Page last updated at 19:30 GMT, Wednesday, 23 July 2008 20:30 UK

Hero tells how he saved comrades

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent

L/Cpl Croucher
L/Cpl Croucher has served in Iraq and Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Matt Croucher looks slightly uncomfortable to be hailed a hero, as he listens to his citation for the George Cross awarded for his outstanding bravery.

It is a medal awarded only rarely, for "acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger". And the 24-year-old Royal Marine reservist's actions were exactly that.

Split second decision

On February 9th this year, while in Helmand Province with 40 Commando Royal Marines, his Commando reconnaissance force was sent out to investigate a Taliban compound where they suspected bombs were being made.

Mission accomplished, they were walking out when L/Cpl Croucher felt himself walk into a tripwire. The booby trap pulled the pin out of a grenade.

He told me that what happened next was instinctive.

" I saw the grenade land in front of me, so I had a split second decision to decide what to do. I had a quick look around and there was nowhere to take cover. I knew there was two lads who were directly behind me and a third further back than that," he says.

"A grenade's usually got a 5m killing circumference.

"So I thought, I'm going to get seriously injured whatever I do so I might as well jump in front of the grenade and at least try and save the rest of the lads from getting seriously injured or killed themselves. So I lay in front of the grenade."

I ask what was going through his mind as he did so.

Being awarded the George Cross is a huge honour, for me and for 40 Commando. But there are so many acts of bravery by the lads that don't make it into the press. It's all part of the job - they would have done the same. You just do it
L/Cpl Matt Croucher

"When I was lying there, I had that same feeling in your stomach you have when you're a small child and you've done something really naughty and you know you are going to get into lots of trouble for it.

"So I lay there just gritting my teeth, waiting for the explosion to go off."

It went off but - remarkably - he was virtually unscathed, while his colleagues were shielded by him and his backpack from the worst of the blast, leaving only one of them with minor injuries.

"He acted to save his comrades in the almost certain knowledge that he would not himself survive," said the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, as he announced the honour.

"His exemplary behaviour and supreme heroism are fully deserving of the nation's highest recognition."

L/Cpl Matthew Croucher with his ripped backpack
L/Cpl Matthew Croucher with his backpack, torn by the grenade

L/Cpl Croucher still has the rucksack that took the main impact of the blast - a tattered green daysack shredded by the grenade as it helped save his and his comrades' lives.

His helmet is only slightly peppered by shrapnel. He himself suffered severe bruising but no lasting injuries - and his citation makes clear that immediately after the incident he refused to be evacuated for medical care but insisted on carrying straight on with the next mission, taking on the Taleban in a fire-fight and killing one of the enemy.

He clearly is in the best tradition of British military heroes: uncomfortable with the limelight, preferring to play down his heroism.

He served as a regular Royal Marine for five years, including two tours of Iraq - the first during the invasion of 2003. So he is accustomed to combat, and loath to boast of his achievements.

But he admits: "Being awarded the George Cross is a huge honour, for me and for 40 Commando. But there are so many acts of bravery by the lads that don't make it into the press. It's all part of the job - they would have done the same. You just do it."

Proud parents

His parents were unaware of what had happened until their son sent them a text.

Standing proudly next to him as he held up his citation for the cameras, his mother Margaret says she remembers well the day she heard.

"I got a text saying he was back at Camp Bastion (from his forward operating base), so I knew something had happened.

"The next text from him said there had been an incident. And the third that he might be put up for a medal and meet the Queen and could I believe it? I texted back to say: 'Knowing your antics, yes.'"

She and his father Richard smile. They say it wasn't his first brush with death, remembering a fall from a wall 30ft up which their son survived several years before, along with numerous close calls during fire-fights.

They are hoping he will make it to collect his medal from Buckingham Palace later this year without further incident.

Though that is not guaranteed. These days, L/Cpl Croucher is working as a director of a security company, Pinnacle Risk Management, which provides close protection for its clients.

It is now no secret that he would be a good man to have at your side in a tricky situation.

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