December 5, 2007
Lord Ashcroft, who owns the world’s biggest collection of Victoria Crosses, has offered a reward for the recovery of 100 medals that were stolen in an audacious raid on a military museum in New Zealand. The deputy chairman of the Conservative Party has put up about £75,000 for information about the medals, including nine VCs estimated to be worth a total of £3.3 million.
Lord Ashcroft said that he had been “horrified and outraged” by the break-in and theft of 12 groups of medals from the army museum in Waiouru, on the North Island.
Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister, described the raid as a crime against the nation that had “revolted the whole country”.
The thieves smashed reinforced glass cabinets to grab the medals, which also included two George Crosses and an Albert Medal, in a four-minute raid early on Sunday.
“As a collector and someone who has a history with the Victoria Cross, I wanted to do my bit to return these medals to the museum,” Lord Ashcroft said.
He said that one medal awarded for two separate acts of valour – to Charles Upham, a New Zealander – was the “holy grail” of VCs. The medal was acquired along with the rest of Upham’s medals by the Imperial War Museum last year with funding from the Garfield Weston Foundation. It is on permanent loan to Waiouru.
Upham, who died aged 86 in 1994, was decorated for actions of “nerveless competence”, first in Crete in 1941 and then in Egypt the following year when leading his company attacking an enemy-held ridge overlooking the battlefield of El Alamein.
“Only three Victoria Crosses with Bar were ever issued, and this is the only fighting soldier VC and Bar. This is regarded as the No 1 Victoria Cross in the world,” Lord Ashcroft told Radio New Zealand.
He added that the medals had no value to the thieves because no legitimate collector would touch them, but feared that they may be destroyed instead of being left to be found. Other suggested motives include ransom or a theft to order.
Nick Fletcher, the senior curator at the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra, which holds 61 VCs in the biggest publicly accessible collection, noted that the two Australian VCs had not been listed as stolen.
“It does make you wonder, was this done for a political reason? Is there a point being made here?” he said.
“My fear is whoever has stolen them realises there is no market, rather than hand them back or leave them to be found may do something so they are never found again.”
Mr Fletcher said that only one of 15 VCs known to have been stolen worldwide since the mid1800s had been recovered.
Michael Maxton, of the Michael Ashcroft Trust, which holds one tenth of the 1,355 VCs awarded since 1856, speculated that the medals may be held for ransom.
Police, who confirmed earlier that a security camera had been in operation, said last night that they had gathered enough evidence to identify the thieves. Forty police have been drafted in to interview all the 1,600 residents of Waiouru, 185 miles (300km) north of Wellington.
It is not yet clear if the medals are covered by insurance.
Crosses to bear
–– The medal was to have borne the inscription “For the Brave” but Queen Victoria had it changed to “For Valour” fearing it would imply that recipients were the only brave soldiers on the battlefield
–– The first 62 men to win the medal were presented with it by Victoria herself in a ceremony on June 26, 1857. The Queen distributed the medals on horseback during a parade in Hyde Park
–– The award came with an annual pension of £10, equivalent to just over £6,000 today. Now it is about £1,500
–– 1,355 crosses have been won to date and three bars awarded. Captain Arthur Martin-Leake won a VC in the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 and a second in the First World War; Captain Noel Chavasse won two in the First World War and Captain Charles Upham won two in the Second World War.
–– The most recent recipient of a VC was Corporal Bryan Budd, who led assaults on two Taleban positions in Afghanistan in 2006 and was killed in the second attack. His body was found next to three dead insurgents
Sources: MoD; Royal Naval Museum; victoriacross.org.uk