SAS defeats 'Captain of the Tiger Men' at Dix Noonan Webb's rare medals sale

Dix Noonan Webb concluded their sale of 850 medals yesterday on Wednesday (December 1) in London. The top lots were more or less as expected, though bidders proved especially keen on one medal set in particular.

A medal set belonging to a legend of the Vietnam War, Australian Army Captain Barry Petersen, was always likely to do well.

Petersen was ordered to train and lead guerrilla squads of Montagnard tribesmen against the Viet Cong in the remote Central Highlands before combat troops set boot on the land. This dangerous mission was initially sponsored by the CIA with funds and logistics.

The organisation turned against him however as time went on. Whilst Petersen's guerrilla forces, known as the Tiger Men, were brutally effective against the Viet Cong, the CIA considered him to have gone native and caused the tribe to develop a personality cult around him.

Tiger Petersen's Medals won in Vietnam
'Tiger' Petersen's Medals won in Vietnam

Petersen had become deeply integrated into the Montagnard tribes, but was forced to leave in haste and was lucky to survive. His Military Cross set sold as expected for £50,000 ($78,000) - a substantial sum, but a strong investment for the new owner. It's interesting to speculate how it might have sold in America or Australia.

The set was not the top lot in the sale however. That honour fell to the highly important Malaya Emergency and Rhodesia "Bush War" group of eleven medals awarded to Lieutenant-General Peter Walls MBE who served with the 22 Special Air Service Regiment in Malaya, and rose to the command of the Rhodesian Army under Ian Smith.

Walls's medals centred around Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and include the Zimbabwe Independence Medal of 1980, the Rhodesian Grand Office of the Legion of Merit (G.L.M.) and the Rhodesian Defence Cross for Distinguished Service.

Peter Walls's SAS medals
Peter Walls's SAS medals

Walls is regarded as a truly great counter-insurgency leader, and his protracted defence of Rhodesia stands as an exceptional military achievement.  His character is perhaps captured in this exchange with Robert Mugabe.

Robert Mugabe: "Why are your men trying to kill me?"
Lieutenant-General Peter Walls: "If they were my men you would be dead."

Perhaps this attitude and his confirmed place in history with military historians impressed bidders as there was some keen battling over the set, which eventually sold for twice its lower estimate of £30,000 at £64,000 ($99,850).

Collectors of rare gallantry medals will be excited to know that the very first Victoria Cross awarded to a member of the army is currently available.


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