Collecting medals, 73 years late.
Despite visiting many times as a young boy, there is one trip to see my paternal grandfather at his apartment in Paris that I vividly remember. I knew he had served during the Second World War and had fought during the jungle in the Pacific campaign, but otherwise had absolutely no idea what he did. He had told my father very little, a common trait for the war generation, and as a result he told me even less.
But on that one day in my grandfather Francis’s house in Paris’s 7th, he was babysitting me and finding it a particularly trying task to keep a nine year old boy settled. As a former diplomat he used his training to come up with a new tactic and told me to sit on the sofa while he disappeared into his bedroom. When he returned he had with him a small box, which he opened and one by one pulled out a glittering array of tin from within.
“This is the Pacific Star,” he said, rubbing the edge of a medal with his aged fingers.
“What was it for?,” I asked.
“We fought the Japanese, on something called the Kokoda Track in the middle of the jungle in New Guinea. One time they even attacked us while I was shaving and had to fight back wearing my towel.”
We laughed, and he pulled out more medals, describing each one. He then showed me a particularly grand gold one,
“And this is the Order of Australia. I got it the first year it was invented, but your grandmother hates it as it meant I didn’t get knighted and she didn’t get to be a Lady.”
He chuckled and eventually put them back in the box. I never looked at them again with him, but over the years at Christmas he slowly passed his war medals on to me, one by one wrapped up under the tree. I have treasured them since, and when he died in 2012 I had them framed and bring them with me regardless of where in the world I move.
The experience made me wonder what medals my other grandfather, Roald, had. He had died before I was born but I was fascinated by his wartime experience. Driving from his office in Dar Es Salaam to train in Nairobi as an RAF pilot, he flew Gladiators and Hurricanes in Africa, The Middle East and in Greece. He shot down enough enemy plans to become an ace, but also managed to crash making sure he saw out the rest of the war in America on intelligence work.
Over the years, I tried to ask everyone whether they had ever seen Roald’s medals. My aunt Ophelia had his uniform, but no medals. The Museum dedicated to my grandfather said the same, and his widow and my step-grandmother Liccy told me she knew nothing about it but encouraged my quest.
With work and other things, the job ebbed and flowed but finally in 2018 I managed to put together a form with all the evidence the British Ministry of Defence needs to look into someone’s war medals. In all likelihood, they had been collected and lost, but it was worth a punt. Into the envelope went his pilot logbook, death certificate and other ephemera to prove his service.
For months after I sent off the parcel in registered post I heard nothing. I occasionally followed up and was palmed off. But in December last year, on Liccy’s 80th birthday, I was preparing for the party and about to leave when the doorbell rang. I signed for and was handed a large packet.
After opening it, four plastic boxes tumbled out and landed on my kitchen table. There was no letter, but instead a small piece of card with the Royal coat of arms on it with a message.
“The Under Secretary of State for Defence presents his compliments and by Command of the Defence Council has the honour to transmit the enclosed awards granted for service during the war of 1939-45.”
It turns out they had never been collected, or perhaps never even issued. So that evening I returned them to my step-grandmother, who slept with them under her pillow before we both decided the best place for them was the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, where despite being 73 years late they can be seen by all of the children who pass through.