A bridge too far? The battle for France's Pegasus Bridge is emerging, with a Briton at the centre

Tony Berridge, whose father took part in the D-Day landings, faces a bizarre legal wrangle involving the Pegasus Bridge to prove who owns his medals

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The Independent Online

The son of a British D-Day veteran has been ordered to appear before a French judge. Why? Because he asked ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy to recover his father’s “stolen” medals.

Tony Berridge, 68, from Oxford has been instructed to travel to Paris in March to be “placed under formal investigation” for making “false” allegations against a woman who tricked him into handing over his dead father’s medals nine years ago.

Four years after the medals were returned – partly thanks to President Sarkozy’s intervention – Mr Berridge faces  another legal struggle thanks to the delusions of a woman who claims to be the only true guardian of Pegasus Bridge, one of the most revered sites of the Normandy  beachheads.

For two decades, Françoise Gondrée-Anquetil, 70, has pursued a legal claim – three times dismissed by French courts – to own exclusive rights to all memorabilia and sites connected with the British airborne landings of 6 June 1944. Her one-woman association claims that its patron is Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who died in 1976.

Her website used to carry a photograph of her standing jovially beside Prince Charles on the day that a fine British, French and European-funded museum was inaugurated at Pegasus Bridge in 2000.

The picture was a fake. Ms Gondrée-Anquetil had been substituted in – in elegant coat and hat – for one of the Prince’s actual companions that day, Alain Richard, who was French defence minister at the time.

In 2006, the website and the fake image misled Mr Berridge into handing Ms Gondrée-Anquetil the six campaign medals earned by his father, Sergeant Wilfred Berridge, one of the British soldiers who captured the bridge in the early hours of 6 June 1944.

When he discovered that the medals had never reached the museum, he made repeated approaches to Ms Gondrée-Anquetil and the French authorities.

Nothing happened  until Mr Berridge wrote to Mr Sarkozy in 2010, telling the tale of the captive medals. The then President demanded action. The following year, the medals were returned by Ms Gondrée-Anquetil’s lawyer. Mr Berridge handed them straight to the Memorial Pegasus museum – where they are proudly displayed to this day.

He thought that was the end of the affair. A few days ago, Mr Berridge – who is recovering from a heart operation – received official letters in French and English from an investigating judge at the Palace of Justice in Paris.

The letter from judge Marion Potier summoned him to appear before her on 5 March and warned that she was “contemplating” placing him under formal investigation for having made “fully or partly” false claims against Ms Gondrée-Anquetil in his letter to Mr Sarkozy in 2010.

Pegasus-Bridge-PA.jpg
Troops cross Pegasus Bridge on D-Day (PA)

The letter told Mr Berridge that Ms Gondrée-Anquetil  was seeking “damages” and advised him to seek a French lawyer.

“I was shocked, flabbergasted,” Mr Berridge told The Independent. “I thought I had seen the back of this woman. And then this! All her claims about Pegasus Bridge have always been dismissed. She put that fake picture on her website which misled me into giving her my dad’s medals. And now the French legal system is after me?”

Mr Berridge has been advised that, in the long term, he has little to worry about. Under the French justice system, an investigative judge is obliged to open a formal inquiry when a complaint of this kind is made. The case is likely to be dropped once the judge hears all the evidence on both sides.

The Airborne Assault Normandy Trust, which keeps alive the memory of  British paratroopers and glider troops on D-Day, has offered to help.

So has the mayor of a French commune, near Pegasus Bridge, who runs a Franco-British association to preserve another of the cherished D-Day sites, the Merville gun battery. The association has hired a Paris lawyer to represent Mr Berridge, at its own expense.

Mr Berridge faces an awkward decision, however, on whether he should go to the cost and trouble of attending the hearing in Paris in March. If he fails to do so, he is unlikely to be extradited but his absence may be held against him.

Lieutenant Colonel Alan Edwards, chairman of the Airborne Assault Normandy Trust, told The Independent: “It is extraordinary that this woman, whose claims have been shown to be baseless, should be so vindictive as to make a legal complaint against Tony Berridge. He was the victim in this affair, not her.”

Why, then, is the French judicial system taking her complaint seriously?

Olivier Paz is the mayor of Merville-Franceville, a few miles from Pegasus Bridge. He is also chairman of the association which runs the site of the Merville battery, which was also stormed by British airborne troops in the early hours of D-Day.

“In the French judicial system, this judge is bound to open an investigation if she receives a direct complaint from this kind,” he said.

“I’m sure Ms Gondrée-Anquetil’s case will be dismissed. She also claims to own the site of our battery.

“Our association therefore thinks that it is important that we help Mr Berridge, who has already suffered enough.”

The first and true battle of Pegasus Bridge took just 10 minutes, soon after midnight on 6 June 1944. British glider-borne troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, under Major John Howard, captured and held the bridge to allow reinforcements from the British beachheads to pass through the next day.

Mr Berridge’s father, Sergeant Wilfred Berridge, then aged 34, was part of a second wave of Ox and Bucks Light Infantry glider troops that landed near the bridge on the morning of 6 June 1944. He died in 1969.

Ms Gondrée-Anquetil’s lawyer, Charles Morel, told The Independent that she had made her complaint of “false accusation” in 2011. It was the fault of the slowness of the French justice system that Mr Berridge had only received his summons now. This appeared to be contradicted by the judge’s letter, which spoke of a complaint made in 2013.

Mr Morel said that his client insisted that she had always acted in “good faith”. Although her claims had been dismissed by courts until now, “we have other legal procedures which are still in course”, he said.

The Independent put it to Mr Morel that the legal harassment of the elderly son of a man who had helped to liberate France would cause extreme anger. “I hear you,” he said. “I hear you.”

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