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Lance Corporal Croucher and blown-up rucksack

Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher threw himself
on top of a grenade.

In Afghanistan and Iraq

In Afghanistan in the spring of 2008, a small four man team moved forward to conduct a high risk 'close target reconnaissance' -

After 30 minutes on task, and having identified numerous items that could be used by insurgents to manufacture Improvised Explosive Devices, the team commander gave the order for the team to extract back to their pre-arranged rendezvous point with the remainder of Commando Reconnaissance Force. Lance Corporal Croucher was at the head of the group as they commenced the extraction; behind him, approximately 5 metres away, the Team Commander and another Marine were in the open and fully exposed, with the fourth team member a short distance behind them.

As the team moved silently through the still darkened compound, Lance Corporal Croucher felt a wire go tight against his legs, just below knee height.

This was a trip-wire connected to a grenade booby-trap, positioned to kill or maim intruders in the compound. He heard the fly-off lever eject and the grenade, now armed, fell onto the ground immediately beside him. Instantly realising what had occurred, Lance Corporal Croucher made a crucial and incredibly rapid assessment of the situation.

With extraordinary clarity of thought and remarkable composure, he shouted 'Grenade', then 'Tripwire' in an attempt to warn his comrades to find cover before the grenade exploded. It was clear to him that given the lack of cover in the immediate vicinity, he and the other team members were in extreme danger.

Due to low light levels, he was unable to determine the type of grenade and therefore had no way of knowing how long the device's fuse would take to function. With his comrades totally exposed and time running out, Lance Corporal Croucher made the decision not to seek cover or protection for himself, but to attempt to shield the other members of his team from the impending explosion. In an act of great courage, and demonstrating a complete disregard for his own safety, he threw himself on top of the grenade, pinning it between his day sack, containing his essential team stores, and the ground. Quite prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow Marines, Lance Corporal Croucher lay on the grenade and braced himself for the explosion.

Citation for the George Cross.

When the grenade exploded, "It felt like someone had run up to me and kicked me in the back really hard, along with a loss of hearing, ears in extreme pain and a throbbing head. Then body started aching and there was a smell of burning. Total disorientation". But amazingly he was alive.

His day sack had taken the brunt of the explosion". Afterwards he refused to be evacuated. According to his Citation for the George Cross, one of Britain's highest awards for bravery, this courageous and selfless action was "wholly typical" of him.

During a previous engagement at Forward Operating Base Inkerman on 9 November 2007, Lance Corporal Croucher helped save the life of a fallen comrade who had received a serious gunshot wound to the chest during a ferocious fire-fight with the enemy. For twenty minutes, whilst the company medical assistant was pinned down by enemy fire, he applied life-saving first aid which stabilised the wounded man until medical assistance arrived and the casualty could be extracted.

There are only 20 living holders of the George Cross.

On hearing that he would receive the George Cross, the Lance Cpl said, "There are a lot of other heroic acts which go on in Afghanistan which go unnoticed". And in Iraq, as well.

Fighting, training, building


No 3 Company The First Battalion The Grenadier Guards
deploy out of a RAF Chinook Helicopter in Afghanistan.

Image: Sergeant Will Craig Task

Coalition soldiers defeated Islamic terrorists, "guarded polling-places, opened schools and clinics, and excavated mass graves". They protected oil and electricity installations, trained Afghani and Iraqi soldiers to defend their people, and rebuilt roads.

British soldier guarding market shakes hand of smiling boy

Gunner Colin Rees, 457 Battery Royal Artillery (Volunteers) 1 YORKS Battle Group, greets a young Baswari in a market in Umm Qasr, Iraq.

Image: Cpl Ian Forsyth RLC

They helped to establish two Constitutions and free elections, and provided security so that economies plundered by Hussein and the Taliban could be rebuilt.

"They represent the highest form of the citizen, and every man and woman among them was a volunteer" (Christopher Hitchens).

These missions have come at a very high cost


Corporal Bryan Budd
16 Air Assault Brigade's Pathfinder Platoon

Corporal Bryan Budd was a member of an elite unit trained for long range reconnaissance missions. He had served in Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, and Iraq. In early June 2006, he joined A Company of 3 PARA serving in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Corporal Budd's conspicuous gallantry during two engagements saved the lives of many of his colleagues. He acted in the full knowledge that the rest of his men had either been struck down or had been forced to go to ground. His determination to press home a single-handed assault against a superior enemy force despite his wounds stands out as a premeditated act of inspirational leadership and supreme valour. He lost his life defending his men. In recognition of this, Corporal Budd was awarded the Victoria Cross. He leaves behind his wife Lorena and two small daughters, Isabelle and Imogen.


Corporal Mark Wright
3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (3 PARA)

Corporal Wright was awarded the George Cross "for acts of the greatest gallantry and complete disregard for his own safety in striving to save others" in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Corporal Mark Wright rushed down a steep slope toward enemy fire and into a minefield before it was cleared to rescue a fellow soldier who had stepped on a mine and sustained severe injuries. Exercising effective and decisive command, he directed medical orderlies to the injured soldier, ordered all unnecessary personnel to safety, and then began organising the casualty evacuation. He called for a helicopter, and ordered a route to be cleared through the minefield to a landing site.

