Exhibition and new gallery: The Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London, opens November 12 2010
© Imperial War Museum
On the second occasion that Corporal Johnson Beharry risked his life to rescue his comrades under heavy fire in Iraq, he sustained life-threatening injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade which penetrated his skull and brain.
Recuperating in hospital after brain surgery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s premier award for extreme gallantry. The award was the first to a serving British soldier in more than 20 years.
Beharry’s experience is well known, but it's just one of many remarkable stories awaiting visitors to a new gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London, commemorating extraordinary and conspicuous acts of bravery by soldiers across the centuries.
The Lord Ashcroft Gallery has been built with a £5 million donation by the eponymous Lord to house his collection of Victoria Crosses, the world’s largest collection assembled during the pat 24 years.
The 164 awards range from the Crimean to the Falklands wars and join 48 VCs and 31 George Crosses already held by the museum.
Mixing interactives, video montage, photographs and film clips with artefacts and the award groups themselves, the gallery cleverly reveals the stories behind each decoration.
Beharry is pictured in a specially commissioned portrait by Don McCullin which shows the dramatic scar across his skull and the large VC tattooed across his back. Together with his pierced Kevlar helmet, it’s an image which summaries his remarkable story.
© Imperial War Museum
The stories here are by necessity remarkable. Among them is that of Lance Corporal Croucher GC, who threw himself onto a grenade during a covert search of Taliban bomb factory in Afghanistan. Saving the lives of his comrades, Croucher sustained few injuries thanks to his backpack. Its shattered remnants can be seen in the gallery.
Suspended from the ceiling is a lifesize shark, recalling the George Cross action of Cadet David Hay, who plunged into shark infested waters to save a comrade in 1941. Then there is the diving suit worn by Acting Leading Seaman James Magennis, who was awarded the VC after making several dangerous dives to attach limpet mines in the Johore Straits in 1945.
“Our mission is to enrich people’s understanding of war and its impact on ordinary people,” says Dianne Lees, Director General of the Imperial War Museum. Her museum’s latest gallery does this very well, aided by extraordinary heroes, their stories and their medals.