The Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum

composite - victoria cross and george cross

One of the lesser-visited galleries in the IWM is on Level 5 (the top floor), the Lord Ashcroft collection of Victoria Crosses and George Crosses and the stories of the exceptional acts of bravery that went into winning every one of these medals.

The Valour Cross – “for valour” – was first presented in 1857 and is awarded to individuals displaying extreme courage in combat. Only 1,358 have been won in its nearly 170 years. The George Cross, instituted in 1940, is the highest award for bravery not in the presence of the enemy, so may be won by civilians as well as by members of the armed forces.

As with the stories of the men and women of the SOE (many of whom won these highest of honours), we who have had the good fortune never to have to have faced such extreme tests can only be in awe at these feats. Here is the flight engineer who crawled onto the wing of his Lancaster while in mid air over enemy territory, to put out an engine fire; the bomb disposal team that spent three days working on a 1,000 bomb not knowing if there was a timer or booby-trap that could detonate the whole thing. Only 15 VCs have been awarded since the second world war, the most recent to paratrooper Joshua Leakey in 2015 for an action in Afghanistan two years previously. “Lance Corporal … ran across an exposed hillside raked with machine-gun fire three times to arrange the evacuation of casualties, rally his comrades, return fire and retake the initiative.” (from The Guardian)

Such tales featured heavily in the 1960s and 1970s war comics that I spent my childhood reading, and one can pick up a compilation of some of these in the gallery. (See picture below.)

But of all the heroism that is set out, the one that has stuck in my mind from the first time I read it is the story of Flight Lieutenant John Quinton. A decorated WW2 flier, in 1951 he and a 16 year old air cadet were in the rear compartment of a Wellington bomber when the ‘plane was involved in a mid-air collision. Quinton grabbed the only parachute to hand, clipped it to the air cadet’s harness and pushed him out of the falling plan. A chance of survival for the 16 year old (and he did land safely); certain death for Quinton himself.

Some books include: Victoria Cross Heroes and George Cross Heroes by Michael Ashcroft,

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