke out in the Bamfords’ three-bedroom house in Newthorpe . Parents John and Rachel Bamford had returned earlier from a night out at Ilkeston fair.

Barking from their pet greyhound Mick alerted John that something was wrong. He woke Jack and they went downstairs. “When we opened the living room door we were hit by a huge blast of flame,” recalls Jack. “We went outside because we couldn’t get back upstairs.

We climbed on to the flat roof on top of the bay window and got my mother and what we thought was all of them [his sister and four younger brothers] out through the bedroom window. But then we had a count up and two were missing.”

They were Roy, four, and Brian, six, who was deaf and dumb. “So me and my dad went back again. We could hear Roy shouting from the back bedroom. My dad tried to get through the flames by wrapping a blanket round him but the blanket caught fire. I told him to go round the back [of the house] and I would get into their room and chuck them out the window.

“But it was hot – very hot – and I couldn’t see anything because of the smoke. I got down on my hands and knees because it was the best place with the smoke rising.

“When I found them in the bedroom I had Roy between my knees and Brian was next to us by the window. I slammed the sash window up but the bloody thing came down again and slammed my fingers. So I banged it up again and this time it stayed . I chucked Roy out to my dad who caught him below. But when I turned round Brian had gone – he was frightened so he had got back into bed.

“I knew where the bed was so I got him and chucked Brian out too. I somehow got out of the window too. The next thing I can remember was lying on the hearth in front of our neighbour’s fire and our doctor kept saying to her, ‘Give him weak tea’, even though all I wanted was lots of water.”

The fire brigade eventually put out the blaze which had apparently been caused by an electrical fault. Jack and his two bothers were taken to hospital.

The younger boys were soon off the danger list but Jack spent weeks in intensive care at Nottingham General Hospital.

Only expert nursing, several skin grafts and his own determination to live pulled him through.

On December 16, 1952, his GC was announced. The lengthy citation ended: “John Bamford displayed courage of the highest order and in spite of excruciating pain succeeded in rescuing his two brothers.”

But the best day of his life was still to come: his investiture at Buckingham Palace by the young Queen.

On March 9, 1953, Jack, his mother, sister Jean and ward sister Marjorie Odey, who had nursed him back to health barely leaving his bedside for an entire week, were all driven to London in a RollsRoyce belonging to Nottingham funeral directors and spent a week in the capital as the guests of the National Coal Board.

Jack had remained in hospital for five months. He then had to learn to walk and talk again – the smoke had affected his throat while his legs had suffered badly from the removal of so much skin to use as grafts on his burned body.

It was not until early 1954 that he returned to work and when he was 18 he moved to the coalface. He left the colliery in 1959 and went to work with his father and two brothers as scrap metal and vehicle dealers.

Mr Bamford stayed in touch with the ward sister who nursed him back to health and years later, after an accident at the family’s scrapyard, he was treated by her in hospital again, this time for a broken right leg.

Today Mr Bamford lives with his wife Madge in Awsworth, Nottingham, where a plaque commemorating his GC adorns the village hall.

The couple have four grown-up sons, four grandchildren and one greatgrandchild.

Having retired in 1993, his passion is restoring vintage cars and tractors. He believes the medal, after three-quarters of a century, remains the best way to recognise supreme bravery either by civilians or by members of the military who are not in the face of the enemy, notably bomb disposal experts.

Mr Bamford is an active member of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association and is looking forward to tomorrow’s reunion .

They are a modest bunch and none of them would ever be crass enough to boast about their achievements.

However they have all shown their mettle by displaying outstanding bravery in a crisis. As Mr Bamford puts it so succinctly: “We have all been there.”

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