A HELENSBURGH man was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal in July 2001 after leading an heroic escape by a group of United Nations workers from war-torn Sierra Leone.
But it was at great personal cost, as Major Phil Ashby brought home a memento of the West African jungle in the form of a virus lodged in his spinal cord.
In his thirties, he had to face a whole new set of challenges personally and professionally, even re-learning how to walk as he has come to terms with long term disability.
He has recovered almost entirely and is only numb from the knee downwards, which has not stopped him being as active as ever. On August 30 2008 he married for the second time.
Born and brought up in West Abercromby Street, Helensburgh — his father James being a senior officer at the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane and his late mother Sue a well known local singer and musician, who died in the spring of 2006 — Phil has always had a taste for adventure.
He won a scholarship to Glenalmond College in Perthshire and was a talented gymnast and musician.
His parents contemplated sending him to ballet school, but instead he discovered rock climbing and was quickly mastering some of Scotland’s hardest extreme rock climbs, before finding another physical career as a Royal Marine Commando.
Commissioned into the Royal Marines at just seventeen and a half, making him the youngest officer in HM Armed Forces, Phil won his green beret a week after his 18th birthday, and he was sponsored by the Marines to read engineering at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
He has climbed all over the world and survived an epic two-man rowing expedition in the Arctic Ocean. This was the first and only human-powered circumnavigation of the polar island of Spits Bergen.
It involved 1,000O miles of rowing through ice floes for eight weeks in a 17-foot, open-topped wooden boat. He survived becoming trapped in the pack ice, a polar bear attack, hurricane force winds and capsizing in icy water.
Phil was involved in BBC TV’s ‘SAS-Survival Secrets’, and he helped lead an expedition of youngsters for BBC TV’s award winning ‘Serious Arctic’.
After a further 15 months of Royal Marines officer training, in 1992 Phil won the Commando Medal for ‘Leadership, Unselfishness, Cheerfulness, Determination and Courage’.
In 1994 he and his wife Anna were swept 250 feet down a mountain by a huge slab of snow which had become dislodged, but lived to tell the tale.
The following year he was selected to join the elite Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, completing eleven months of arduous mountain leader training, the longest and hardest infantry course in the British Armed Forces. He is also a qualified Jungle Warfare instructor.
He has served in command of Royal Marines around the world, from the mountains of Alaska and Norway to the jungles of Brunei and Belize.
He was promoted to Major at the age of 28, making him the youngest officer of that rank in the Armed Forces, and he has a Masters degree in defence technology from Cambridge University.
In 2000 he volunteered for a six month tour with the United Nations as a peace keeper in Sierra Leone, but rebel forces brought the mission to a violent and bloody end when they restarted the country’s civil war. They turned on UN staff, torturing and butchering them and taking over 500 hostages.
Phil and other colleagues found themselves in the middle of this ambush and surrounded in a small compound.
After four days of physical and psychological bombardment, including throwing the blood-stained uniforms of fellow UN workers over the walls, they realised there was no hope of rescue. Phil came up with a daring escape plan, and the decision was made to risk being killed trying to escape rather than be taken alive.
At 2.45 a.m. the next day, he led his team over the wall, all of them with faces blackened with charcoal. They were surrounded by rebel troops and outnumbered by at least twenty to one and were completely unarmed. Their chances of escaping alive were very slim.
They trekked day and night through some of the world’s toughest jungle terrain for almost a week without food or water, and Phil had the courage and strength to lead his colleagues on a dramatic race to freedom through the hostile jungle.
Before the escape he stayed in contact with his parents by satellite phone. He told them of the mounting crisis, and outlined the rescue plan to his then wife Anna by phone.
His loved ones then endured an anxious few days wait until he reached the airport in the capital, Freetown. He told them he had sore feet and insect bites, but was unscathed. However on his return to Britain, he was rushed to hospital, paralysed from the waist down.
Later he received Queen’s Gallantry Medal from the Queen at Buckingham Palace watched by Anna and his parents.
His mother said at the time: “We are very proud of Philip. It was typical of him, and people who still remember him in Helensburgh know he has always been that type.”
After that he wrote his autobiography ‘Unscathed’, which was published by Macmillan, and it rocketed into the bestseller list.
At its launch in May 2002, Sue Ashby said: “As his mother I didn’t want to read all the horrific details, but the book is very readable and I have been very impressed by his writing. He was always urged to take up an academic career.”
Now the book is being made into a major feature film by Hollywood giants Miramax. Colin Farrell is playing the part of Phil, and filming has started.
In 2003 Phil led the three man Initial Style Explorers team to victory in the 400 mile race from Resolute Bay, Canada, to the magnetic North Pole.
After training in the French Alps, the Cairngorms and Norway, they completed the annual Polar Race in a record time of 10 days, 9 hours, 45 minutes.
In recent years Phil and Anna parted, and on August 30 2008 Phil wed Hester Viney from Worth Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset, where they were married (picture above).
An accomplished journalist writing articles for a wide variety of publications including the Sunday Times, The Daily Mail and The Lancet, he remains very humble about his accomplishments, but as a speaker he can really reach, move and entertain his audience and is a natural storyteller.