For exemplary bravery under (friendly) fire, the trooper who became youngest holder of George Cross

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The Independent Online

The scimitar was juddering along in a convoy, on a track of sand and rocks beside the muddy brown Shatt-al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq when the first blast came ripping through the sky.

Chris Finney, the driver, frantically tried to reverse the armoured vehicle. With round after round exploding into the ground and screams all around him, he scrambled out and managed to hobble away.

But then he saw Lance Corporal Andy Tadbull, trapped in the turret, covered in blood but still alive. Trooper Finney threw himself back into the flames and dragged his comrade to safety. Then he returned to the Scimitar and tried to radio for help. But the fire from the air was renewed as the aircraft came swooping back a second time. There were more rounds, and some of them sliced into him.

Yesterday Tpr Finney of the Household Cavalry, who was 18 at the time of the attack in March, became the youngest holder of the George Cross, the highest honour awarded in the Iraq war, for exemplary bravery in the face of fire - American fire.

He was not the only one. Four others received decorations for gallantry under what is euphemistically called friendly fire, or in military language "blue on blue". Three were attacked by the United States forces, and one by the British.

Air Chief Marshal Brian Burridge, announcing 370 military decorations, described the incidents as "unfortunate". He stressed that the circumstances should not detract from the heroism of those involved.

The citation for the George Cross read: "Tpr Finney displayed clear-headed courage and devotion to his comrades which was out of all proportion to his age and experience. Acting with complete disregard for his own safety even when wounded, his bravery was of the highest order."

Tpr Finney, surrounded by senior officers, answered questions from journalists, and was careful when giving his reaction to being attacked by American allies. "It's one of those things," he said. Asked if he had an opinion on the American pilot who attacked the vehicle, he smiled. "I do but it will probably be unfair to say what it is," he said. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that American authorities were still investigating what happened on 28 March on the road north-west of Basra - why an A10 tankbuster, a fearsome warplane, had launched the attack on vehicles with clear British markings, including large Union Flags. There was no indication when the inquiry would be concluded.

Privately, members of the British military have expressed surprise that it was taking so long. The evidence of those who survived appears to be clear. They have described that not only did the American plane fire at their allies but that the attack took place when a group of villagers were approaching the British convoy. They were waving white flags.

Tpr Finney, who had been in the Army less than a year when he was sent to Iraq, said yesterday: "The aircraft was very, very low. It was so low I could see the pilots. I could see their faces. I don't know why they opened fire, or came back for a second run. I suppose it didn't come for a third run because by then there were so many people around, waving their arms and shouting. We were lucky." His voice faded away for a moment.

He went on: "We got hit on the top. I did not know what was happening. I heard a big bang and the gunner was screaming. I reversed but hit the vehicle behind because it had not moved.

"After I dragged Andy clear I went back. I got the gunner's headsets, banged them on, and gave a situation report. The plane came back again. I began to see sparks hitting the ground and around my legs.

"Andy got hit again. I just stayed with him and he was well out of it. Then I suddenly felt a hard kick. I thought I had hurt Andy and it was him kicking out in pain. But then I felt warm wet feeling in the back of my legs and then my arse. There was blood spurting everywhere, I realised I had been hit by shrapnel. I thought for minute, I could die. But, of course, it was just an injury."

Tpr Finney was flown home for treatment with Lance Corporal Steven Gerrard, 33, and 25-year-old Lieutenant Alex MacEwan, all injured by the American aircraft.

Recalling the incident, L/Cpl Gerrard said later: "The kit had been provided by the Americans. They have said if you put this kit on you won't get shot. We can identify a friendly vehicle from 1,500m. Yet you've got an A10 with advanced technology and he can't use a thermal sight to identify whether a tank is friend or foe. It's ridiculous. Combat is what I've been trained for. I can command my vehicle. I can keep it from being attacked. What I have not been trained to do is look over my shoulders to see whether an American is shooting at me.

"There were civilians around. There was a boy of about 12 years old. He was no more than 20m away when the Yank opened up. The man had no regard for human life."

Lt MacEwan also remembered seeing local people trying to surrender when the attack started. "You could see white flags above the bank ... I stuck my hand up and waved at them." Then he heard the chilling sounds of the distinctive and relentless rattle of the A10's anti-tank cannon.

He said: "I will never forget that noise as long as I live. It is a noise I never want to hear again. There was no gap between the bullets. I heard and I froze. The next thing I knew was the turret erupting with white light everywhere; heat and smoke. I felt I was going to burn to death. I just shouted 'Reverse, reverse.'

Then I saw the A10 coming again and I just ran. He was about 500m away when he started firing. On the back of one of the vehicles was a Union Jack. It's about 18 inches wide by 12 inches. To fire, the pilot had to look through his magnifying optics. How could he not see the Union Jack?"

Honoured few

Officials who came under critical scrutiny in the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly are also honoured.

* Julian Miller, the head of the Cabinet Office assessment staff who played a key role in compiling the discredited Iraq arms dossier is created CB.

* Kate Wilson, the chief press officer at the Ministry of Defence, who was involved in the strategy which led to Dr Kelly's identity being disclosed to the media, is appointed OBE.

Ms Wilson was supposed to provide support for Dr Kelly in dealing with the media. The inquiry heard that she telephoned him after his name had already been confirmed to the press, saying the scientist and his wife had 10 minutes to leave their home before journalists descended.

* Colonel Tim Collins, who was investigated for alleged war crimes during the Iraq war, but cleared after an MoD investigation, is appointed OBE. The investigation into Col Collins began after an American officer accused him of mistreating Iraqi prisoners.

Commenting on his award, the Ministry of Defence said: "Colonel Collins' personal contribution to the success of Operation Telic has been immense, innovative, sustaining, unstinting and selfless."