Lord Ashcroft talks to The Sunday Express about his collection of Special Forces medals, going on public display for the first time.
The timing of a new exhibition of special forces medals going on display for the first time could not be more poignant.
Some of the 100 SAS and SBS bravery medals have been built up by billionaire businessman and philanthropist Lord Ashcroft over 20 years and represent is the largest collection of its kind.
With SAS and SBS troops standing by to intervene in Libya, it is a fitting tribute to their proud history. The 65-year-old Conservative peer, whose father braved bullets and shells during the D-Day landings, told the Sunday Express: “Our special forces are unique.
“The fact their counterparts in the American and Israeli armies admit the SAS and the SBS set the benchmark speaks volumes. There can be no higher recommendation than that.
“They are an extraordinary group of people, whose bravery and professionalism should be a source of great national pride.
“Military medals, more specifically the stories of heroism behind them, have held a fascination for me ever since I was a boy when I would listen to my father’s war stories.
“When I have a moment to myself I thank him for this life-long interest which has brought me in contact with the families of so many remarkable men.
“My collection is a source of great personal pride but I want to share not only these medals with others but the incredible acts of bravery too that won them.”
One medal belongs to Bill Sparks, one of the Cockleshell Heroes, a precursor to today’s Special Boat Service.
The Eastender was the last survivor of a group of Royal Marine commandos who paddled 85 miles into German-occupied France in 1942 to blow up five merchant ships.
Eight of the men were killed but Bill and Major Herbert “Blondie” Hasler survived only to be chased through France and Spain for three months before reaching the safety of Gibraltar. Bill, who died at 80 in 2002, was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. Their bravery was the subject of a film starring Trevor Howard.
Another hero, former SAS trooper Major Michael “Bronco” Lane, won a British Empire Medal and Military Medal for his service in Northern Ireland and for his bravery on a joint British-Nepalese Army expedition in 1976 in which he lost five fingers and all his toes to frostbite.
Another Military Medal belongs to Major Jim Almonds, a founding member of the SAS who died aged 91 six years ago.
He was part of a top-secret mission to destroy planes at an airfield in Libya on Christmas Day in 1941.
The Luftwaffe heard about the ambush and moved most of their squadron off the airstrip before dive-bombing the SAS troops. Major Almonds rescued two of his men and drove more than 200 miles back to their camp, sheltering by day and travelling at night.
Exhausted, they reached safety on New Year’s Day 1942.
Lord Ashcroft said: “These men were involved in some of the military’s most daring and dangerous missions. In order to win medals such as these, they showed an incredible amount of courage and sheer will to live and complete their mission.
“I met Bill Sparks in the late Eighties when I bought his medals at a Sotheby’s auction.
“He was a fascinating character who became a good friend. I always loaned him his medals back whenever he needed them for official functions.”
Lord Ashcroft’s collection of 164 Victoria Cross medals are on display at a £5million gallery he personally funded at London’s Imperial War Museum.
His Special Forces collection will go on show at the BADA Antiques & Fine Art Fair in London from Wednesday until March 29.