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Naval medic’s bravery immortalised on canvas

23 March 2018
The first female sailor to earn the Military Cross, Britain’s third highest military honour, is now immortalised on canvas with a unique portrait to inspire a fresh generation of recruits.

The stunning painting of then 21-year-old Naval medic Kate Nesbitt MC dashing across the battlefield in Afghanistan to save the life of a gravely-wounded soldier will take pride of place at HMS Raleigh in Torpoint.

The portrait will hang alongside one of the most famous paintings in Royal Navy history: Jack Cornwell, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for staying at his gun aboard HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland despite sustaining fatal wounds.

The teenager’s deeds went on to inspire youngsters across the land for decades and continues to inspire naval recruits.

Kate said: “It’s a huge honour and privilege for me to have been given the opportunity to be involved in such a special portrait. Nick is an incredible artist and person and it has been lovely seeing the painting from the very start to the finished product now.

"My dad and I are in awe of the painting and the story it tells. It’s very overwhelming knowing the painting will be hanging next to the famous Boy Cornwell painting for years and years to come.”

Kate, who is now a Chief Petty Officer (Medical Technician), ran across 70 metres of open ground peppered with enemy fire to reach Lance Corporal John List, of 1st Battalion, The Rifles, during a patrol in Afghanistan in 2009.

It’s a huge honour and privilege for me to have been given the opportunity to be involved in such a special portrait.

Naval medic Kate Nesbitt

The young combat medic was on her first overseas assignment and spent 45 minutes stemming the blood loss from the soldier’s gaping wounds and constructing an artificial opening to allow him to breathe, thus saving his life.

Nearly a decade later, thanks to funding from the Gosling Foundation and Greenwich Hospital Trust, Nick Bashall, one of the country’s leading portrait and battlefield artists was commissioned to recreate Kate’s bravery on canvas – just as the leading portrait artist of the day, Frank Salisbury, did for the Boy Cornwell.

Salisbury used Cornwell’s brother for his portrait. Nick was fortunate enough to have Kate ‘model’ for him on several occasions, both sitting still and running when necessary, wearing the same equipment as on that fateful day nine years ago.

Kate said: “Nick set up a mirror behind him as he was painting and I was able to see how he paints and seeing the painting come to life in front of me was amazing.

"Describing the details of the day to Nick was very surreal and it was lovely telling him all about the 1 Rifles and my tour with them. Despite being a difficult tour for everyone, I made some of the greatest friends and I am always so proud to say I was attached to the 1 Rifles”.

Although barely a decade ago, equipment and uniforms have changed substantially, so Warrant Officer Mick Driscoll had to use his ingenuity to track down authentic 2009-era kit.

“It was a challenge, but I used an online surplus store, an army store in Notting Hill and whatever else I could beg, borrow and steal to make sure that Kate was painted in exactly what she was wearing on the day. Getting an image to Nick of what bullets look like hitting sand was another challenge, but we managed it.” he said.

Nick has first-hand experience of Afghanistan, having spent two months in Kabul living with 2 Para. This was his first commission for the Royal Navy. He said: “The most difficult part of the painting was to make it real, convincing, as though you were there right in the action. I was aware that if I didn't achieve that, I would create something kitsch and shallow.

"Kate approached the project in a completely professional way and as is her nature was always understated. Creating this picture from imagination and the stories required her considerable input throughout. This was very much a joint operation.

"I was pleased with the result, it was the best that I could do, no stone was left unturned.

"No artist has any idea how people see their work, in the same way you have scant idea how people see you. But I hope the new recruits, men and women, who see this picture when they first join up, will identify with spirit behind the action."

The painting was formally unveiled at HMS Raleigh by Kate in front of Second Sea Lord Vice Admiral Sir Jonathan Woodcock, her family and other distinguished guests.

Captain Ellie Ablett, the Commanding Officer of HMS Raleigh, said: “Kate’s actions in 2009 are truly inspirational and it’s a great honour for HMS Raleigh to be chosen as the custodians of this fabulous piece of art.

"Last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service and Kate is an excellent example of what Servicewomen offer to the modern Royal Navy.

"Today there is no distinction between men and women and here we have someone who has served on the frontline on more than one occasion, which would not have been an option for the pioneering Wrens in 1917.

"In the subsequent years Kate’s hard-work and determination has been rewarded with promotion to Chief Petty Officer.

"Modestly, she has said many times that she was just doing the job she was trained to do; training that started here at HMS Raleigh.”

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