Magazine article The Spectator

Cold, Calculated Bravery

Magazine article The Spectator

Cold, Calculated Bravery

Article excerpt

A memorable little event took place at the Imperial War Museum last week. General Sir Michael Rose, Colonel of the Coldstream Guards, arranged a presentation to honour the 60th anniversary of the award of a VC to a member of the regiment named Ian Liddell.

I had never heard of Liddell, but Michael Rose is an old friend, and I love to learn more about warriors. One by one, a succession of elderly men who had served with the Coldstream in April 1945 stood up and related their memories of the action for which Liddell was decorated. The longer the audience listened, the more fascinated and moved did we become by a story which deserves a wider audience than our group at the IWM.

To offer a little perspective: the award of decorations, even Victoria Crosses, is an arbitrary business. The old cliché is profoundly true, that the only man who knows what a medal is worth is he who won it. By no means all winners of 'gongs' commanded the admiration of comrades at the time, or deserve the respect of posterity.

The tale we heard at the IWM last week, however, is remarkable by any measure. One day towards the end of the second world war, an apparently unexceptional young man, pursuing what he perceived as his duty to his comrades and country, rather than driven by any lust for glory, performed a feat which makes one gasp.

Ian Liddell, scion of a China trading family, was born in Shanghai in 1920, brought up in Gloucestershire and educated at Harrow, where he acquired a reputation for practical jokes. He possessed the usual enthusiasms of his time and class for dogs and guns, together with a less predictable passion for music.

In September 1939 he enlisted as a private in the King's Own Shropshire Light Infantry, and was thereafter commissioned into the Coldstream. He spent most of 1941 in a socially delicate but militarily unpromising role as a member of the 'Coates Mission', charged with guarding the royal family amid the threat of invasion. He seems to have become very popular with his charges, not least for his zest for organising entertainments.

A contemporary described Liddell ringing his mother to ask if she had any cardboard eggs, of the Easter variety. Why? she demanded. 'Because I'm playing a chicken in the pantomime next week, and I want to lay eggs in the laps of the King and Queen and the Princesses,' he responded without embarrassment. His performance apparently received rave reviews.

The adjective which two fellow officers use of Liddell is 'simple'. This is not, of course, intended to convey stupidity, but mere straightforwardness. Yet it does not seem ungenerous to speculate that, if the young soldier had lived on into peacetime, he would have remained much beloved in his own circle, but unlikely to set the world ablaze. Instead, on 3 April 1945, he found himself a temporary captain commanding a company of 5th Coldstreams approaching the river Ems in north Germany. Word suddenly reached them that, among all the bridges destroyed by the retreating enemy, a lone crossing survived, in the Coldstreams' path. If this could be seized intact, the advance of Guards Armoured Division would be dramatically hastened.

Liddell and his platoon commanders contemplated the problem through field glasses from a cottage overlooking the waterway. On the other side, the Germans were strongly dug in. The crossing itself was deserted, but on the near side stood a big barricade. The British group discussed options. They knew the bridge was wired for demolition - indeed, they could see the charges. If an attempt was made to rush forward with either tanks or infantry, the Germans would obviously blow it in their faces. …

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