Stories of bravery illustrate needs of the many

Matt Croucher.  PA
Matt Croucher. PA
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The Royal British Legion is needed as much ever, says Lance Corporal Matt Croucher GC, one of the heroes of modern warfare, Sheena Hastings reports

APART from his parents, most of Matt Croucher’s family were in the military, and as a sporty boy he dreamed of joining up. He set his sights on the Royal Marines (“because they were the most difficult to get into”), and eventually he passed the gruelling recruitment process and earned his green beret.

Now 27 and a heavy weapons and reconnaissance specialist, his years in service so far have included three tours of Iraq and one of Afghanistan, as well as other duties in the Middle East and Mediterranean and spells of training in the Arctic. He has also undertaken duties with the United Nations. In 2008 he was awarded the George Cross by the Queen.

Like many others who have been awarded a Class I medal for their courage in military service, he is modest and continually deflects attention from himself to the group effort and the equal bravery of his comrades in arms, as well as those who work behind the scenes in the theatre of war to enable military campaigns to run smoothly.

However much Lance Corporal Croucher might seek to spread the glory, he is indeed an extraordinarily brave man.

Back in February 2008, he and his team were on a reconnaissance operation seven miles south of the town of Sangin, in Aghanistan’s Helmand Province. They were trying to find out if there was a Taliban bomb-making plant in a certain compound, when he walked through a trip wire that was attached to a grenade. He threw his back sack onto the now live grenade and threw his body onto the ground in a foetal position between the grenade and the four colleagues behind him.

His instinctive action saved his comrades from injury and he escaped miraculously with concussion, perforated eardrums, shrapnel cuts and bruises. Amazingly, he got up and continued the patrol, but after returning to base Matt was sent to the British military hospital in Camp Bastion. Meanwhile, the men he had been on patrol with reported his valour to commanding officers, and a few months later Matt Croucher was informed that he was to be awarded the George Cross, a decoration given to extraordinary servicemen and women since it was first instituted in 1940.

“It was a great honour to get the medal, but lots of people who are equally brave don’t necessarily get the attention and recognition I did,” says Matt. He was unprepared for the wave of media attention. “It took ages to get used to the fuss it caused. I don’t consider myself any more of a hero than anyone else who serves Queen and country. Other marines would have done exactly the same as I did, if I hadn’t been fulfilling that role that night. I’ve witnessed some very brave feats by individuals, and many have gone unrecognised.”

These days Matt Croucher is still in the Marine Reserves but he also helps to run a UK security firm and works to raise awareness and money for military charities – so far raising £100,000. He has now put together a book to commemorate 90 years of the Royal British Legion, whose emblem is the famous red poppy. The charity was set up in 1921 to establish an effective welfare network for veterans and veterans’ families and to ensure that the nation embraces the annual Act of Remembrance.

The book tells the story of 90 British heroes who have earned honours for their individual courage but also represent the unsung deeds of many others, says Matt. James ‘Ginger’ Lacey, who was born and brought up in Wetherby, joined the RAF Reserve in 1937. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was called up to 501 Squadron as a sergeant pilot and took part in the Battle for France in May 1940, scoring his first kills over Sedan and shooting down a Messerschmitt Bf109 and a Bf110. The squadron remained in France and Lacey shot down two more Nazi aircraft.

As part of 11 Group, Lacey took part in the Battle of Britain, engaging the enemy for a record 35 days and becoming the top scoring flying ace in the squadron.

He and his Hurricane shot down 18 German aircraft, earning both the Distinguished Flying Medal and Bar. Lacey remained with 501 Squadron when it converted to Spitfires in April 1941, and later that year became an instructor. Returning to front-line service in the Far East with 20 Squadron then taking command of 155 Squadron in 1944 and 17 Squadron, with whom he won his last victory of the war, he shot down a Japanese Ki 43 Oscar over Burma in February 1945.

The squadron leader’s final tally was 28 destroyed, five probably destroyed and nine damaged. James Lacey died in Bridlington in 1989 at the age of 72. He was the highest scoring Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain and the second highest scoring RAF pilot in the Second World War.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Karl Ley was born and raised in Sheffield and joined the Army in 1999, going into the Royal Logistics Corps. He trained as an ammunitions technician, whose duties included handling and defusing bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In 10 years with the Army he served in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Belize before deploying to Afghanistan in 2009.

Ley was trained to deal with the most complex and dangerous of the Taliban’s IEDs. Not only did he deactivate 139 devices over the course of six month tour but 28 of these were in one location over a 72-hour period. This took place under Taliban fire and in extreme physical conditions, with the IED disposal teams unable to wear heavy protective equipment due to the fierce heat.

Karl Ley received the George Medal in September 2010, and his citation recognised his “...unwavering dedication, conspicuous gallantry and poise in the face of substantial danger and of the enemy, over a sustained period, he is unreservedly recommended for high public recognition.”

Another of the heroes featured in The Royal British Legion – 90 Years of Heroes is Lance Corporal Andrew Wardle, who was honoured with the Military Cross last year for a wide range of actions with the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment during a six-month tour of Afghanistan. His brave deeds include attacking the Taliban, detecting IEDs and rescuing a small child under fire. His citation noted his “exemplary courage” and said he was an inspiration to the Afghan soldiers in his charge.

Each generation of military personnel includes many who, at some point, need the help and support of the Royal British Legion, and that’s why its work is as important now as it was after the ravages of the First World War.

“Following a record year for The Poppy Appeal in 2010, raising over £36m, we are humbled by the support of the public,“ says Liz Hughes, community fundraiser for the Legion in North and East Yorkshire. “With the current conflict in Afghanistan we are hopeful that the public will continue to join The Royal British Legion in remembering our fallen by wearing their poppies on Remembrance Sunday.”

Of last year’s total, £2,628,768.71 came from Yorkshire.

“The demands on the Poppy Appeal remain extremely high,” says Liz. “The ex-Service community includes veterans of the Second World War, as well as many from other conflicts since 1945 including Palestine, Korea, Malaya, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf War, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. There has only been one year (1968) since the Second World War when a British Service person hasn’t been killed on active service and the names of over 16,000 servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the nation since the Second World War. The current operations in Afghanistan continues to place an ever greater demand on the Legion’s benevolent work.”

Each year the needs of the ex-Services community continue to rise. About 9.5 million people in the UK are now eligible for Legion help, and in 2010 the charity answered 160,000 individual calls through its Poppy Support services. More than £1.4m a week is spent on its welfare work, and since 2003 the RBL has provided financial support to more than 16,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, investing £50m in Personnel Recovery Centres to care for the wounded of current conflicts.

The Royal British Legion 90 Years of Heroes by Matt Croucher GC is published by Collins, £20. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk All royalties from the book will go to the RBL.

Your chance to help

The Yorkshire Post has launched it’s own appeal in support of ABF – The Soldiers’ Charity, which in the past year has seen a 50 per cent leap in the number of Army families seeking its help alongside a rocketing number of individual cases.

You can donate by bidding for one of the 50 exclusive Christmas gifts we will be offering throughout November.

The first 10 lots will be announced on Saturday, and you can bid by visiting the Yorkshire Post website and clicking the links through to eBay.

For those who prefer to donate the more traditional way, please send a cheque made payable to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, to the Editor’s Secretary, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF.