Belfast Telegraph

Lily gets back gallant dad's war medals ... but puzzle over how they were lost goes on

By Ivan Little

A Portstewart woman has finally been reunited with the five medals won by her war hero father over 70 years ago, when he was commended for bravery following the Normandy Landings when he was badly wounded the day after saving a colleague's life.

Sgt Harry Staddon's decorations - including his prestigious Military Medal for gallantry which it is thought vanished from the soldier's home in Portrush in the 1970s - were found after Lily O'Neill's family conducted an exhaustive search which stretched all the way from Ireland, England and Wales to Australia and back again.

And Mrs O'Neill received an added bonus - a citation in recognition of Harry Staddon's bravery, signed by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself.

Monty wrote of how Harry bravely organised the men in his platoon in response to heavy fire from German positions in August 1944, two months after the 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment landed in Normandy as part of the 53rd Welsh Division.

The one-time British Commander-in-Chief said Harry's quick thinking led to a 25-strong German platoon surrendering.

But shortly afterwards Harry was back in action, selflessly rushing to the aid of one of his men who had been hit by shellfire which ignited a grenade and set him on fire.

"This NCO stripped off the man's clothing and equipment and extinguished the phosphorus which was burning", said Monty, who added that Harry set an example "which could not be improved upon".

The citation continued: "On the following day during the attack on Leffard whilst leading and encouraging his men he was wounded."

Doctors carried out no fewer than 22 operations on injuries to Harry's leg, but they couldn't save it.

After two years in hospital in England, the London-born soldier returned to Northern Ireland, where he'd been stationed.

He'd met his wife Sally in Newry and they set up home in Armagh, where he worked as a boilerman before moving to a similar job in Coleraine hospital.

He and his family lived in Hopefield Avenue in Portrush and Harry, who had an artificial leg, kept his medals in a drawer.

But he eventually discovered his medals were missing and it was impossible to establish where they'd gone.

Harry died in 1985 at the age of 67 without ever finding out what happened to his precious medals. But his daughter Lily and her husband Billy O'Neill never gave up hope, although they accepted that the chances of recovering the medals were slim.

However, one evening, a couple of years ago, as they watched TV coverage of Remembrance Day commemorations in London with their grandson David, the first steps were taken in the hunt for the medals, with a little help from technology.

Lily said: "I happened to say to David that his great-grandfather had fought in the war, but all his medals went missing from the house in Portrush."

David went on to Google on his smartphone and within minutes he found records showing that Harry's medals had been bought and sold by a series of collectors down the years.

"They'd been all around the world," said Lily. "There was documentation to prove they had been in the hands of private collectors in Australia and England."

Lily's husband Billy wasn't prepared to stop there and he set about tracing the latest owners of the medals. He contacted a number of dealers who'd been involved in the earlier transactions, but they were reluctant to share information with him.

However, then came a stroke of luck as he learnt by chance from a relative across the water that Harry's medals were back on the market with a Welsh dealer.

"I contacted him but I didn't say who I was and I made an offer which was accepted," said Billy.

After the medals were safely back in Northern Ireland, Billy revealed his identity to the dealer, who told him that the price would have been higher if he'd known he was a member of Harry's family.

"I said that was why I hadn't told him," laughed Billy.

Lily said she was overjoyed to have the medals returned to her family, along with the Field Marshal Montgomery citation, which she'd never seen before.

"That was very special to see," she added. "We had copies of the medals, but they're not the same as the real things"

Lily said her father was a modest man. "He never talked about the war. He'd been a very fit and strong man who'd been a weightlifter. He also trained boxers in his day," she said.

Billy added: "Harry was a very quiet man, but the citation shows just how brave he was in the heat of battle in France."

He is still keen to put all the missing pieces of the medals' jigsaw together.

"I want to trace their journey, but I'd also like to know how the medals disappeared in the first place," he said.

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