Portrait of a hero

Private Paul Willmott tells of his reaction on joining just 28 recipients ever to be awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross
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In jeans and a T-shirt, Paul Willmott has the mischievous look of the sort of youth pensioners snort at in a derisory way. Only the scars that pepper his forehead offer any hint that this unassuming 21-year-old is an exceptionally courageous soldier.

This week he joined the ranks of just 28 servicemen in history who have been awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross (CGC) – the second highest award for valour after the Victoria Cross.

When Private Willmott received the call last Wednesday to return to barracks and present himself in front of his commanding officer, he assumed he was in trouble. "I thought: 'What have I done now?' I thought I was going to be bollocked," he said.

Instead, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Banton informed him he had been awarded the CGC for "exceptional gallantry and leadership way beyond that expected of a soldier of his rank".

"I was absolutely gobsmacked," explained the young rifleman from Pershore, Worcestershire. "I just said 'Thanks a lot, sir'."

Pte Willmott, who had odd jobs and worked in factories until joining the Army two years ago, won the medal for dragging a fatally wounded friend through heavy and sustained fire and assuming command of his section, leading them to safety. "He showed exceptional courage and resolve and extreme devotion to duty and to his comrades," the citation reads.

Afghanistan was Pte Willmott's first operational tour. Last summer it saw his regiment plunged into a bloody and brutal battle that cost the 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters & Foresters) nine men.

On 6 June, the young soldier was on a foot patrol in the Upper Gereshk valley alongside his old friend, Lance Corporal Paul Sandford. "Sandy", as the 23-year-old was known, was a courageous and confident soldier and one of B Company's best-loved characters.

"He had a heart of gold. We'd been friends ever since I went into training. He was there for me and helped me get through it all. If I got in trouble he would always be there," Pte Willmott explained.

As they moved forward to clear a compound, the patrol was suddenly ambushed from two sides, and machine-gun fire as well as rocket-propelled grenades rained down. The Taliban were entrenched and invisible in the dense vegetation and ditches as the British soldiers began firing back, pinned down by their attackers. L/Cpl Sandford leapt forward to try and silence the enemy.

"I was returning fire and I spotted a sniper over to the left. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sandy drop," said Pte Willmott. He struggled in vain to lift his friend but found him too heavy. Refusing to leave him behind, he began dragging him under fire.

"I had to get him out of there. I had promised I would always get him out. I knew what I had to do. The bullets were going past my legs. I can still feel the bark hitting my head as the bullets hit the trees," he explained. Despite his valiant efforts, L/Cpl Sandford was beyond saving and died that day. A short while later Pte Willmott was seriously injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the company's forward base.

Every since his return, his mother has been collecting signatures for a petition to get injured soldiers a special medal, unaware her son was in line for such a distinguished honour.

"She will be over the moon," Pte Willmott said. "I won't tell her when I go home. I'll just wait until she sees it on the news. I just can't believe it has happened. I was just doing my job.

"But I would swap it to bring Sandy back."