Victoria Cross: Courage under fire

A soldier's heroism in Iraq has led to the first award of a Victoria Cross for 20 years. Kim Sengupta and Max Arthur on 150 years of our highest military honour
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The Independent Online

THE IRAQ WAR, Private Johnson Gideon Beharry

The ambush in the killing fields of Iraq was well-planned and ferocious. Round after round of rocket-propelled grenades smashed into the trapped Warrior, rocking the 30-ton armoured vehicle and setting it ablaze.

With the platoon commander and gunner wounded and unconscious, and the radio system wrecked, Pte Johnson Gideon Beharry led the convoy to safety and saved the lives of 30 comrades. After medical treatment, a month later Pte Beharry returned to duty and another ambush. Again he managed to save his Warrior and his comrades, this time suffering head injuries which left him in a coma.

Yesterday 25-year-old Pte Beharry, was awarded the Victoria Cross for "two individual acts of great heroism by which he saved the lives of his comrades. His valour is worthy of the highest recognition". Fellow soldiers had vigorously lobbied the military hierarchy for him to get the medal.

This is the first time the Victoria Cross - the highest British and Commonwealth military honour for bravery - has been awarded in 20 years, and Pte Beharry is the first living recipient in 40 years. Just 11 had been awarded since the Second World War, the last posthumously to Lt-Col Herbert "H" Jones and Sgt Ian McKay in the Falklands campaign.

Pte Beharry, who was born in the Caribbean island of Grenada, bears the scars of battle on his face and head. His wife Lynthia, 23, was told after the second wounds that he had only a "50-50" chance of survival.

Yesterday, at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defence, Pte Beharry, of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, was embarrassed to talk about his heroism. What was going through his mind at the time of the attack? "RPG", he said. But surely he must accept he was brave? "When I was told about the Victoria Cross I was speechless," he said. "At the time, I was just doing my job. I didn't have time for other thought. Maybe I was brave, but I really don't know. I think anyone else could have done the same thing."

When a black journalist asked whether he was a "Uncle Tom" by joining the British Army, he smiled and said patiently: "Look, I did what was right for me. I joined the Army for a change of life. I have really thought about it. It was a good decision to make."

On 1 May 2003, after President George Bush declared the war was officially over, Pte Beharry's company was on a supply run to al-Amarah in southern Iraq when they were switched to go to the aid of foot patrol pinned down by insurgent fire.

Pte Beharry was in the first of five Warriors when the RPGs opened fire. He realised that staying put would be suicide and drove the armoured vehicle straight through an insurgent barricade, clearing a path for the rest of the convoy.

As Pte Beharry tried to pull down the armoured hatch it was blown out of his hand by another blast. The rocket also wrecked the Warrior's armoured periscope, forcing him to drive the rest of the 1,500m escape route with his head exposed to fire from the ground and windows and balconies overhead. One bullet went through his helmet and lodged in the inner surface. Pte Beharry halted the Warrior at an Army post, and still under heavy enemy fire, he twice went back into the burning vehicle to drag his platoon commander, then the gunner to safety.

On 11 June, Pte Beharry was in an armoured column trying to cut off an enemy mortar team when it was attacked. An RPG hit armour plate 6ins from him, shrapnel embedding in his head. Bleeding heavily, he reversed the Warrior into cover, helping save the soldiers inside. General Sir Mike Jackson, chief of the general staff, said: "His citation is an extraordinary story of one man's courage. He risked his life for his colleagues not just once, but twice."

THE CRIMEAN WAR, Midshipman Charles Lucas

The first action for which the VC was awarded was that of a 20-year-old Irish midshipman, Charles Lucas. At the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, a British fleet was sent to the Baltic to blockade the Russian fleet.

HMS Hecla was attacked by the Russian shore battery and a live shell landed on the upper deck. A cry went up for all hands to fling themselves flat on deck, but Lucas coolly picked up the shell with its fizzing fuse, carried it to the rail and threw it overboard. It exploded before it hit the water and two sailors were slightly hurt. The consequences would have been far more serious, but for his prompt action.

Lucas was promoted to Acting Lieutenant on the spot. He had attained the rank of Rear-Admiral when he retired in 1885.

THE INDIAN MUTINY, Able Seaman William Hall

William Hall was the first black man to win the Victoria Cross. In 1851, at a time when slavery was still accepted practice in the United States, Hall, who had been born a British subject in Canada, joined the Royal Navy.

He was the only black man among his naval shipmates. At the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, he joined Shannon's Brigade, a land-based force of 250 sailors. The mutiny, regarded by many as India's first War of Independence, lasted 13 months and was characterised by violent, bloody acts by both sides.

Hall's brigade sailed up theGanges river and marched to Lucknow, where East India Company officials and their families were besieged by rebels. Blocking the path into Lucknow stood the Shah Nujiff, a fortress occupied by the rebels. The brigade moved its guns into position and began firing on the fortress, but failed to make any impression. In desperation, two of the British guns were moved to a position so close to the building that after firing each round, the gun crews were hit by the bricks and stones blasted from the walls.

One of the crews was a man short, so Hall volunteered to fill the position. He was aware that the rebels were directing their fire on these two crews and that he faced almost certain death. Before long, only Hall and one badly wounded officer remained alive, yet he single-handedly continued to drag his cannon backwards and forwards, reloading and firing until the walls of the Shah Nujiff were breached.

