Interview with Lord Ashcroft.
In his inspirational new book, businessman, philanthropist, author, pollster and collector of 215 Victoria Crosses, Lord Ashcroft tells the stories behind his collection of valour and service medals awarded for the Falklands War.
The Falklands War, which may prove to be the last ‘colonial’ war that Britain ever fights, took place in 1982. Fought 8,000 miles from home soil, it cost the lives of 255 British military personnel, with many more wounded, some seriously.
The war also witnessed many acts of outstanding courage by the UK Armed Forces after a strong Task Force was sent to regain the islands from the Argentine invaders. Soldiers, sailors and airmen risked, and in some cases gave, their lives for the freedom of 1,820 islanders.
Lord Ashcroft, who has been fascinated by bravery since he was a young boy, has amassed several medal collections over the past four decades, including the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award.
Falklands War Heroes tells the stories behind his collection of valour and service medals awarded for the Falklands War. The collection, almost certainly the largest of its kind in the world, spans all the major events of the war.
This book, which contains nearly forty individual write-ups, has been written to mark the fortieth anniversary of the war next year.
It is Lord Ashcroft’s attempt to champion the outstanding bravery of Britain’s Armed Forces during an undeclared war that was fought and won over ten weeks in the most challenging conditions.
We caught up with Lord Ashcroft to tell us more…
Q: Lord Ashcroft, we all know so much about the World Wars and many of us even lived through the Falklands but I suspect this is the first time a lot of us have heard these incredible stories of bravery in the Falklands. Why is this?
A: The Falklands War was certainly covered extensively by the media back in 1982 and there were a number of books on the subject in the immediate aftermath of the war. However, life moves on and, you are right, The Falklands War has received limited scrutiny in recent times.
As the fortieth anniversary of the war approached, I realised that – partly by good fortune and partly by design – I, as a medal collector, had built up a formidable collection of gallantry and service medals awarded for the conflict. These medals covered almost all the major events of the ten-week undeclared war.
Therefore, a year or so ago, I decided to write “Falklands War Heroes” for two reasons: to champion the gallantry of men (and women) during the war and to raise money for military charities (all author’s royalties from the new book will be donated to good causes).
Q. Your writing really captures the bravery of the heroes… the story of the man having his leg amputated without an anaesthetic and the nurse’s recollections give such incredible insights into what happened over there. How important is it to keep telling these stories of gallantry through the generations?
A. Thank you for those kind words about my latest book. I have a simple belief that the courage of men and women who have risked, and in some cases, given, their lives for their country, their monarch, their comrades or for wider freedoms must never be forgotten. It’s essential to keep telling these stories.
Of course, I could not have written my latest book without the co-operation of so many Falklands War heroes who generously gave their time to tell me about their experiences. I am pleased to say that most of these individuals were able to attend the book launch in central London on November 16 when they were introduced to the other guests, and given a long and loud standing ovation for their collective courage.
Q. What prompted you to start your Victoria Cross collection and indeed interest in bravery? I read your father was in the Normandy Landings. That must have been a pretty powerful insight into bravery as you were growing up? Did your father openly talk about his experiences?
A. You are right: it was my late father, Eric, who first inspired my interest in bravery. He was a modest, private man and rarely spoke about the Second World War. However, when I was an inquisitive boy of about ten, he did finally tell me about his experiences as a young lieutenant on D-Day.
It was dawn on June 6, 1944 when his landing craft was filled with a sense of fear and trepidation. In an earlier confidential briefing, my father and his CO had been warned to expect 75 per cent casualties – dead and wounded – as they charged up Sword Beach. In the end, my father’s CO was shot dead at his side while my father received shrapnel wounds but fought on until ordered from the battlefield.
My interest in bravery grew and grew and gradually I developed a passion for gallantry medals too. In 1986, having earned a little money as an entrepreneur, I purchased my first VC at auction. Soon I decided to build a proper collection and today the number of VCs in it stands at well over 200 decorations. I also have collections of Special Forces medals, medals for gallantry in the air and George Crosses (GCs).
Q. What can we do to help our veterans in this country?
A. I have long had a special interest in the welfare of our war veterans. In fact, I served as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition for six years from 2012-18. In February 2014, I published the Veterans’ Transition Review which analysed the process of leaving the Armed Forces and returning to civilian life. The Government, in turn, agreed to implement all the significant recommendations in the review.
