When Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher threw himself on a grenade, it wasn’t a suicide mission.

The 26-year-old acted instantly after tripping a wire inside a suspected Taliban bomb factory. Realising his mistake could kill his whole team, the royal marine leapt into action, smothering the grenade with his backpack.

Remarkably, Croucher survived the 2008 blast and, thanks to his bravery, so did everyone else.

Croucher’s act was awarded with a George Cross in 2009. His cross, bomb-tattered backpack and story are one of the 243 Victoria and George Crosses on display in the Imperial War Museum’s new gallery, Extraordinary Hereos.

The exhibit, in the new Lord Ashcroft Gallery, displays the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses since 1986. The Victoria Cross is awarded for extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy while the George Cross is Britain’s most prestigious civil decoration.

As well as a medal gallery, awards are displayed with interactive touch-screens and artefacts like the jacket worn by Odette Sansom when she was imprisoned and tortured by Nazi Gestapo for two years.

The medals bring to life stories like Tony Gledhill’s, who along with another unarmed officer, chased an armed gang across South London while being shot at 15 times.

“He held a gun to my head. I thought he was going to shoot but he didn’t,” Gledhill remembers.

After the car they were driving crashed, the chase continued on foot until they were able to wrestle them to the ground. Gledhill, who was 29-years-old at the time pushed aside any fear and only focused on his mission. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you stop after the first shot?’ I didn’t know why, I just carried on.”

These stories and 240 extraordinary other ones are on display at the new Lord Ashcroft Gallery for the next ten years. The gallery is open now.

Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, SE1 6HZ
Tube: Lambeth North
Free admission


– Heather Vandenegel