Volume 53, Number 5, May 2015
Whose medal is it anyway? This month's cover story regarding the proposed sale of Les Munro's medals, and more importantly the potential for them to leave the shores of New Zealand, has once again put into sharp focus the issue of who owns what and what they are allowed to do with it. The crux of the matter was Squadron Leader Munro, the last surviving pilot from the famous “Dambuster” raids and one of only two New Zealanders on the team selected by Guy Gibson, had decided that he would rather like to sell his impressive New Zealand Order of Merit, DSO, DFC group and put the money towards the RAF Benevolent Fund’s upkeep of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. A magnanimous gesture and one Squadron Leader Munro was prepared to make because he passionately wanted to do “all I can to ensure that the men of Bomber Command who lost their lives during the Second World War will be remembered with pride for generations to come”. However, to judge by some of the reactions to this generosity you would have thought that he had decided to throw the group away! Suddenly from out of nowhere comes a raft of people horrified that Munro’s medals might leave New Zealand, all urging him to reconsider and to keep them in the country. Some were sensible enough to suggest that New Zealanders themselves should club together and buy the medals, thus allowing the donation to go ahead, but others hinted that Mr Munro should be forcibly restricted in his aims, with the New Zealand Government even going so far as suggesting that the sale could be blocked under the Protection of Objects Act. Thankfully such action was unnecessary as Lord Ashcroft stepped in with an offer of £75,000 for the RAF Benevolent Fund if the medals were to be donated to the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland (for full details see page 6). This generous offer diffused the situation and prevented it from getting too heated. However, it was something of an eye-opener to see and hear some of the reactions to the original suggestion of a sale. The simple fact is Squadron Leader Munro was awarded these medals for his bravery during one of the most dangerous RAF missions of World War II , and subsequent missions including D-Day, and to suggest, even in passing, that he should not be allowed to do whatever he wants with them is surely ludicrous. This is something people often seem to forget when it comes to medals and their recipients—they are personal effects, they are the recipient’s to do with however he or she sees fit, but too often that is ignored as do-gooders, often with no knowledge of the recipient, their family or the cause which they are apparently championing, jump on their soap box and demand that the medals are donated to a museum, kept in a family, given to a charity and so on. How many times have you, as a medal collector, heard the phrase “Oh it’s a shame you have them, the family should have them or they should be in a museum”? Unlike any other collectables, the human aspect of medals leads people to treat them differently—no-one would think twice about you having a coin collection, few would suggest your cap badge collection should be taken to a museum and if you owned stamps nobody would bat an eyelid—but medals? Somehow the thought of a veteran selling his medals to a common collector leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of certain sections of society and they will do everything they can do either disrupt it or, at the very least, register their displeasure. It is not a view I either agree with or even understand. Yes, with some medals, like Victoria Cross groups or other groups of historical interest, it would be “nice” if they were publicly on display for all to see, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they are the recipient’s personal effects and as such if he (or she of course) chooses not to donate them to a museum that is his choice and he should never be compelled to do so, particularly at personal cost to himself; besides how often have we heard of “important” groups being donated to an institution, only to find they are put safely away, with a replica group on display instead? Although I’m sure in this case MOTAT won’t be doing that and I know for certain that the Ashcroft Gallery at the IWM doesn’t! The USA has gone so far as banning the sale and trade of the Congressional Medal of Honor—in essence telling the recipient that it is on loan from the Government and isn’t theirs to do with as they please at all. I do hope it doesn’t come to that elsewhere—although as there won’t always be an offer from Lord Ashcroft to “save” medals as there was in this case, I fear we haven’t heard the last of the righteous indignation of those who seem to forget that it was for the freedom of the individual and the opposition of tyranny and control that many men like Les Munro fought and died and were awarded medals in the first place.
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