Belated gesture welcomed by Britain's heroes

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Until 1959, the only financial reward for the holders of Britain's highest awards for bravery was pounds 50, available to those who became destitute. Unsurprisingly, few chose to accept it.

A Cabinet minister, horrified at the lack of financial support, introduced an annuity of pounds 100, a sum that remained unchanged until yesterday when John Major announced that holders of the Victoria and George Cross would receive a yearly payment of pounds 1,300 - 13 times the previous sum.

Yet according to one medal-holder, despite often suffering severe financial hardship, the veterans themselves would never have lobbied for an increase.

"Money has never really been talked about," said Bill Reid, 73, of Crieff , Perthshire, a member of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.

"Talking about medals and money in the same breath has always seemed to us rather infra dig," he said.

"And we'd generally had people in charge of the association who probably weren't in desperate need of money, so it wouldn't have been something we'd campaign for ourselves. So this is marvellous."

As a 21-year-old flight lieutenant, Mr Reid and the crew of his Lancaster were injured when they came under fire on the outward leg of a bombing mission to Dusseldorf. They flew on with a shattered windscreen, no oxygen and only the pole star to navigate by.

According to Mr Reid, who suffered head, hand and shoulder injuries, the freezing cockpit helped the crew survive as it slowed the bleeding.

They successfully completed their mission and crash landed in Norwich. Mr Reid was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroism.

Many of the surviving 33 Victoria Cross and 48 George Cross heroes, now mostly in their seventies and eighties, have since had trouble making ends meet. Some have had to sell their homes and a number of the Gurkha holders have had particular problems.

The Prime Minister took up their cause after the VE Day celebrations when he became aware of their plight. Yesterday's rise to pounds 1,300 restores the payment to slightly more than its previous value in real terms: pounds 100 in 1959 is worth pounds 1,190 at today's prices.

Mr Reid said he was delighted at the increased annuity, adding that it would make life "a little easier" for many fellow veterans. "This will make a big difference to some folk. There are some older people who haven't got a good pension. A lot of the Gurkhas and Indian people are living in penury."

nMichael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, came under fire again yesterday for his nationalist tirade. Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Armitage, a former head of defence intelligence, described itas "absolute rubbish. He just doesn't understand the subject".

"Portillo has done himself enormous damage," said one one senior naval officer, who did not want to be named.

David Aaronovitch, page 20