Heroism runs in families; Victoria Crosses awarded to relatives, 70 years apart

It is likely that you’ve heard the news about 27-year-old paratrooper Lance Corporal Josh Leakey being awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during a Taliban attack in Afghanistan in 2013, but did you know that his second cousin twice removed, Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey, also received the award (in that case posthumously) for bravery in the African campaign of World War Two?

Lance Corporal Leakey, of the Parachute Regiment, was involved with an assault on a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province on 22nd August 2013. When the Taliban fought back, Leakey and several other soldiers found themselves exposed on a hillside and surrounded. The soldier ran to help a wounded US Marine Corps captain, drawing fire all the way, then, realising that two of the company’s machine guns had been surrounded, ran to man another gun. He later returned to tend the captain’s wounds a second time, then dashed to retrieve a second gun. He was commended for single-handedly regaining the initiative, preventing considerable loss of life, and allowing the wounded officer to be evacuated. His parents professed themselves to be incredibly proud, but also very relieved that no harm had come to him during his heroics!

Well might they be, too, since Arundell Gray and Elizabeth Leakey of Kiganjo, Kenya, were not so lucky as to see their son return safely. It is relatively uncommon for a Victoria Cross to be awarded to a living soldier, and Sergeant Leakey made the ultimate sacrifice to help his side on to victory. Although he died, aged 28, in 1941, the VC was not awarded until 13th November 1945. Nigel Leakey was part of the 1/6th Battalion of the King’s African Rifles, and was in fact a born-and-bred Kenyan. He died near Colito, Abyssinia, and is commemorated on the East Africa Memorial in Nairobi.

"The London Gazette" reported the reasons for the award at the time, and these are transcribed on the Forces War Records site as part of Sergeant Leakey’s record: “On 19th May 1941 near Colito, Abyssinia, when two allied companies had established a bridgehead against strong opposition, the enemy made a sudden counter-attack with light and medium tanks. In the face of withering fire, Sergeant Leakey leaped on top of one of the tanks, wrenched open the turret and shot all the crew except the driver, whom he forced to drive to cover. He then, with three other men, stalked the rest of the tanks, jumping on one of them and killing a member of its crew before he himself was killed. His superb courage was responsible for the enemy's defeat in this action.”

That action was part of the successful 1941 East Africa campaign, which saw Allied forces drive Italy out of British Somaliland (now Somalia) and liberate Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) from Italian rule. Sergeant Leakey would have been part of Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham’s advance, which started in Kenya and involved the 11th and 12th African Divisions and the 1st South African Division. The Reader’s Digest’s “The World at Arms” details the movements of the action, which started in Kenya. On 11th February Cunningham’s men crossed into Italian Somaliland, and on the 15th they took their first objective, the port of Kismayu. The attack moved in leaps and bounds from there, first taking the capital, Mogudishu, on 25th February, then pursuing Major General Carlo de Simone’s troops into Abyssinia. They marched across the country with few challenges until 21st March, when they met Italian troops at the Marda Pass. Overcoming them with difficulty, they then moved on to take over Addis Ababa on April 3rd.

The Italian cause was certainly not forwarded by the local people. They had resented Italian rule, and kicked up such riots of retribution as the Italian soldiers were forced to retreat that in many cases Italian police had to beg the Allied forces to hurry up and take control of the towns they were advancing towards before serious damage could be inflicted. It is no wonder that they were discontented, as their own Emporer, Haile Selassie, had been forced into exile. He returned in triumph to his country on 5th May, much to the delight of Winston Churchill, who is quoted as writing to Selassie: “It is with deep… pleasure that the British nation and Empire have learned of Your Imperial Majesty’s welcome home… Your Majesty was the first of the lawful sovereigns to be driven from his throne and country by the Fascist-Nazi criminals, and you are the first to return in triumph.”

Unfortunately for Sergeant Leakey that wasn’t the end of the fighting; Mussolini had ordered his men to “resist to the last limit of human endurance”. So they did, with the last defenders officially surrendering on the very day that Leakey was killed (though unrest would continue for another 6 months). Many other brave men lost their lives in the East Africa campaign, but Sergeant Leakey’s family at least had the comfort of knowing that his death had been recognised, and that he had made a real impact. He has no known grave.

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