Our Top Five... Medals of military escapees

Whilst naturally no one wants to be captured in battle, becoming a prisoner of war is a necessary risk for the military. Sometimes it is an almost inevitable consequence of undercover work where the only way the soldier in question is likely to avoid it is death.

Some of the most heart-warming stories of any conflict therefore are those in which a captive turns his luck and makes a break for freedom. With that in mind, here are our five favourite escapee's medal sets.

Bill McCarthy's Legion of Honour

Sometimes recognition is a long time in coming. Bill McCarthy went into WWII in 1943, at the age of 18. It was only in 2009 that he was awarded a medal - France's Legion d'Honneur.

McCarthy was deployed as part of the D-Day landings, but his company paid a heavy price, as every single one of them was either killed, injured or captured. This was due in part to a cunningly positioned ambush at a point where the company chose to cross a river. They had no chance to fight back.

Although initially impressed with the relatively mild treatment by their captors, McCarthy learned that some of the POWs were to be marched south, and he sensed that they were less likely to survive. He escaped by scrambling over barbed wire and sought other American units.

Finding none, he and his companion were eventually forced to help at a local farmhouse. To his surprise, they were sheltered, fed and even offered cigarettes. By way of explanation, the farmer produced his own POW uniform - a US one -and indicated that he felt he owed Americans a debt of gratitude for his own good treatment.

McCarthy publicly accepted his medal on behalf of others in his company - though when asked privately how he got it, he offers 'intelligence and good looks'.

Ronnie Littledale - Escape from Colditz

Ronnie Littledale's Second World War was a little different. He was combat-ready in 1940, but almost immediately captured in the gallant last defence of Calais, after which he spent most of the war either as a POW or on the run around Europe following a fresh escape, by turns assisted (especially by Poles) and betrayed.

Finally sent to Colditz, the converted castle used to house escape-risk POWs, Littledale escaped from there too.

A signalling system was used by which a 'British orchestra' amongst the prisoners, conducted by Douglas Bader, were to stop playing whenever Bader, who had a clear view of the sentries, felt they were distracted.

Colditz Littledale DSO medal group
Ronnie Littledale's DSO medal group

This obstacle passed (with difficulty), the men had to escape through a chimney flue, which it was only possible to squeeze through naked "…like toothpaste out of a tube!"

Littledale escaped via Geneva and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the whole set finally set for the equivalent of $53,500.

Ernest McGarrigle of the French Resistance

When we interviewed David Erskine-Hill of Dix Noonan Webb, he indicated that one of his favourite sales and stories was that of Ernest McGarrigle. McGarrigle was captured in Belgium as it succumbed to Nazi forces.  He immediately escaped and tried to re-join his company in Lille. On the way there, he was recaptured and escaped again.

McGarrigle tried multiple times to escape to the UK, notably via Spain, with his methods ranging from hiding under newspapers in a truck to obtaining false documents. Eventually he gave up of this and linked up with the French Resistance, becoming a noted asset in the war effort. His Distinguished Conduct Medal set was sold at Dix Noonan Webb for £8,200 (against a £4,000-5,000 listing).

Jack Byrne of the SAS

Jack Byrne was a founding member of the SAS. He survived L-detachment's (as it was originally called) disastrous first parachute mission to become a daring saboteur, notably at the raid on Agedabia airfield where he and a colleague set bombs on several planes.

"As we turned to run back to the others, the first four of the fighters went up in flames almost together, and within seconds all eight were burning fiercely, the planes being so close together that one well-placed bomb in the centre of the row would probably have destroyed the lot."

Jack Byrne Distinguished Conduct Medal group
Jack Byrne's Distinguished Conduct Medal group

His WWII Distinguished Conduct Medal group of eight sold for £60,000, beating even the £40,000-50,000 estimate in September last year.

L Frank of the 'Amethyst' Yangtse

Not all escapes are individuals from POW camps during recognised wars, of course.

In 1949, the HMS Amethyst was proceeding towards Nanking when it came under heavy fire from Chinese forces. Unprepared for this attack, the ship's initial response was simply to fly Union Jacks in case there had been a misunderstanding.

Instead the significantly damaged ship was held in captivity for 100 days, before the crew, having trouble with supplies, decided to make a mad dash for freedom down the length of the river at full speed under cover of darkness.

The plan was to destroy the ship by running it aground if the attempt failed, but it did not, and Petty Officer L. Frank who had been at the Wheel was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. His set was sold at Spink in 2003 for £52,000 (roughly double the £26,000-28,000 listing).

 

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