Hall miraculously survived and his deed was described by Commander-in-Chief Sir Colin Campbell as "an action almost unexampled in war".

The British victory was to have far reaching consequences - increasingly India came under direct Crown rule and, in 1877, Queen Victoria was crowned Empress.

FIRST WORLD WAR, Gunner Jack Cornwell

Cornwell joined the Navy on 14 October 1915 as Boy-2nd Class, aged 15. His father, Eli, despite being well over military age, had rejoined the army at the outbreak of the Great War and his elder brother was a factory worker.

Cornwell junior, who was known as Jack but christened John, underwent six months of training at Keyham Naval Barracks in Plymouth where his instructor considered him "quite good", but not as quick as he might be at gunnery.

Nevertheless, after spending a few days at home with his mother, he joined the light cruiser HMS Chester as a gunner. He was made the sight-setter to the Chester's forward six-inch gun, a role he was to perform at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. On that day, he stood at the side of the gun's shield, wearing headphones which connected him by wire to the gunnery officer, who issued instructions as to how to aim and when to fire. In front of him was a small brass wheel, which raised and lowered the muzzle of the gun.

Almost as soon as the battle started, Cornwell's gun turret was hit by enemy fire. Sailors were blown across the deck, cut to pieces by shell splinters. Another shell burst over the gun and all the surviving gunners ran for cover. Only Cornwell remained at his post. Fatally wounded though he was, and unable to fire the gun on his own, he stood in position, waiting for orders. He was later taken ashore to a hospital in Grimsby, where his last words before he died were: "Give mother my love. I know she is coming."

His story inspired a country and his funeral in East Ham was attended by thousands. An address at the funeral concluded: "First Class Boy John Travers Cornwell will be enshrined in British hearts as long as faithful unflinching duty shall be esteemed a virtue amongst us."

He is still remembered each year in a ceremony at the Manor Park Cemetery. There is a Jack Cornwell Street in Newham's Manor Park which also has a pub called The Victoria Cross.

SECOND WORLD WAR, Sergeant Norman Jackson

On 26 April 1944 Sgt Jackson's bombing target was a ball-bearing factory at Schweinfurt. His Lancaster had released its bombs and was heading for home when it was attacked from the ground and the air. The starboard engine was hit and set on fire. As the fire spread, Jackson volunteered to crawl out on to the wing to try to put the fire out. He recalled, "The flak was coming up and there were fighters all around. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and put it inside my Mae West. It was my duty to get out. I released my parachute inside the plane so that the bomb-aimer and navigator could hold on to me in case I slipped. I edged my way on to the wing. It was freezing cold and we were doing about 140-160 knots with the aircraft shaking all over the place. I hung on to the air-intakes on the leading edge of the wing with one hand, and tried to put out the fire with the other. I'd got it under control when one of their fighters began shooting at me. I couldn't even jump, because the crew were holding on to my chute. Then I was shot off the bloody wing, and my mates threw my parachute out of the plane."

Sgt Jackson landed with his parachute in flames, and with shrapnel wounds and burns to his hands and eyes. Sgt Jackson and the rest of the crew, except for the pilot and the rear-gunner who had been killed, were captured. Sgt Jackson was treated well by the Germans.

His Victoria Cross was presented by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.Wing Cdr Leonard Cheshire was also due to receive a Victoria Cross for his continued bravery with bomber command. Wing Cdr Cheshire held Sgt Jackson's arm so that they both walked up to receive the medal together.

Wing Cdr Cheshire should by protocol have gone first, but he spoke to the King, saying, "This man should go ahead of me. He took a far greater risk than I ever did." The King noted this, but by order of rank Wing Cdr Cheshire was presented with his Victoria Cross first. Sgt Jackson never forgot the generous act of his colleague.

FALKLANDS WAR, Sergeant Ian McKay

On the night of 11-12 June 1982, the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment, mounted a silent attack on an enemy battalion on Mount Longdon, an important objective in the battle for Port Stanley.

Sgt McKay was platoon sergeant of 4 Platoon, B Company, which, after the initial objective had been secured, was ordered to clear the northern side of the long east-west ridge held by the enemy in depth. By now the enemy were fully alert and resisting fiercely. As his platoon advanced, it came under heavy fire from well-sited machine-gun positions on the ridge. Casualties began to mount.

With the advance halted, his platoon was ordered to shelter among the rocks of the ridge. This position became increasingly hazardous, coming under heavy and accurate enemy fire. Taking Sgt McKay, a corporal and a few others, and covered by supporting machine-gun fire, the platoon commander moved forward to reconnoitre the enemy positions, but fell injured, so command fell to Sgt McKay. Instant action was needed if the advance was not to falter.

Taking three men with him, he broke cover and charged the enemy position. He was met by a hail of fire. One of his men was killed and the other two seriously wounded. Sgt McKay continued to charge on alone. On reaching the position, he destroyed it with grenades but was killed, his body falling on the bunker.

His action had retrieved a most dangerous situation and ensured the success of the attack. His was a coolly calculated act, the dangers of which must have been apparent to him. His courage, selflessness, perseverance and disregard for his own safety were an inspiration to all around him.

Max Arthur is the author of 'Symbol of Courage: A History of the Victoria Cross', published by Sidgwick & Jackson, £25.