We all like to think we would step up in a crisis – but some brave Brits have shown heroism and self-sacrifice that is truly humbling.
This month marks 80 years since the George Cross was introduced as an award for acts of outstanding courage by civilians and members of the armed forces not under enemy fire.
The honour, instituted on September 24, 1940, by King George VI, was inspired by those saving lives during the Blitz bombing campaign by Nazi Germany during World War Two.
More than 400 people from all walks of life have been awarded the gong for their incredible valour in the face of extreme danger.
Here James Moore tells some of their stirring stories…
Who: Stuart Archer
Hundreds of Brits risked their lives to pull people out of rubble during the Blitz or defuse explosives.
But during the height of the bombing in 1940, sapper Stuart, aged 25, battled to make hundreds of unexploded devices safe – saving hundreds of lives in the process.
That September, for instance, he successfully defused a 550lb, booby-trapped German bomb amid a blaze at an oil refinery near Swansea, all while hanging upside down!
Stuart, later promoted to Colonel, survived the war and died in 2015 aged 100.
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Who: Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Khan
French-speaking housewife and mum-of-three Odette Sansom volunteered to work for Britain’s Special Operations Executive as a secret agent in France during the Second World War.
She helped the local resistance forces organising parachute drops.
Later captured and tortured by the Gestapo she survived a concentration camp and became the first woman to be awarded the George Cross.
Two other female SOE agents, Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan, who operated behind the lines were caught and executed. They were awarded the honour posthumously.
Who: Jack Bamford
When a fire broke out at 2am on October 19, 1952, at their home in Newthorpe, Notts, 15-year-old Jack and his dad John went to investigate.
But flames soon engulfed the house and they couldn’t get back upstairs to alert the family.
The pair climbed on to a flat roof, managing to get Jack’s mother and three children out through a window. But his younger brothers Roy, four, and Brian, six, were still trapped inside.
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Jack went down on his hands and knees and into the inferno. Despite his shirt catching fire, he was able to drop them both out of another window to his dad who was waiting below – saving their lives.
Eventually recovering from serious burns Jack recalled: “I had to get them out. I never thought about what might happen to me – I didn’t have time.”
Who: Barbara Jane Harrison
On the afternoon of April 8, 1968, the 22-year-old air stewardess helped 116 passengers board BOAC’s Flight 712 at London’s Heathrow airport bound for Sydney.
But moments after take-off one of the Boeing 707’s engines burst into flames, forcing the plane into an emergency landing.
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When her fellow flight attendant went down to untangle a chute, Barbara was left to help passengers out of the rear door of the aircraft on her own as fire raged through it.
When that exit became blocked, she directed them to another door, pushing them many to safety and turning back to help others.
Finally overcome by fumes, she was one of only five people to die in the disaster – a death toll that would have been much higher but for her bravery.
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Who: Jim Beaton
On March 20, 1974, a gunman held up Princess Anne’s car on London’s Mall and the 31-year-old police bodyguard leapt out of the vehicle to stop him.
Would-be kidnapper Ian Ball wanted to abduct the 23-year-old Royal and ransom her for £2million.
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Jim’s gun jammed and he was shot three times, but the brave cop tried to block the attacker from the Princess with his own body.
Eventually, despite wounding three others, Ball, 26, was overpowered and later pleaded guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping. Beaton, now 77, says: “I just acted on instinct.”
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Who: Matthew Croucher, Chris Finney, Kim Hughes
After triggering a tripwire grenade while serving in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2008 Matthew Croucher’s only thought was to save the lives of his comrades.
The Royal Marine just had time to shout “grenade” before diving on top of the Taliban device.
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Amazingly, despite being thrown up into the air, the 24-year-old survived with minor injuries when his rucksack took the brunt of the blast. His fellow soldiers were unhurt.
He later said: “It’s all part of the job.”
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Bomb disposal officer Kim Hughes was awarded the George Cross after saving soldiers trapped in a minefield in 2009, by defusing seven IEDs all without protective clothing.
While fellow soldier Chris Finney, then 18, risked his life to save comrades under friendly fire while serving in Iraq in 2003.
Who: Dominic Troulan
The retired special forces officer, living in Kenya, sprang back into action when a friend alerted him to the attack by armed al-Shabab extremists on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi in 2013.
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He raced to the scene and over six hours, under fire, he helped lead a whopping 200 people to safety, returning a dozen times to search for survivors.
The deadly siege left 71 people dead and the dad of two, now 57, says: “I remember seeing the absolute carnage and thinking, ‘I have got to do something about this.’”
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