This article was originally published in warhistoryonline.com
He shouldn’t have lived. And in fact, if you were to ask him, he would tell you that at the time he thought for sure this was it, and his number was up.
While they might be few, there are actually many occurrences where persons have flung themselves on a grenade and lived. However, the carnage that results is often extensive and at the very least, it ends the mission for them that day.
But Royal Marine Mathew Croucher threw himself on a grenade, walked away with a bloody nose, and then killed some Taliban later that night. For his actions that day, Croucher would be awarded the George Cross, which is Britain’s second highest military honor.
Multiple Opportunities to Die
One of the more remarkable characteristics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is what a small percentage of the respective country’s population would actually do the fighting. Rather than a mass mobilization effort, highly trained men would serve multiple combat tours over a relatively short time period. For Matthew Croucher, that would include three tours to Iraq and one tour to Afghanistan where he would earn his George Cross.
Croucher joined the Royal Marines in 2000 before the world would be turned upside down by the events of 9-11 and as such, he couldn’t have known what would be asked of him over the next decade. However, his conspicuous gallantry demonstrates the type of character that wouldn’t have had it any other way.
He would serve as a member of 40 Commando based out of Taunton in Somerset. Being a part of the Commando Reconnaissance Force would ensure he would be on the forward end of any incoming action.
He served as a regular Marine until 2005 when he transferred to the Royal Marines Reserves. Despite this reserve status, Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher would find himself in yet another combat tour in late 2007 and early 2008.
This time in Afghanistan, Croucher was wounded in late 2007 during a road accident in which his leg was thought to be broken. However, after a few weeks of treatment, he was able to return to Afghanistan and resume his duties that would set the stage for his heroic action just a few months later.
Jumping on the Grenade
Sangin, in Helmand Province of Afghanistan, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the war for US and British forces. On February 9th, 2008, Croucher was part of a reconnaissance team operating near Sangin. Upon exiting a compound with his four-man team, Croucher felt something brush up against his leg and then heard the ominous sound of a grenade lever flinging away and the plunk of a grenade hitting the ground.
He had hit a tripwire grenade, and as he looked down, there it laid next to him. Knowing he had seconds to act and was certain to be wounded himself, he yelled “grenade, tripwire” and then flung his body down on top to protect his team.
At first, he flung himself down on his front as one might envision it. But in a remarkable act of clairvoyance, he thought this won’t work and turned himself on his back putting his rucksack in between his body and the grenade. It remains to be seen whether time really does slow down in such moments, but he can recall laying there on his back with his arms and legs tucked in wondering how long it would take for it to go off. Then, with a flash and a bang it exploded.
Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher was thrown some distance into the air as his rucksack and body armor became shredded with grenade fragments.
The rest of his team escaped with minor injury as a result of Croucher’s action when the most inexplicable occurrence took place. Croucher got up and walked away.
With nothing but a bloody nose, temporary deafness, and a little disorientation, he had escaped what he believed at the time was certain death.
The explosion had ignited a battery in his rucksack causing it to burn like a flare for a moment, but the backpack was actually preserved although hardly functional. His teammates shook his hand and slapped him on the back; then Lance Corporal Croucher continued the mission.
Knowing full well that the explosion would alert the Taliban, who would come to investigate, Croucher refused any attempts at evacuation and instead helped set up an ambush for the approaching Taliban. After personally taking out a Taliban fighter that night, the mission ended, and Croucher would walk away with one of the most fascinating experiences of the war.
And while one might assume that such action would lead to a certain Victoria Cross, there was some debate over which award would be most appropriate for what was obvious gallantry. In the end, it was decided that the George Cross would be the appropriate award much to the dismay of many who thought his actions warranted the nation’s highest honor.
The world will never know if it would have been different had he died in that explosion, but if you ask Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher, I imagine he would take a living George Cross over a posthumous Victoria Cross any day.
Croucher is one of only 22 living recipients of the medal for which only 406 have been awarded. He received his from Queen Elizabeth II on October 30th, 2008. But for whatever debate one might have about the appropriate medal, his conspicuous gallantry is beyond contestation as is his exceptional situational awareness to roll on his back.
Most men would have made a run for it, but Mathew Croucher is the kind of man who jumps on a live grenade, wipes the blood from his nose, and then takes out the enemy all in an evening’s work.