Unfortunately the leader of this task, while moving back across the route he believed he had cleared, stepped on another mine and suffered a traumatic amputation. Corporal Wright, again at enormous personal risk, immediately moved to the new casualty and began rendering life-saving assistance until one of the medical orderlies could take over. Calmly, Corporal Wright ordered all non-essential personnel to stay out of the minefield and continued to move around and control the incident. He sent accurate situation reports to his headquarters and ensured that additional medical items were obtained.

Shortly afterwards a helicopter landed nearby, but before rescue could be effected, two more mine blasts occurred, severely injuring Corporal Wright, who nevertheless continued to calmly command the rescue effort and encourage his men. He died in the helicopter on the way to hospital.

Citation from George Cross

VC Pte Johnson Beharry

Pte Johnson Beharry, 27, of the
Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment

Pte Johnson Beharry received the Victoria Cross (VC) for his gallantry in saving the lives of his fellow Brits in two actions in Iraq. He twice cheated death in acts of exceptional bravery when his Warrior tank was hit by rocket-propelled grenades in two ambushes in 2004. Exposed to enemy fire, with his hatch blown away, his communications gone and his periscope shattered, he led his five-vehicle convoy to safety then clambered on to the red-hot metal to save colleagues, including his commanding officer. He remainsin considerable pain from his head injuries.

Beharry, who moved to Britain from Grenada when he was 19, recalls how the Army saved his life before he went into action. and what has happened to him since in Barefoot Soldier. His full citation is here.


Major Alexis 'Lex' Roberts
1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles

Susie Roberts paid tribute to her husband, Major Alexis Roberts, killed in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan as he returned from a successful operation in the lead vehicle. He was "the most wonderful husband and deeply loving father to Alice and Freya". She also told how, in a letter received just days before he died, Major Roberts wrote of how much good he felt he was doing for the people of Afghanistan and his pride in serving with his beloved Gurkhas.

A friend and mentor to Prince William during the young Royal's training at Sandhurst, Major Roberts was. . . selected as the Prince's platoon commander because he was a man of "profound integrity and courage". Major Roberts died when a bomb exploded under his Pinzgauer vehicle. The British government had more than a year to replace the inadequate Pinzgauer with vehicles that would protect its soldiers from small or large bombs. It did not.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Bourne MBE, Commanding Officer 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, wrote about Major Roberts -

He had only been back with this Battalion for a short period, but had already established himself as one of its mainstays – conscientious, always willing to selflessly muck in and with a keen sense of duty. . .From the very beginning his compassion and concern for his soldiers shone through. He immediately made his mark as an officer whom the Royal Gurkha Rifles would be proud to call one of their own – a true Gurkha.

In all that he did he put his soldiers first, but at the same time both he and his wife through their warmth and kindness, immediately became treasured friends of all those whose lives they touched. As his Commanding Officer, I couldn’t have asked for a finer Company Commander. He wanted to be involved, led from the front and inspired those with whom he served. He will be desperately missed by all Gurkhas. It is not always easy to explain the close bonds that develop between soldiers, particularly on operations, but it is a form of love, and a Gurkha community is especially close-knit.

Two Gurkha soldiers

Gurkhas deployed in Afghanistan. Due to their valour the Gurkhas are among the most heavily decorated regiments.

The Gurkhas have fought with the British for two centuries. In the 8th century, led by their prince, and inspired by their warrior-saint Guru Gorkhanath, the Gurkhas stopped an invasion of violent Islamists in Afghanistan, then called Ghandhar, which was a Buddhist/Hindu kingdom.

In succeeding centuries the Gurkhas founded the Kingdom of Nepal. In the early 19th century, they waged war against the British East India Company. They were defeated, but they so impressed their British opponents they were invited to join the British Indian Army as officers and soldiers. Since then Gurkhas have fought in both World Wars to defend freedom, and have been called “the bravest of the brave” by their British brothers.

Recently, at a key strategic post in southern Helmand, the Gurkhas endured “28 attacks lasting one to six hours each”. Many of them had never experienced combat before, but they rose to the occasion with courage and resilience in the face of rocket-propelled grenades, tunneling, snipers, and “five full scale efforts by hundreds of Taliban fighters to over-run their compound.”

The Taliban assault failed with over 100 killed, and only three men in the Gurkha Rifles injured. The Gurkha Major then used the Afghan police radio to send a message to the Taliban:

You have two paths here. If the attacks continue you will suffer. We are being restrained. We take no pleasure in this. We are here to help you if you want a better life. It is in your hands.

The gallantry and selflessness of a woman


Private Michelle Norris
Royal Army Medical Corps

Among those honoured for gallantry and selflessness in combat in Iraq was a woman who repeatedly risked her life to treat the wounded.

