James Ashworth: The Victoria Cross Recipient Who Gave His Life to Take Out An Enemy Sniper

Photo Credit: 1. Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images 2. British Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 3
Photo Credit: 1. Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images 2. British Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 3

Not all war stories have a happy ending – in fact, one might make the case that most don’t. This is especially true when you start talking about those who’ve earned their nation’s highest military honors for inexplicable gallantry, as was the case with British Lance Cpl. James Ashworth of the Grenadier Guards (GREN GDS).

When a Taliban sniper team wreaked havoc on the countryside, Ashworth and his team were sent to take them out. This required heavy fighting, fortitude in the face of fire, and, for for lance corporal, crawling within meters of a sniper to take him out with a grenade. Unfortunately, this final action took Ashworth’s life.

James Ashworth was born to fight

Grenadier Guardsmen walking along a trail
Grenadier Guardsmen on patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, 2007. (Photo Credit: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images)

At the age of 17, James Ashworth joined the British Army, following in his father’s footsteps, as the elder Ashworth had served with the Grenadier Guards. Growing up, Ashworth had always displayed excellent athletic abilities that would serve him well in the military.

The teenager was initially posted to the Nijmegen Company, GREN GDS, which typically performed a ceremonial role. However, Ashworth was born to fight, and it was quickly recognized that he was the type of man his superiors wanted in combat, rather than at a ceremony. He eventually became a paratrooper and was assigned to the GREN GDS’ parachute platoon, part of the Third Battalion, Parachute Regiment.

James Ashworth is deployed to Afghanistan

Military portrait of James Ashworth
Lance Cpl. James Ashworth. (Photo Credit: British Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 3)

With the British military fully engaged in Afghanistan, James Ashworth got his opportunity to serve and prove he belonged within the ranks of the British paratroopers. The elite servicemen have a long tradition, which dates back to World War II, when they fought for the survival of the United Kingdom.

Having served in the military since 2006, it was a ’12 deployment that lead Ashworth to rise above the ranks of the common and into the hallowed halls of the recipients of the Victoria Cross. This deployment took him to Helmand province, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war.

While the NATO troops could routinely take any territory they wished, the ground they gained was rarely held for long without a continual presence, as the Taliban seemed to rise from the ashes and give them a fierce fight. The fighting in Helmand province afforded many awards to those who fought there, due to the sheer nature of what it took to hold this ground.

Getting close to the fight

Two Grenadier Guardsmen aiming their weapons
Grenadier Guardsmen performing an operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, 2007. (Photo Credit: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images)

On June 13, 2012, as part of the reconnaissance platoon of the First Battalion, Grenadier Guards, James Ashworth’s team was sent to take out a dreaded sniper group that had been firing upon British soldiers for days. Ordered to capture or kill, with the latter preferred, he and the others were inserted near a village in the Nahr-e Saraj district.

As soon as GREN GDS landed, heavy fighting broke out. Taliban fighters were racing in to support their beloved sniper team, and a vicious fight was inevitable. Moving from compound to compound, Ashworth and his comrades searched for the snipers and fought off any who stood in their way. The sniper team eventually retreated to a walled compound, where they were boxed in and ready for the assault.

Devastating the compound with airpower wasn’t an option, which meant the GREN GDS needed to get up close and personal with the enemy. Room by room, building by building, Ashworth and his team used grenades to flush out the enemy, leaving several of the sniper team dead in their wake. However, it would be one final gunman, holed up in a small outbuilding, who would prove to be the most tenacious to evict.

A lone enemy sniper remains

Northern Alliance sniper aiming his rifle
Northern Alliance sniper aiming his rifle toward a Taliban position in Afghanistan’s Takhar province, 2001. (Photo Credit: Patrick ROBERT / Sygma / Getty Images)

The firefight for this particularly entrenched sniper reached a stalemate as Taliban fighters flooded the village in greater numbers. Realizing the initiative must be seized and the fighter eliminated before the situation deteriorated even more, James Ashworth volunteered to crawl behind a low wall ,which would take him within meters of the enemy, so he could throw a final grenade.

Confident in his athletic ability to land the explosive on target, Ashworth pushed his face to the ground. For several minutes, he crept forward with little cover against the heavy fighting. Coming within five meters of the enemy, he was prepping the grenade when a bullet pierced his armor, knocking him to the ground.

Those supporting Ashworth’s approach watched in horror as the bullets riddled the ground just inches from his prone figure. It became clear, however, that he remained undeterred. Unfortunately, the grenade he’d just prepped had fallen beside him, and, in the end, took his life.

James Ashworth’s death was a hard scene to watch

James Ashworth sitting with a comrade
James Ashworth and a comrade in Afghanistan. (Photo Credit: British Ministry of Defence / Wikimedia Commons / Open Government License 3)

It was a dangerous mission from the beginning, but one that had to be done. While there’s no happy ending where James Ashworth’s grenade took out the enemy sniper, his brothers in arms eventually flushed out the insurgent, achieving a little retribution for their comrade’s death.

For his actions on June 13, 2012, Ashworth became only the 14th recipient of the Victoria Cross since the Second World War. The enemy sniper team was neutralized, and those who witnessed Ashworth’s bravery observed history in action. Had it not been for his decisive actions under heavy fire – and at great risk to his own life – the fight in the small Afghan village would’ve dragged on and potentially worsened as additional Taliban militants flooded the streets.

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There’s no happy ending to this story, but the entirety of the British military can look to Lance Cpl. James Ashworth and salute the fact he valiantly honored the tradition of those who’d served before him.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE