Medals of Norfolk soldier who gave the Queen a handshake she will never forget could fetch thousands at auction
PUBLISHED: 06:00 26 November 2019
Medals belonging to Bill Gilchrist of the Royal Norfolk Regiment are going on sale in London tomorrow. Steve Snelling shares the remarkable life of the man who won them...
It is a right royal yarn that has become the stuff of military legend.
Posted from Hong Kong to Britain to represent the Royal Norfolk Regiment at the Queen's Coronation, Bill Gilchrist fell so seriously ill that a doctor gave him just weeks to live.
When the news reached his unit he was urged to abandon his royal duty to spend time with his family, sparking a reply that was characteristically blunt.
"No!" read his telegram. "Queen and Country first!!!"
Happily, Bill confounded medical opinion to soldier on another eight years to round off a charmed career spanning four decades during which he survived a commando-style mission to help rescue the Dutch royal family, a desperately brave rearguard action that left him temporarily blinded, a shipwreck and a gallant if vain relief effort later immortalised in the star-studded film A Bridge Too Far.
And now, more than 60 years after his display of soldierly defiance, memories of one of the Royal Norfolk Regiment's last and most distinguished regimental sergeant majors are being stirred all over again with the sale of his outstanding array of honours.
The 10-medal group headed by the Distinguished Conduct Medal, a bravery award second only to the Victoria Cross, represents a highlight of Spink's prestigious two-day London auction which begins tomorrow.
They are expected to fetch between £4-5,000, a sum which Marcus Budgen, head of Spink's medal department, believes owes much to Bill's "truly remarkable" life story. "To have served as long and as bravely as he did through the Second World War and then in Korea and Cyprus is incredible," he said, "and it was an absolute pleasure to be able to fulfil his family's wish to bring his story to a wider audience. He was a proper soldier of the old guard." Indeed he was.
His eventful life, including 27 years of barely broken military service in war and peace, reads like a real-life ripping yarn.
Born in Ireland at the height of the First World War, he was just 18 when he enlisted in the Irish Guards, where his duties included a spell as 'batman' to the future field marshal, Lord Alexander of Tunis. His first action was a hazardous one. Nine months into the Second World War with the Nazi Blitzkrieg in full swing, he was part of a small force sent to the Hook of Holland to evacuate Queen Wilhelmina along with other members of the royal family, the Dutch government and British embassy staff.
Their success in the face of a rapidly advancing German army was little short of miraculous and was quickly followed by another desperate endeavour to delay the capture of the port of Boulogne.
After a bitter struggle lasting two days during which the Irish Guards lost more than 200 men killed, wounded and captured, the bulk of the unit was evacuated under heavy fire thanks in no small part to a rearguard action fought by Bill as a sergeant in charge of a handful of men.
For two hours they held off the Germans, resisting tank and infantry attacks in a frantic action during which Bill suffered head injuries when three bullets ripped through his helmet.
Pulled from his gun and evacuated home, Bill was awarded the DCM but his courageous fight left him blinded and in hospital for three months learning Braille until waking one day to find his vision miraculously restored!
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His recovery complete, he served with his unit through some of the fiercest battles of the Second World War, from Normandy to the heart of the Third Reich via Nijmegen and the costly attempt to link-up with the beleaguered British airborne forces at Arnhem.
The end of the war, however, did not signal the end of his career. Following a brief intermission, lasting less than five months, Bill settled in Norwich and re-enlisted in the Royal Norfolk Regiment, where his reputation as a bluff, tough, no-nonsense leader was swiftly cemented.
In five years, before embarking for Korea and his second war with the 1st Battalion, he'd risen from corporal to regimental sergeant major, the senior non- commissioned rank in the unit.
There, during a gruelling campaign fought largely by National Service conscripts in harsh conditions reminiscent of the First World War, his myriad services were further recognised by a mention in despatches and brought him once again into contact with Lord Alexander who was touring the battlefields.
The meeting was widely reported and added to the growing Gilchrist legend. Asked by Alexander what he thought of National Servicemen and Korea, Bill's response was short. "National Servicemen are No 1, Sir. They are terrific," he declared. "Korea? Too many hills, Sir."
His strange near-death experience, while tasked with carrying the regimental colour back to Britain for the 1953 Coronation, followed before he resumed peacetime duties.
As ever, however, drama was never far away. The following year, while travelling as troop deck sergeant-major with his family back home from Hong Kong aboard the Empire Windrush, he found himself embroiled in another struggle when a fire broke out some 20 miles off Algiers.
The flames spread rapidly and 250 women and children, followed by hundreds of soldiers, were forced to take to the lifeboats before the crew abandoned ship.
The liner, which transported the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to Britain, eventually sank two days later. Bill and his family were picked up by a passing oil tanker.
Unfazed by the kind of perilous life-or-death episode which by then had become a seemingly common occurrence, Bill merely carried on regardless.
He served in Uganda, attached to the King's African Rifles, where his subordinates included the future dictator Idi Amin, and then in Cyprus before eventually bowing out, aged 45, in 1961.
Retiring to Queensland, Australia, he established a car business and became a magistrate, donning uniform again as a 67-year-old security officer for the 1982 Commonwealth Games.
He remained, however, a soldier to the core, maintaining ties with his old regiment in Norfolk and continuing to honour the memory of the men with whom he served.
His final act, just months before his death in 2000, was to re-visit Korea, where he represented his old comrades at a presidential garden party attended by the Queen.
There, in his regimental tie and blazer emblazoned with the Royal Norfolk cap badge, he was presented to Her Majesty, who, it was said, "endured the longest handshake of her reign".
It was a fitting end to the battle-scarred career of an Irish-born Norfolk soldier and patriot par excellence who once famously remarked about his long army service: "I'd do it all over again if I could."