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January 13, 2006

A medal of honour?

It would seem, on the face of some reports, that the "award" of the Iron Cross, a German military decoration with a long history, was not confined to members of the German Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine or Luftwaffe as one would normally suppose. During the second World War it was "awarded" to a British Sergeant Major, Sgt Major Charles Coward, for his services to both sides while a POW. As ever, the truth is a little stranger than the fiction!

The "award" was actually made to him because he had been mistaken for a German soldier - he was actually wearing part of a German uniform over his own and had been wounded so was appropriately blood stained - and, when ordered to "get treatment", replied, in German, that he wished to stay at his post. The real reason for both the disguise and his desire to "stay at his post" was that he hoped to be able to escape back to his own side as soon as things calmed down a bit. The partial disguise as a German soldier was a risky, but useful, fiction he was trying to maintain, but the officer heard of this "brave fellow", went back to see to it that he accepted treatment and reported his bravery! The result was that the fictional "soldier" was recommended for the award of an Iron Cross. I have not been able to discover whether or not it was ever actually awarded, because his disguise was discovered in hospital. He had actually collapsed in the field while still insisting that he didn't need treatment and was taken unconscious from there to a field treatment station and then hospital. It must have been quite a serious wound because he was unconscious or delirious for some time. He was also a fluent German speaker. He was, I suspect, extremely lucky to have escaped being shot!

There is a further irony in this, for, after the truth emerged and he was sent to a PoW camp, his command of the German language made him a natural for a plum job as the Camp Liaison Officer; a job he filled very effectively - but with a motive! While he was acting as the camp's liaison officer, he was actually gathering information and items useful for escape attempts!

He was eventually sent to Auschwitz PoW camp, adjoining, but not part of, the more notorious camp, where he soon became involved in a humanitarian effort. Having heard that a fellow British PoW, a Doctor, had been incarcerated in the "other" camp, he managed to disguise himself in a work party and infiltrated that camp in an effort to rescue the Doctor. He failed in that, but became the instrument by which others did get rescued. In this he is directly credited with assisting 400 people to escape the extermination programme. A double irony perhpas that his 'award' could be said to honour.

By all accounts a most unusual man, a most unusual "award" and an even more unusual place in the rolls of honour. Even if his "award" was not official, it does perhaps reflect the recognition of a man with remarkable courage!

The story was made into a rather silly film in the 1950's with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role. It is said that the real Sgt Major was polite about it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at January 13, 2006 01:43 PM

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It's rare for someone to impress both sides of a conflict with their bravery. The Romans or the Greeks would have made him into a legend!

Posted by: groendraak at January 13, 2006 09:42 PM