Belfast Telegraph

On a mission to learn more about grandad the war hero

By Mike Gilson

My parents say they were clearing out the attic and found them in a corner. It is the matter-of-fact way they say it that surprises me. On the table is a collection of my late grandfather's war medals and in the middle the Croix de Guerre, one of the highest military medals the French can bestow. It's not far off the Victoria Cross for equivalence.

He didn't talk about it, is the answer to all of my questions. I hold it in my hands. It is a thing of beauty, a heavy Florentine square cross with crossed swords piercing the middle. The symbol of the French Republic adorns the centre. But how did he get it and who gave it to him?

Again I am told he never talked about it, least of all to his only daughter, my mother. My grandfather, or Pop Elphick as he was known to me and my brother, died of terrible bowel cancer when I was only eight. He was only 55.

He was everything a grandfather should be to an eight-year-old. A landscape gardener who was said to have his head permanently in the clouds, he was full of jokes and mischief that brought much tut-tutting from my mother trying to bring us to order. He was an expert course fisherman and took me with him whenever he could, pointing out the wonders and mysteries of the countryside and filling my head with tall tales of local Kentish legends and old-house hauntings.

A few days later I am looking at an online archived edition of the London Gazette for November 1944 and there is Sergeant (Temporary) Stanley Llewellyn Elphick, Royal Marine, Mentioned in Dispatches. Seems this is my Pop. I'm seized by a questioning zeal to find out more about this man.

On a rainy Sunday all else is cancelled as I gaze at my laptop screen looking for clues. I want to put myself in his shoes. It's hard going. Pop was just a grunt not a general, so he's pretty deep down in the archives. In addition the French records on the Croix de Guerre are disgracefully incomplete. They do not answer queries either.

But I have breakthroughs. I know he was a Royal Marine and even played trumpet in the RM band. A few hours later I get another insight. Pop was Mentioned in Despatches and, I believe, awarded the Croix de Guerre for his part in the June 1944 capture of the island of Elba, one of the last German strongholds in the Mediterranean. It was the place of Napoleon's first exile. The assault was led by the Free French Forces but supported by the Americans and British. Pop was in LCG14. That's Landing Craft Gun number 14, a specially adapted vessel to get troops on the shallow sloping beaches of Elba while firing some heavy duty weaponry as cover. The Allies finally took Elba but the brutal two-day battle cost 500 German lives, 252 French and 38 British.

And here's the tantalising part. Seems my Pop may have got his medal for dashing onto the beach to rescue stricken comrades while under heavy German fire. In truth, the sort of everyday bravery that everyday men like him were expected to perform in the extraordinary circumstances of the time. But a lump comes into my front when I find that snippet.

So, I'm on a mission of my own which I suspect Pop, judging from my parents' recollections, would not have welcomed. I'm going to find out exactly what he did and restore the story to our family history. He lives on as a wonderful man and grandfather, but that hell on Elba, when a modest, flower-loving dreamer became a hero, must have its chapter too.

  • Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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