At just 19 years of age and having only recently completed basic training, Private Michelle Norris was deployed as a medical orderly with The Queen's Royal Hussars Battle Group in Al Amarah, Southern Iraq. 11 June 2006 saw the largest and most intense battle in Iraq since 2004. A search operation in Al Amarah turned into a war–fighting engagement when her Company Group came under heavy, accurate and sustained attack from a well–organised enemy force of over 200.

During the heaviest of the fighting the company commander's group came under accurate sniper fire and the commander of the Warrior carrying Private Norris was shot in the face and seriously injured. Private Norris realised the severity of the situation immediately and without thought or care for her own personal safety, she dismounted and climbed onto the top of the Warrior to administer life–saving first aid to the casualty. On seeing her on the top of the Warrior the sniper opened fire again, firing a further three rounds at her, one hitting the radio mounted on the side of the turret inches from her leg. Despite this she continued to administer first aid through the commander's hatch to the casualty until the gunner pulled her into the turret for her own safety. She has received the Military Cross.

In 2007, more than 100 members of the Armed Forces were presented with medals for gallantry in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace. They included –


Flight Lieutenant Craig Wilson, an RAF Chinook pilot received the Distinguished Flying Cross for 'exceptional courage and outstanding airmanship' while operating in Helmand Province.

On the night of 11 June 2006 he was tasked to recover a casualty from a Landing Site. In difficult and dangerous conditions despite having done little night flying in Afghanistan he made a precision approach and landing to extract the casualty. A few hours later on another mission in the same area he was tasked to another high risk area. Despite being low on fuel he made another difficult landing. . .


Lieutenant (now Captain) Tim Illingworth received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for 'inspiring and raw courage from a relatively young and inexperienced officer' while operating in the Garmsir area of Helmand Province.

On 10 September 2006 Captain Illingworth, while operating with the Afghan National Army, was involved in two days of heavy fighting whereby he was called upon to personally lead an attack when the Afghan Army Commander had been killed. He showed inspirational leadership in trying to recover the body of his fallen comrade. . .


Captain Catherine McWilliam received her Associate Royal Red Cross Medal, for her role in leading a young team on their first operational deployment in austere conditions and an extreme climate.

She led, taught and supervised her staff in caring for a wide spectrum of patients including Afghan civilians. . .


Major Mark Hammond, a Royal Marine Chinook pilot serving with the RAF received the Distinguished Flying Cross for 'inspirational command of his crew and his superior flying skills' while operating in Helmand Province.

On the night of 6 September 2006 he was tasked to effect a casualty rescue from Sangin. While carrying out the evacuation his aircraft was engaged by rifles and machine gun fire which he managed to avoid by skilful flying. On completion of that task he was then sent to Musa Qala for another casualty evacuation. . .On return to Camp Bastion, without hesitation he climbed into a spare aircraft and returned to Musa Qala successfully landing and extracting the casualty despite further machine gun and RPG attacks. . .

Gallant, in deed.

On the home front


Debee Orrell, the mother of LCpl Orrell, No 3 Company The First Battalion The Grenadier Guards

Debee coordinates the delivery of hundreds of small parcels to soldiers in Afghanistan from her Granby Arms pub, in Uppermill near Saddleworth. Local parishioners and old age pensioners are helping. "It's just a little bit of morale in a box," Debee says. The boxes are filled with "luxuries" - sweets, toiletries, extra socks, and notes of support.

Whether the intelligence about weapons of mass destruction was inaccurate or manipulated, Afghanistan and Iraq desperately needed a change of government. Whether Brits should have tried to help instigate that change may be debated. What cannot be debated is the courage, sacrifice and contributions of British soldiers.


HMS Richmond in the Arabian Gulf
guards oil infrastructure vital to the people of Iraq

Image: MoD

Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, returned from a trip to Iraq in autumn 2007, and reported that the tide had turned and the country is "working". Children are going to school, business is being rejuvenated, killings are down. That this is true is due in part to Britain’s protection of Iraq’s vital oil industry, which belongs to all the people of Iraq.


Welcoming British soldiers home.

Image: Bob Gertner

On Sunday, 14 October 2007, in the City of London -

Hundreds of family members and friends waited in anticipation, clutching Union Flags and banners as 140 British troops who had served in Helmand province in Afghanistan for the past six months marched into the main square of the Guildhall. The troops make up the Somme Company of the London Regiment and are mainly Territorial Army members. They have been based at Camp Bastion since April, supporting 12 Mechanised Brigade in operations against the Taliban.


Image: Bob Gertner

The London Regiment’s roles included protecting helicopter-borne medical teams. In the past six months the company has taken part in 200 evacuation missions, often under fire. One soldier did not return. The parade paid special tribute to Guardsman Daryl Hickey of the Grenadiers Guards, who was killed in action while attached to Somme Company. The heroes’ reunion included operational medals, speeches and prayers before the men fell out to meet their families in a jubilant reunion.

Thousands of British soldiers remain on duty in the Mideast.


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