The Para from Hampshire who won the Victoria Cross gave up his military history studies just weeks into the course as he was “fed up of reading about wars” and wanted to “be in them” instead, his mother said.
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey, 27, the Para who has won the Victoria Cross almost 70 years after another member of his family was awarded the same honour, brought tears to his mother’s eyes when he told her he had been given the British armed forces’ highest military decoration.
Rosie Leakey said she always knew her eldest son was going to sign up, and she recalls the phone call in which he told her about the life-changing decision.
He was in his first term studying military history at the University of Kent, having spent years reading about the topic after a childhood of playing soldiers.
Mrs Leakey said: “He always wanted to, but he was at uni studying war studies and he rang me after eight weeks of being at uni, and said ‘Mum, I’m fed up of reading about wars, I’m going to go and be in them’, and that was it. End of conversation.”
The 1 Para man, whose full address in Hampshire has not been disclosed, has been awarded for valour in the face of the enemy for heroic exploits in Afghanistan.
His father Mark said when his son told him about the VC award he was speechless.
“He just came straight to the point. He said ‘Dad, you need to know that I’m going to be awarded the Victoria Cross’, and it was as simple as that. There was a sense of unreality about it. I felt I was in a bit of a dream.
“I just said this is unbelievable. I just couldn’t find the right words to say really,” he said.
Mrs Leakey said she was “completely overwhelmed”, adding: “It brings tears to your eyes, that’s for sure.”
Younger brother Ben, 24, who is doing an MA in terrorism, security and society, said he remembers playing soldiers with his sibling and “running around in the woods all day” and Mrs Leakey recalls that “sticks were always guns or swords”.
Ben said: “That’s all he’s ever wanted to be is to be a soldier.”
L/Cpl Leakey is only the 15th serviceman to receive the VC since the Second World War.
He is also the third serviceman to receive the VC for service in Afghanistan and the only one not to receive it posthumously.
His second cousin twice removed, Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey, was a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross in November 1945 for his gallantry while fighting in Africa during the Second World War.
L/Cpl Leakey will receive his medal for the role he played during a combined UK/US assault on a Taliban stronghold in Bar Now Zad, Helmand province, on August 22 2013.
He showed ‘’complete disregard’’ for his own safety as the group came under attack from around 20 insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
First he ran to the top of a barren hill and, with the ‘’snap and crack’’ of enemy fire all around him, realised that two friendly machine gun teams had been surrounded.
Despite being the most junior member of the group he took control of the situation, giving first aid to a wounded US Marine Corps captain and beginning casualty evacuation.
He then went back up the hill and took control of one of the machine guns, with bullets ricocheting off its frame, before running down again, drawing enemy fire and helping regain the initiative.
During the battle, 11 insurgents were killed and four wounded.
Ben, who said his brother is “clearly a bloody good soldier”, added: “Obviously, as a family, we’d rather he didn’t put himself in danger, and to think that he is putting himself in situations where there is a very high likelihood that he could not come out alive or in one piece is obviously very disturbing and distressing for us.
“But I think when he’s in that situation he’s not thinking about his own safety, he’s thinking about getting the job done.”
Mark said his son “doesn’t want to be a celebrity”, and along with his wife, hailed the power of prayer.
Mrs Leakey said: “For me, his mum, all I can do is pray for him. I just pray everyday when he’s away that the Lord will protect him and keep him safe, because that’s what I believe.
“I have a great faith that God is caring and he’s going to look after Josh and I’m so grateful that he did that day.
“Those bullets didn’t actually harm him and he came home. We can celebrate this with Josh, which is such an honour. I’m so grateful that he’s with us, and we can celebrate with him.”
Mr Leakey said: “He should not have survived and we just, as a family, we want to just give credit to God for that.”
The VC was first introduced in January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War.
It has now been awarded 1,363 times, according to the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.
L/Cpl Leakey will receive his medal at a later date during an investiture ceremony.
He is the first British serviceman to receive the honour while still alive since Lance Sergeant Johnson Beharry, of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, was decorated in 2005 for saving the lives of comrades during two ambushes in Iraq.
‘A bit of a mad family’
The Leakey family - described by their latest Victoria Cross winner as “a bit of a mad family” - have a rich military history.
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey 27, has been given the British armed forces’ highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy for heroic exploits in Afghanistan.
And his second cousin twice removed, Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey, was a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross in November 1945 for his gallantry while fighting in Africa during the Second World War.
Sgt Leakey’s nephew, Lieutenant General David Leakey, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, said an “extraordinary statistic” was pointed out to him recently.
Between four members of the Leakey family - L/Cpl Leakey, Sgt Leakey, Lt Gen Leakey, and the latter’s father Rea Leakey - there are two Victoria Crosses, one DSO (Distinguished Service Order), two MCs (Military Crosses), a mention in despatches, a Queen’s commendation, a CBE and a CMG.
“So actually between four people that’s quite a long list, and Josh’s VC is the glittering ice on that cake,” Lt Gen Leakey said.
And Rosie Leakey, L/Cpl Leakey’s mother, said: “It would have been great if Josh had been able to meet Nigel, you know, to see the similarities of their character.”
L/Cpl Leakey was actually born in Tampa in Florida as his father Mark was there working for the United States Air Force at the time, and Mr Leakey said: “Nigel’s VC has always been held in huge regard in the family, in the broader Leakey family.”
Meanwhile, Ben Leakey, 24, brother of L/Cpl Leakey, said he felt a “massive sense of pride” to be related to two VC recipients.
L/Cpl Leakey, who joined 1 Para in 2007 and served during three tours in Afghanistan, said that he was ‘’deeply honoured’’ but insisted that the award was for everyone in his regiment and battalion.
He said his family was ‘’over the moon’’ when they found out he would receive the VC, adding: ‘’I’ve got a bit of a mad family you could say, there’s a lot of eccentric people.”
Meanwhile, the family’s first VC winner, Sgt Leakey, was born in Kenya and served during the Second World War with the King’s African Rifles.
He was awarded the VC for ‘’magnificent fighting spirit facing almost certain death’’ during a battle against Italian opposition at Kolito in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) on May 19 1941.
After two companies of the King’s African Rifles established a bridgehead across the Billate River, they were surprised by a counter-attack with tanks.
In the face of ‘’withering fire’’, Sgt Leakey leaped onto one of the tanks, wrenched open the turret and shot all the crew except the driver, who he forced to drive to cover.
Along with three others he tried to repeat the trick with another tank but was killed just as he opened the turret, aged 28.
The confusion and loss of armour that Sgt Leakey caused was described as ‘’critical’’ to the Italian defeat in the battle.
Although the soldier has no known grave, he is commemorated on the East Africa Memorial, near Nairobi.
Lt Gen Leakey’s father Rea, Sgt Leakey’s brother, is the author of the book Leakey’s Luck.