By Steph McNicol
NOT many people will be awarded a George Cross Medal by the Queen of England in their lifetimes, but this was only one of many highlights of Michael Pratt’s Victoria Police career until his retirement last month.
The George Cross is the highest award bestowed by British Government for gallantry, and in the UK honours system it is equal to the Victoria Cross – the highest military gallantry award.
When Mr Pratt was awarded the medal for his bravery in 1978, after he was shot while intervening in a bank robbery, he had no idea of the importance of the medal.
“When the medal was announced, I didn’t know, and the chief’s office rang me one Saturday and said, ‘Monday morning nine o’clock you have to be at government house,” Mr Pratt said.
“I thought ‘oh what’s this about?’ I had no idea. I get to government house … we go into the drawing room, and Governor Henry Winneke was in there, we shake hands and I’m still none the wiser why I’m there.
“Sir Henry said ‘this is one of the best days I’ve had as Governor, I’ve had a message from the Queen, she in her wisdom has decided to grant you the George Cross for your gallantry in the bank hold-up.
“I just said ‘yeah’ … but I didn’t know what it was. He said, ‘you don’t know what it is do you?’ He explained to me what the George Cross Medal was, and said it was the highest bravery award you can get.”
Mr Pratt and his wife Dianne flew to London to receive the medal in 1981.
“We met the Queen at Buckingham Palace, it was a bit scary the first time – it’s the Queen giving you the medal and now you get to meet her,” Mr Pratt said.
Mr Pratt started his police career in 1973 as a cadet, and the retired police officer remembers the morning of June 4, 1976 all too well.
On his day off, Constable Pratt, stationed at Heidelberg at the time, was on his way to get a hair cut in Clifton Hill, blissfully unaware of the events that would shortly follow.
“As I came down Heidelberg Road … you give way to the right, and in my vision when I looked back, I saw three men enter the bank with balaclavas and handguns, and it was obvious they were going to rob the bank,” he said.
“A lot of things go through your mind, but banks are all alarmed, so I figured all the alarms would go off, and I placed myself in a position where I could slow their escape up, which is really the first thing I thought of.
“I drove the car across that busy intersection, I put the headlights on and was sounding my horn. I was in my private car, and amazingly the traffic stopped, and trams gave way to me and I drove over the gutters and catapulted the car into the front door.
Mr Pratt watched as the burglars became aware of his presence and panicked.
“I got out of the car and saw them in the bank, ones at the door, one on the counter and one at the teller’s cages scooping money up,” he said.
“There was a bystander coming up from my left-hand side and I just said ‘Quick, there’s an armed robbery here, ring for the police’ just in case there were no alarms.
“The guy inside the door, he was motioning with a 32-silver pistol, for me to move the car, then the guy in the teller’s cages was yelling over to him, ‘shoot him, shoot him, get him out of the way’, so I can hear that going on.
“Because my car put pressure on the door, they weren’t able to open the door. Next thing a foot comes through the door and the pressure was gone so he pulled the door open and came across the bonnet of my car.”
In a matter of seconds, and after a short struggle, Mr Pratt had grabbed one of the burglars hoping it would deter the shooter from firing.
“He was only three metres away and the guy I put down was starting to get up and I thought I’ll grab him in a bear hug, because he’s not going to shoot his mate, but in doing that he got round behind me and shot me in the back from a couple metres away,” he said.
“The impact was significant, he shot me through the shoulder-blade and the bullet went through my left lung, and bounced and did an elliptical in my chest cavity – I don’t know how but it didn’t hit anything [in my chest].
“It continued on and entered the right lung, and by then the bullet was slowed down enough to drop down to the bottom of my right lung. If it had’ve kept going it would’ve cleaned my liver up. I’m very lucky.”
Ms Pratt recalls the moment she was told her husband, of three months at the time, had been shot on his day off.
“I said to them, it wasn’t him because he wasn’t working today. They said they think its him and they were sending a police car to pick me up,” she said.
“They were asking me a few questions and I said, ‘It wasn’t him anyway’, because I’d spoken to him in the morning, I said ‘he was going to get his hair cut, he wasn’t even at work’.”
Mr Pratt was forced to retire from Victoria Police, much to his disappointment, and spent about five years recovering at home.
The retired officer worked many jobs during his time off, including TAB security, at a pizza shop, and doing deliveries.
“I was always trying to get back into the police force as a public servant, a good friend of mine helped me greatly to get back in December of 1996,” Mr Pratt said.
“I was in Moonee Ponds for a while, I was up at Broadmeadows, then I was asked to go up to Seymour, the superintendent rang me one day and said come up and see me, work with me.
“That was in 2004, and I spent six years up there until 2010 when they built a new station here in Wallan.”
After putting in an expression of interest to be stationed at Wallan police, Mr Pratt was employed as a public servant at the station in October, 2010.
For about 10 years, Mr Pratt spent countless hours continuing his service to Victoria Police until his retirement last month, on January 29.
The retired officer remains the only recipient of a George Cross Medal in Australia, and still regularly visits London to gather with other recipients worldwide.