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Old 07-11-04, 02:42
Geoff Winnington-Ball (RIP)'s Avatar
Geoff Winnington-Ball (RIP) Geoff Winnington-Ball (RIP) is offline
former OC MLU, AKA 'Jif' - sadly no longer with us
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Posts: 5,400
Default Canadian VC Preservation

The following article should tell it all. If you're so inclined and able, please help. I've paraded with these fellows.

November 6, 2004

Second World War vets fight to keep modest hero's medal


TORONTO (CP) - War veterans regard it as one of the last Victoria Crosses ever to be awarded to a Canadian and say it's a precious artifact unlikely to be bestowed here again.

But the military medal of Cpl. Fred Topham, a former hard-rock miner from Toronto, is up for auction, and friends and relatives say it would never be seen again if allowed to slip into the private collection of a wealthy overseas bidder.

Former paratrooper Jan de Vries will take Topham's remarkable story to the man's old elementary school Monday as part of a campaign to buy the medal from the estate of the Second World War hero.

"The medals are to remain in Canada to be displayed across Canada," de Vries says adamantly from his home in Pickering, Ont. "Canada has its own heroes and the kids should learn about it."

Topham earned the Commonwealth's highest military award for valour when he dashed headlong into enemy fire to save the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers in Germany on March 24, 1945.

De Vries will recount that story in front of about 60 children in Grades 4 to 9 at King George Jr. Public School, which Topham attended in the 1920s.

Topham had no children and his widow neglected to declare a fate for the medal before passing away in June 2001. With no direct heirs, the Victoria Cross was inherited by nearly two dozen of Mary Topham's relatives.

Nephew Mike Durrant says the only indication his aunt left was by way of a tearful plea from her deathbed that the medal remain in Canada.

But as executor of her estate, Durrant says he is bound by a decision among the beneficiaries to sell the medal.

Topham's Victoria Cross is one of only 16 awarded to Canadians in the Second World War and the only one earned by the 6th Airborne Division, despite its record of heavy fighting. It's billed as the second-last Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian in the Second World War.

The medal has attracted the attention of a wealthy collector who's offered $319,000, but the family has agreed to sell it to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association if it can raise $275,000 by the end of the year.

Those involved in the campaign say the medal, appraised at $250,000, must not be lost.

"This is a piece of Canadiana which is never going to be replicated," says Capt. Charles (Chick) McGregor.

"There very likely are never going to be more Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians. We're not likely to be in a shooting war ever (again)."

Topham was a 27-year-old medic when he parachuted into Germany at the Battle of the Rhine Crossing in the final days of the war.

After watching two medics die in succession as they tried to rescue a wounded soldier, the lumbering, six-foot-two Topham ran across the battlefield to the man's side.

Topham was shot in the face, but managed to administer first aid and carry the wounded man through continuous fire to the shelter of a wood.

He was credited with saving dozens more men in the following hours, refusing medical attention until all casualties had been cleared.

After finally consenting to treatment, Topham spotted a British armoured vehicle on fire, its ammunition exploding and dragged three men to safety.

"He's a rare person and he's certainly a credit to our battalion," says de Vries, now 80.

"I didn't learn about it until we were back in England, but other fellows have told me that he was doing the same thing in France. . . . The word got around before he ever was put in for the Victoria Cross, and most guys knew what Fred had done."

After the war, Topham joined the Toronto police force but was prevented from pounding the beat. Friends and family say the chief insisted Topham wear his Victoria Cross and welcome tourists. Devastated, Topham quit the force immediately without having served a day.

A fellow veteran got him a job as a linesman with Toronto hydro. He died from electrical burns following an accident on the job in August 1974.

Durrant says his uncle never spoke of his war days, and the first time he saw the medal was in 2002, when he picked it up from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where it had been on loan. He drove back to Toronto with the precious medal wrapped around his stomach for protection.

"He was a very shy, humble man," says Durrant. "He did not think he had done anything special. He thought that what he did, anybody else would have done."

De Vries says that as of Thursday, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Association had collected about $45,000.

"It's beginning to really snowball now in the last week or so and the legions are now all getting on board," says de Vries, who hopes to ask Heritage Canada for funds once they can show there is widespread public support for the cause.

"We've had donations from P.E.I. to B.C., so that's a good sign."

Durrant says he is also doing all he can to keep the medal in Canada.

"Some people say, 'well, the executors or the beneficiaries aren't doing anything to keep this in Canada,' but in a sense they are and they are making their own sacrifice," says Durrant.

"We're not going for the highest amount. We're going for a comfortable, agreed amount that would keep it in Canada."

The director of the Canadian War Museum says they have a policy of not buying war medals. But Joe Guerts says Topham's legacy will be preserved at the new war museum expected to open in May, with a display built around the soldier's old uniform and beret.

The Canadian War Museum has 26 of the 94 Victoria Crosses awarded to Canadians. The rest are in the hands of family members or other museums.

The overseas bidder is believed to be British tycoon Lord Ashcroft.

The millionaire and former treasurer of the British Conservative Party has the world's largest private collection of Victoria Crosses, many obtained amid acrimony. He's believed to have been behind a record bid when a British airman's medal sold for nearly $600,000 earlier this year.

Lord Ashcroft is believed to have paid about $320,000 for a Victoria Cross won by a Gurkha soldier in 1944 and about $289,000 for a Victoria Cross awarded to a British officer during the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

"If it goes into the hands of this guy in England, it's never going to be seen again," says McGregor. "He's got a collection of these locked away someplace."

All Victoria Crosses are hand-finished and cast from the melted-down bronze of guns captured by the British from the Russians during the Crimean War.

This is not the first time such fundraising events have been organized to keep war medals in Canada. Similar tactics were successfully used to keep other medals in Canada, including the Victoria Cross of Lt.-Col. Jock McGregor of Powell River, B.C. Those medals are now in the Canadian War Museum.

But a fundraising campaign by a group of Prince Edward Islanders in the early 1990s failed to purchase from the family the medals of Capt. Fred Peters of Charlottetown, the only Islander ever to win the Victoria Cross.

The only surviving Canadian Victoria Cross recipient is Ernest (Smoky) Smith, who was awarded the medal for singlehandedly beating back a German counterattack during a battle for an Italian river crossing in 1944.


A tax receipt for the Cpl. Fred Topham VC Fundraising Project will be provided for donations of $20 and up. Cheques or money orders should be made out to: 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion Museum Trust (1st Can Para Bn Museum Trust). The mailing address is: The Cpl. Fred Topham VC Fundraising Project, c/o The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, 130 Queen St. E., Toronto, Ont., M5A 1R9.

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