Save our war memorials: Why we must honour the memory of our fallen heroes

  • 13 November, 2011
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in The Sunday Telegraph on 13 November 2011.

Lieutenant George Albert Cairns
Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft

The twin pillars that we in Britain use to pay tribute to the fallen from two world wars and other global conflicts.

The first of these pillars, Remembrance Day (and in this category I, of course, include Remembrance Sunday), is, thank goodness, in fine fettle.

It is an established tradition dating back to the end of the First World War which, since the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, rightly seems to have grown in importance in the national calendar.

I have no doubt that Remembrance Day will be sacrosanct in the eyes of the public for many decades to come.

Yet the second of these pillars, our war memorials, are increasingly at risk from a mindless criminal element who, quite unbelievably, seem to think the plaques on monuments have a greater value as scrap metal than they do reminding the nation of the ultimate sacrifice paid by those defending our country.

I find it absolutely repugnant that new evidence has shown that the number of raids on memorials by metal thieves has doubled in the past six weeks.

How can anyone in their right mind defile a tribute to those who have given their lives for our freedom and the freedom of millions of others around the world?

Over the past 25 years, I have built up the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), decorations that are now on view to the public at the gallery that bears my name in the Imperial War Museum.

I revere each and every VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

It was, therefore, with a mixture of disgust and anger that I read in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend that two brass plaques inscribed with the names of Lieutenant George Cairns VC and 138 of his fallen comrades had been stolen.

I have no idea what these metal thieves were thinking of as, presumably in the dead of night, they prised the plaques from the memorial in Sidcup, Kent.

What I do know, however, is what they should have been thinking of: the bravery of Lieutenant Cairns, aged 30, on March 13, 1944, as he led his men up a targeted hill in Burma that was being defended by the Japanese.

In the heat of the battle, a sword-wielding Japanese officer hacked off the young British officer’s left arm. Lieutenant Cairns’ responded by somehow killing his opponent, picking up the captured sword and then continuing to lead his men up the hill.

As Lieutenant Cairns slashed left and right with the sword, more enemy lay dead and wounded from his frenzied blows.

Eventually, however, the young British officer fell to the ground and he later succumbed to his wounds, unaware that he had led his men to an overwhelming victory over the Japanese.

In fact, Lieutenant Cairns’ VC was not announced in the London Gazette until May 20, 1949. It was the final VC awarded for bravery during the Second World War because, in another twist of fate, the original details of that recommendation were with General Orde Wingate when he was killed in a plane crash in Burma later in March 1944.

The necessary information for the award of Lieutenant Cairns’ VC could not therefore be obtained again until long after the end of the war.

What I also know is that Lieutenant Cairns and each of his 138 fallen comrades were infinitely more honourable than the sly thieves who have desecrated the war memorial: one of a number of crimes that David Cameron, quite rightly, described recently as “sickening”.

I have a passion for bravery that dates back to my childhood and my late father Eric Ashcroft’s account to me of his experiences on “Sword” Beach during the D-Day landings of 1944. With this great interest goes an entrenched commitment to honouring the fallen and to championing the gallantry of the “bravest of the brave”.

It is for this reason that I recently donated £1 million towards a new, and long overdue, memorial in Hyde Park – which will be completed by June next year – for the 55,000 airmen from Bomber Command who lost their lives during the Second World War.

It is for this reason that I recently donated £1 million towards a new, and long overdue, memorial in Hyde Park – which will be completed by June next year – for the 55,000 airmen from Bomber Command who lost their lives during the Second World War.

I also commend The Sunday Telegraph for its “Lest We Forget: Save our war memorials” campaign.

Twenty-three years ago I founded Crimestoppers, which remains the only charity in the United Kingdom that seeks to solve crime.

I urge members of the public to use Crimestoppers’ 0800 555 111 number to provide anonymous information on those who have dishonoured our war dead with their illegal and crass actions.

Crimestoppers recently highlighted research which shows that metal theft, in general, has been growing significantly in the last few years, and now costs the UK economy an estimated £770 million a year.

I can reveal that Crimestoppers is actively planning a national campaign early next year aimed at catching metal thieves and recovering stolen property.

But that is for the future. On Remembrance Sunday, we must all briefly set aside all thoughts of vandalism and theft in order to pay tribute to the likes of Lieutenant George Cairns VC, true heroes whose memory we all have a duty to keep alive.

Read this story in The Sunday Telegraph

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