Imperial War Museum honours bravest of the brave

Lord Ashcroft pays for £5m gallery, including his own collection of medals, telling the stories behind those who won the Victoria Cross

Hundreds of medals will this week go on public display in a new £5m gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.

But the personal stories of astonishing bravery that lie behind them are as much of an attraction as the medals themselves.

The gallery, being funded by the Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, will house his personal collection of the highest medals given for bravery in the face of an enemy, the Victoria Cross.

Since 1986, Ashcroft has sought to acquire almost every VC that was available to buy, creating the world's largest collection with an estimated value of £30m.

The gallery will be formally opened on Thursday – armistice day – by Princess Anne, and the 164 medals Ashcroft owns go on public display from Friday along with the 48 VCs and 31 George Crosses – the VC's civilian equivalent – already held by the museum.

It is the first new permanent gallery at the Imperial War Museum for 10 years.

"This is a gallery about brave people," principal historian Nigel Steel said. "Rather than arrange things chronologically or alphabetically, we wanted to do something new and fairly radical ... we wanted to use the medals to create a gallery about bravery.

"We hope it will make people think about themselves and about people they know and use it as a way of looking within themselves, looking at humanity, and asking: 'Why do people do these brave things?'"

There are many reasons for extreme bravery but one of the most common themes was not being able to stand "seeing others suffer", Steel said.

The Victoria Cross was created in 1856 to reward acts of extreme bravery carried out under direct enemy fire, and there have been 1,354 recipients.

The George Cross was introduced in 1940 to recognise similar levels of bravery in peacetime or away from the heat of battle. It has been given to 406 people.

Aschroft told the Guardian it was a "humbling" moment to see the gallery finally about to open. "You cannot be in here and know and see the stories and not be just overwhelmed," he added.

"This is displaying the stories of an incredible group of people who were prepared to put their life on the line for all types of different motive."

Steel said it was possible to argue that some deserving people had not received a VC or GC, but that all the men and women who did receive one unquestionably deserved it.

The gallery, with interactive displays, tells the stories of 243 heroes including living recipients such as Johnson Beharry from Grenada who, serving in Iraq as the driver of a Warrior armoured vehicle in 2004, twice saved colleagues under enemy fire.

There are better-known stories, such as that of Odette Sansom, the French Resistance British agent who was tortured by the Gestapo but refused, even when all her toe nails were pulled out and when she had a red hot poker on her back, to give up any information about her fellow agents.

Then there are the almost unimaginable stories, such as that of Norman Jackson attempting to put out a fire in the Lancaster bomber he was crewing by crawling along the wing with a fire extinguisher before falling 20,000ft.

Miraculously, he survived and managed to get to a German village before being captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp.


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

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