Veterans feel betrayed by 'final word' decision on historic medals claims

Berlin Airlift, yes... Aden and Malta, no: campaigners say conclusions of independent review are arbitrary and unjust
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The Independent Online

British veterans from wars and conflicts around the world have lost a battle for recognition of their service to Crown and country. A decision by Ministry of Defence officials, that only some of the hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women who served in conflicts and operations ranging from Aden and Suez to the Berlin Airlift should be awarded medals, has provoked a bitter row.

The review recommends that those who served in the Berlin Airlift receive a medal while veterans of conflicts such as Aden, Suez and Korea do not. The conclusions of the review of historic claims have been submitted for Royal approval.

The review also concludes that its decision should be the final word on the subject. "No other historic claims for medallic recognition will now be reviewed, unless significant new evidence is produced that suggests that an injustice has been done," according to papers placed in the House of Commons library last month.

The decision has provoked fury among former British military personnel who have campaigned for recognition of their contributions. Critics accused officials of making "unaccountable and arbitrary" decisions.

One of the main judgements made by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals, based in the Cabinet Office, is whether service personnel faced sufficient levels of danger and difficult conditions, dubbed "risk and rigour", to warrant receiving a medal. In the case of Aden, it was judged that "there is little evidence to suggest a significant injustice was done" in not awarding medals for those who served there between July 1960 and April 1964.

But Geoff Withers, 75, an Aden veteran who served in 1963-64, said: "Twenty-six service personnel made the ultimate sacrifice in this period of time, and are laid to rest in Silent Valley. How could we be ignored by the powers that be? A paltry veterans badge is all we have to wear when on parade on Armistice Day."

In contrast, all aircrew who served in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and 1949 will get a medal.

Geoff Smith, the chairman of the British Berlin Airlift Association, said: "Nobody has been notified to my knowledge about this new medal, either through the association or directly. To finally receive some recognition is one thing but to not even be told is another.

"Even with this recognition, many of the aircrew who flew on this operation have passed away, with the others being almost too old to accept the award."

Thousands of veterans from the Falklands War, who previously did not qualify for a medal because of a cut-off date of 12 July 1982, will now get one – with the cut-off date extended to 21 October 1982, when ships no longer had to maintain Defence Watch status. However, veterans from the siege of Malta during the Second World War will not be recognised. Although "The requirements for risk and rigour were met," there was no "satisfactory way of distinguishing between the service of those who were on Malta and others involved in the defence of the island in the wider Mediterranean area".

The suggestion of awarding medals to veterans who served in Suez before 19 October 1951, or between 19 October 1954 and 16 June 1956, were also rejected.

Those who served in Cyprus between 1955 and 1959, or 21 December 1963 and 26 March 1964, will get medals. But those who served in July and August 1974 will not. And veterans from Korea, after the ceasefire in 1953, will not be recognised.

The prospect of a National Defence Medal – to recognise those who served between two and four years – remains remote. Officials admit that Britain is "out of line with most of those countries with whom we serve closely" in not having one, but say "this is consistent with the traditionally parsimonious attitude to military medals which has long characterised the UK".

A briefing written by officials in July states: "The cost of a retrospective medal may be seen as prohibitive, given other pressures on the defence budget" – and estimates that it would cost more than £100m.

Sir John Holmes, who undertook the independent medals review, said: "There is a case for a National Defence Medal, as the campaigners for this set out clearly, which should not be overlooked … but, for the time being at least, those concerned are not convinced the case is sufficiently strong as to overcome the more traditional view that medals are given for action, not for having a particular job. There would also clearly be significant cost implications if such a medal were instituted retrospectively [to the end of the Second World War]".

But Tony Morland, co-chairman of the National Defence Medal Campaign, said: "I am, as are many thousands of others, extremely disappointed by the decisions that have made in respect of the medal review. It is completely arbitrary. The whole point of the review was to bring some consistency to how decisions are made and in that they have failed."

'The Reunion', on the Berlin airlift, is BBC Radio4 today at 11.15am