In a nutshell, I believe that service men and women do need significant help making the difficult transition from the Armed Forces to civilian life, all the more so if they have been badly injured or are suffering from PTSD or other problems. People wanting to know more about my work in this field should read the 2014 report.
Q. Do you have a favourite recipient, or recipients, of the 215 VC’s in your collection?
A. I don’t like talking about “favourite” medals or recipients – any more than a parent should speak publicly about a “favourite” child. Behind every gallantry medal is a brave man, or woman, who has performed an action of great heroism.
However, I did take great pride and satisfaction when, in 2009, I was able to purchase privately one of only three VCs and Bar – that’s the equivalent of two VCs – that have been awarded over the past 165 years.
Captain Noel Chavasse, a doctor who served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), was also the only man to be awarded the VC and Bar during the Great War. I travelled to France and Belgium four years ago to do a major magazine article and short film on Captain Chavasse’s extraordinary life.
Having already been awarded the Military Cross (MC), Captain Chavasse was awarded his first VC for bravery at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the Bar to his VC for gallantry at the Battle of Passchendaele a year later. He died from horrendous injuries received during the opening days of that battle, on August 4 1917, aged 32.
Captain Chavasse’s second VC was a posthumous award announced more than a month after his death. As a result of his wartime exploits, Captain Chavasse saved the lives of dozens of men, often going out to rescue them just yards from enemy trenches. He really was “the bravest of the brave”.
Q. What do you think about the winners of the VC attracting a ‘bursary’ of £10k pa for life?
A: I think it is entirely appropriate that recipients of the VC and GC should receive an annual gift as a “thank you” from the nation for their quite exceptional bravery, and this was recently agreed by the Government.
Q. Your words bring these stories to life and with each page I feel such pride and thanks for these people who so often give the ultimate sacrifice. Could we possibly see some more of your stories televised perhaps?
A. Falklands War Heroes is my seventh book in the “Heroes” series. I did make various television documentaries linked to my first four bravery books: “Victoria Cross Heroes”, “Special Forces Heroes”, “George Cross Heroes” and “Heroes of the Skies”.
More recently, however, I have made shorter films and put them on YouTube. That’s the route I will go down in future and I already have plans to make more of these films in 2022. On Armistice Day, I unveiled my new website which contains all the work I have done on bravery over the past 15 years: information on my books, my medal collections, my media work and my documentaries and films.
Q. If Ridley Scott called and wanted you to point him in the direction of just one ‘story’ of heroism to become his next big Hollywood Blockbuster, which story would you choose?
A. I would say to him: “Hi Ridley. Good to talk. The timing of your call could not be better”. That’s because I have just finished researching a story which has always fascinated me and would make a great Hollywood blockbuster. I researched it for a newspaper article and film and concluded it might be the most remarkable VC action in the decoration’s 165-year history.
It’s the story of Warrant Officer Norman Jackson VC, who was one of seven crew in a Lancaster bomber on a bombing mission in April 1944. Having dropped its bombs over Germany, the aircraft was attacked by a German night fighter. A fire started near a petrol tank on the starboard wing.
Jackson, who had been injured in the attack, obtained the captain’s permission to try to put out the blaze. Pushing a small fire extinguisher into the top of his flying jacket and grabbing a small axe, he jettisoned the escape hatch. He then released his parachute inside the aircraft, enabling other crew members to hold on to the rigging lines, paying them out as Jackson crawled onto the burning wing.
With the Lancaster travelling at 200 mph and using the axe to secure a grip, he fought the blaze. Despite his best efforts, the fire spread and soon his face, hands and clothing were severely burnt.
Even worse, the enemy fighter came back and strafed the Lancaster a second time, forcing Jackson to drop the fire extinguisher. Unable to keep his hold, Jackson was swept through the flames and into the night. When last seen, his parachute was only partly inflated and ablaze.
Realising the fire was out of control, the captain gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Meanwhile, Jackson was unable to control his descent and landed heavily, suffering a broken ankle and damaged right eye.
He was taken Prisoner of War and spent ten months in hospital but was freed in 1945. Jackson was one of five crew to survive the incident, while two perished. Jackson’s VC was announced on October 26 1945. What a story!
Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.
His new gallantry website is www.lordashcroftonbravery.com.
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