Françoise Gondrée-Anquetil claims to be the only true guardian of Pegasus Bridge, one of the most revered, and visited, sites of the D-Day beachheads. To stake her claim, she runs a website, which carries a photograph of her in an elegant coat and hat, standing beside Prince Charles on the day that a British, French and European-funded museum was inaugurated beside Pegasus Bridge in 2000.
The picture, like all Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's claims, is fake. She has crudely substituted her own image for that of Alain Richard, then French defence minister, who was at the museum's opening. Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's assertions – already twice rejected by French courts – would be laughable if it were not for one thing. She has duped the son of a British veteran of the D-Day landings into giving her his father's medals. And, despite repeated requests, she is refusing to give them back.
At least one other British family is believed to have been taken in by Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's website, which implies, falsely, that she is the museum's "founder". Veterans' groups fear that other British people may have been tricked but remain unaware to this day that their relations' wartime mementoes have been, in effect, hijacked.
Tony Berridge, 64, from Oxford, handed Ms Gondrée-Anquetil his father's six campaign medals in Normandy three years ago. It was a year before he discovered, by accident, that the Memorial Pegasus Museum had never received them. His efforts to persuade the French authorities to intervene have come to nothing.
"This was just a complete con by this woman," he told The Independent yesterday. "I contacted her through her website. She met me for lunch in Caen and I gave her the medals. She dropped me beside the museum and asked a friend of hers to show me around. I didn't think to be suspicious and ask why she didn't go in herself. Now she is refusing to reply to me. But I'm not giving up. I will write to President Nicolas Sarkozy if I have to. My father would be turning in his grave if he knew that his medals had been seized by this woman ... They should be in the Memorial Pegasus Museum with the medals and mementoes of his mates."
Lieutenant Colonel Alan Edwards is the chairman of the Airborne Assault Normandy Trust, the organisation that campaigned for the creation of the Memorial Pegasus Museum 10 years ago. An appeal by the trust through The Independent in 1999 brought a generous response from readers, including one donation of £200,000. When added to substantial grants from the British and French governments and the EU, the money allowed the museum – shaped like the Horsa Gliders which attacked Pegasus Bridge in June 1944 – to open the following year.
"Ms Gondrée-Anquetil's behaviour has been despicable," Lt Col Edwards said. "Mr Berridge gave her the medals in good faith. She clearly let him believe that they would go to the museum but had no intention of handing them over."
Lt Col Edwards said the trust felt it had a "moral duty" to help Mr Berridge recover the medals. "He will have to bring a civil legal action in France but we will assist him in doing so in any way that we can."
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.
The scandal of the "captive medals" is the final skirmish in another, much longer, battle of Pegasus Bridge: a tortured saga of family quarrels and rifts between veterans' groups over who should control the memory of the site on the Caen Canal, just south of Sword Beach, the most eastern of the Allied landing beaches.
Most of the rifts were healed by the opening of the Memorial Pegasus Museum in 2000. But Ms Gondrée-Anquetil, 65, has pursued a one-woman crusade to prove that she is the only true custodian of the site. On her website, she claims to have the posthumous blessings of the D-Day British airborne commander Major-General Richard "Windy" Gale and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself.
Her claims are repudiated not just by the museum and the Airborne Trust but by her own family. Françoise Gondrée-Anquetil is the younger sister of Arlette Gondrée, a well-known figure to British Normandy veterans and their families: she runs the café beside Pegasus Bridge in a building which was the first in France to be "liberated" by allied troops on 6 June 1944.
Although Ms Gondrée fiercely opposed the building of the Memorial Pegasus Museum, she has assured both Mr Berridge and the Airborne Trust that she has "nothing whatever to do" with the claims of Françoise Gondrée-Anquetil. The two sisters are understood to have fallen out years ago.
Ms Gondrée-Anquetil, who lives in Paris, has failed to respond to calls from The Independent asking her to comment. Before the new museum was built, she was one of the custodians of a collection of Pegasus Bridge memorabilia displayed at the back of the Gondrée café. This collection was ejected by her elder sister, Arlette, in 1997. Ms Gondrée-Anquetil has lost two legal battles in the last two years over her claims to be the owner, or guardian, of all the thousands of artefacts in the new Memorial Pegasus Museum. But in a reply to a protest email from Mr Berridge in 2008, she claimed that "all property and objects" in the museum belonged to her organisation. She said that when her claim was recognised, Sergeant Berridge's medals will, "in the course of time, find the place they merit".Reuse content