Liberated at last, the war medals stolen from a Normandy veteran
The medals of a British D-Day veteran finally reached their intended destination in Normandy yesterday, five years after they were hijacked by a deluded French woman.
It took the persistence of the dead veteran's son, Tony Berridge, and the direct intervention of President Nicolas Sarkozy, to prise the medals from the grasp of a woman who claims, falsely, to be the true guardian of Pegasus Bridge, one of the best-known sites of the D-Day beachheads.
In 2006, Mr Berridge, 64, from Oxford, handed his father's six campaign medals to Françoise Gondrée-Anquetil, under the impression that they would be displayed at Memorial Pegasus, the official museum and visitor centre, north of Caen.
He discovered a year later that Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's website, claiming to represent a "Musée Pegasus" was a misleading fake.
He made repeated efforts to reclaim his father's medals . Despite several promises, Ms Gondrée-Anquetil refused to give them back. Finally, with the help of the D-Day airborne veterans' association, the Airborne Assault Normandy Trust, Mr Berridge wrote to Mr Sarkozy. He received a reply saying that the President took his complaints "very seriously" and would order the French authorities to take up the case.
After several more months of haggling, the medals were this month returned by Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's lawyer to the trust's chairman, Lt-Col Alan Edwards. They were yesterday handed by Mr Berridge to Mark Worthington, who is the curator of the Memorial Pegasus.
"I can't describe the relief," Mr Berridge said. "I felt that I had let my father down by letting this woman hijack his medals. Now they are where I wanted them to be five years ago."
And so ended the latest of many "battles of Pegasus Bridge" – a convoluted saga of family quarrels and veterans' rifts over who should control the memory of the site, just south of Sword Beach. The original battle for Pegasus Bridge started soon after midnight on 6 June 1944. British glider-borne troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry captured and held the bridge to allow reinforcements from the British beachheads to pass through later that day. Mr Berridge's father, Sergeant Wilfred Berridge – aged 34 at the time – was part of a second wave of troops which landed near the bridge on the morning of 6 June 1944. He died in 1969.
"The medals are a very rare collection of campaign and service medals, earned by a Sergeant who is known to have been a back-bone of his unit," Mr Worthington said yesterday. "We are delighted to have them at last."
Ms Gondrée-Anquetil, 65, has pursued a one-woman crusade to prove that she is the only true custodian of the Pegasus Bridge site. She had declined to co-operate or even return calls until Mr Sarkozy intervened.
Ms Gondree-Anquetil's lawyer, Charles Morel, said last night that his client had always acted in "good faith".
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