How a hero cop became a favourite of the Queen

Well before Queen Elizabeth II died, she left comprehensive written instructions on who would attend her funeral, making sure that a former Preston Technical student was on the priority list.

While he had been captain of the school footy side, it was not his athletic prowess that put him on the “must be invited” page. It was his actions one day in 1976 — before the Queen had even marked her Silver Jubilee.

That day, off-duty policeman Michael Pratt’s instinctive bravery led him to almost lose his life, and eventually put him near the front of the queue at a funeral attended by 2000 people, including 500 world leaders and dignitaries.

Pratty was a regular guest at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and no stranger to the Queen and Prince Philip. At the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee, he sailed in the floating pageant along the Thames. There were 1000 vessels. Pratt was in one of three boats directly behind the royal barge. “It rained,” he recalls.

For the record, princes William and Harry looked splendid in their uniforms (wearing more medals than a Russian gymnastic team) and waved to the crowds. A smiling Harry looked to his right to chat with Kate dressed in her stunning red coat and matching hat. Back then, Meghan Markle was appearing in Suits, not South Park. (That should get a million online clicks, baby.)

At the funeral, on the Queen’s instructions, Pratt was given a prime seat. He was also ushered in to pay respects when she lay in state, and told that he could stay as long as he liked.

Why was Pratt on the Queen’s favoured list? He was the last Australian to win the George Cross, the civilian version of the Victoria Cross. (The GC is awarded for exemplary courage, while the VC is for bravery in battle.)

Michael Pratt, GC, with Queen Elizabeth II.

Perhaps there is another reason. The award was first given by her father, King George VI, in 1940, directly after the Battle of Britain, to recognise the courage of civilians.

Pratt says: “The King and Queen Mother would leave the palace to see the damage from the bombings. He wanted to recognise the bravery of the civilians.”

A total of 23 Australians have received the award. Pratt was the last, and is the only surviving recipient.

In 1976 as a young, off-duty and unarmed cop, he took on three bank bandits (all notorious career gunmen) and was shot in the process, receiving the last rites in hospital before pulling through. More of that later.

He received his award from Victorian governor Sir Henry Winneke, and every two years since 1981, he has flown to London with his wife, Dianne, to attend the VC-GC reunion.

At the first, there were 311 medal winners. At the latest, there were 36.

The man who fought armed men without flinching found his first meeting with the Queen daunting. “I was petrified,” he says. “It was overwhelming,” adds Dianne.

He would meet the Queen 17 times. “She was wonderful and very thoughtful,” he says.

Michael Pratt with his medals.Credit:Jason South

And well-briefed. The Pratts had four children, and with the birth of each, she would ask: “How is the new baby?”

Pratt says: “She definitely had a soft spot for George Cross winners because of her father.”

Prince Philip was “a practical joker, he loved a laugh”, says Pratt.

At the reunions, the Queen and Philip would head to opposite sides of the room to talk to medal winners. When the Pratts brought their daughter Danielle, the Duke of Edinburgh seemed hypnotised by her long, blonde hair.

The Queen and Prince Philip in the royal barge during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the Thames, June 2012. Michael Pratt wasn’t far behind.Credit:AP

The prince was a favourite of police assigned as his protection staff, often sitting with them over a long lunch that had more to do with stiff drinks than stiff upper lips. Chief Superintendent Graham “Slippery” Davidson was known to enjoy a cool drink on a warm day and usually was the last man standing, until he over-enjoyed the prince’s hospitality.

Someone who worked with Slip tells the story: “He was a flamboyant character who was renowned for being able to drink anyone under the table. The story goes he met his match when on personal guard duty for the Duke of Edinburgh. Apparently, the duke was the better man in the contest.”

So, how did Pratt, a boy from Macleod who would have been flat-out tying a Windsor knot let alone going to Windsor Castle, end up rubbing elbows with queens and princes?

Good with numbers, he was heading towards an accountancy course when he decided he wanted something different and applied to join the fire brigade and the police force.

In 1973, he joined the police and went through the usual induction before everything changed on June 4, 1976. He was off-duty, driving his small, two-door Mazda along Queens Parade (who could imagine he would end up in the Queen’s parade?), heading to his uncle’s barber shop for a haircut. He was 21 years old.

Per the rules, as he approached an intersection, he glanced to his right for traffic. What he saw were three men in balaclavas, taking guns from their belts and walking into the ANZ bank’s Clifton Hill branch.

The discreet thing to do would have been to pull up, find a phone and call for back-up. Instead, he put his hand on the horn, switched on his hazard lights and swung hard right.

Between him and the bank was a service road and bluestone bollards, but Pratt saw a gap and smashed his car into the front of the bank to announce the cavalry (in the form of one unarmed man) had arrived.

He didn’t know it then, but he was taking on three of the most dangerous crooks in Australia. (All were arrested and convicted.)

One bandit was on the counter, another was cleaning out the cash drawers, customers were on the ground, one shot had already been fired and the third gunman was gesturing to Pratt to move his car or get shot.

Michael Pratt slammed into the bank. The crooks grabbed just under five grand. Pratt was lucky to survive.Credit:Geoff Ampt

Pratt jumped out and opened the boot, hoping he had left his shovel there. All he could grab was a small jack handle.

The experienced armed robbery gang were momentarily confused. If Pratt could hold them there for just a couple of minutes, it would be enough. An onlooker had already rung the police.

Instead, the bandits kicked out the glass to open the door frame. One was screaming to Pratt to move or get shot.

Pratt went hands on, punching one of the crooks to the ground. As the masked man staggered to his feet, Pratt tried to grab him as a human shield but when he slipped by, the cop turned, only to be shot in the back from less than two metres.

It would be logical to think a bullet travels in a straight line, entering one side and exiting the other, but bullets aren’t logical. They are more like pinballs bouncing around until they run out of energy.

Often it comes down to fate. A bullet can enter and exit a body causing red-hot pain but no permanent damage. Or if it nicks something important, it can be curtains.

Pratt’s bullet bounced around him. It entered his left shoulder, went through his spine and left lung, hit the sternum, bounced back, grazed his heart, entered the right lung and was heading for the liver when it ran out of steam. It was later found at the bottom of the right lung.

He was saved because the bullet fired was a practice round that didn’t fragment on impact. When a gun spits out a bullet, the friction leaves the projectile red-hot – so much so that this one left Pratt with a burn scar on his aorta. Every now again, he suffers heartburn (literally) as an after-effect from the shooting.

He was taken about two kilometres to St Vincent’s Hospital, where top surgeon Tony Wilson was waiting.

Before Pratt drifted into unconsciousness, he looked up to see a priest delivering the last rites. “I thought ‘this is pretty serious’.”

Pratt in hospital. The last rites proved premature.Credit:Ken Rainsbury

First, they drained his lungs (he was drowning in his own blood), took out half of the left, then patched him as well as they could. They left a hole in his spine because to try to patch it could have resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic.

It is still there now: “There are tiny splinters of the bullet there but if they went in to clean it up, I might not be walking around.”

He returned to work at the Heidelberg station, but the pain in his wounded back became unbearable. He took two years’ sick leave, returning to non-operational roles before having to retire in 1979 due to ill health.

But policing was in his blood and he returned to the force in 1996 as a civilian staff member.

For some years, Pratt says, he suffered from depression, second-guessing his actions and dwelling on his lost career. Eventually, he turned it into a positive, putting all the usual daily annoyances into perspective. He stopped sweating the small stuff.

A few days ago, he received good news: he will soon be welcoming his 13th grandchild.

While he might not make the coronation list — cutbacks, you see — he will be there for next year’s VC-GC reunion to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

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