When I heard of a blind Second World War veteran’s appeal for the return of his lost medals I was very moved. Alfred Barlow, who took part in the D Day landings, was on his way back from visiting Normandy with his family when he realised that all four of his medals had gone missing.
Now, in a gesture to warm the cockles of the coldest heart, Stockport collector David Byrne has replaced Alfred’s full set of medals for his 96th birthday (on 25 June). “It was the best present I could wish for,” the veteran said.
Alfred was just 24 when he landed on Sword Beach, the third and final Allied landing of the Normandy coastline. His wartime service earned him the 1939-45 Star, the France and German Star, the 1939-45 war medal and the Palestine Medal.
His family discovered the loss when they stopped at the Norton Canes services on the M6 Toll near Burntwood on Thursday 8 June and the story sparked a wave of media interest. The actor Hugh Grant is reportedly offering £1,000 to anyone who returns them, anonymity granted.
In a tearful television interview Alfred described how his medals were much more than pieces of metal – they were recognition of his part in the war. “I want to be able to pass them onto my grandson,” he said. “I want them back – they mean so much to me”.
I understand the Stockport grandfather’s distress because I know how much my dad’s Second World War medals meant to him, though like so many men of a certain age, he never said so.
I knew – because mum told us children – that dad’s war robbed him of his faith. He only attended church once a year on Remembrance Sunday, and in the weeks leading up to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day he’d stand for hours in the rain selling poppies. We owe so very much to the Alfred Barlows and Arthur Kellys of their generation.
In 2005, as part of the BBC’s WW2 People’s War– an archive of memories to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Second World War – I translated and posted a story that dad had originally written in French. He never lost his love of learning and after he retired he attended French lessons; asked to write an essay entitled “24 Hours I Will Never Forget”, he chose to write of his experiences at the Siege of Tobruk.
I remember stopping in disbelief, slowly taking in what I was reading – and what dad (my cautious, risk-averse, civil servant dad) had seen and done – then trying to turn it into English using my shaky A level French. You can still read the account here; it’s pretty powerful stuff delivered in the dry, understated tone of someone who would never in a million years have considered himself brave.
In his last years my dad was confined to bed, unable to speak or eat, fed by a tube in his stomach and looked after by two live-in carers – yet he never quite lost his love of socialising. Even when he couldn’t chat, he lived for visitors.
His remaining British Legion colleagues (many of them had already died) would frequently stop by at his flat, sit beside his bed and reminisce about the war. If I happened to be there, I saw dad’s eyes light up, his head move in what passed for a nod, his hands tap at the bed as he tried to join in. It would be hard to describe him as animated, but in his last months he certainly felt a strong connection with his fellow veterans.
He didn’t have dementia as mum did, but towards the end dad too began to live in the past. He kept his medals in a drawer beside his bed and every month or so one of us would take them out to polish them. Only then, as he looked at them, as I placed them in his hand so he could feel their weight, did I start fully to appreciate what they meant to him. Dad was awarded the Burma Star, the Africa Star, the 1939-45 Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939-45 Medal.
One of my last, favourite memories of my father was when the two of us, along with a young Polish friend who often helped us out, went to church on Remembrance Sunday. It was about two years before dad died and we just about managed to get him to our picturesque local church in Surrey (where he and mum had married 60 years earlier) in his wheelchair.
His gleaming medals were proudly displayed on his chest and after the service a young woman, a stranger, came up to dad, leant down a little and quietly said, “Thank you”. Just two words. For a moment I couldn’t think what she meant. But dad knew and his cloudy old eyes teared up. It was very touching moment and I later included it in a short story that appeared in the Sunday Express magazine.
When our father died and my siblings and I shared out his things, I asked for his medals. Five ribbons, five pieces of metal. One war. An irreplaceable dad. David Byrne’s birthday gift to Alfred is very special; it restores one’s faith in human nature. I still hope though, that if someone finds Alfred’s own medals he or she returns them. It would make the end of an already heartwarming story, pretty near perfect.