Pays-Bas / Histoire
In 1940 George Eardley from Congleton was conscripted and in July 1944 he joined the Shropshire Regiment. He received his first award, the Military Medal the following month. But George was really an unlikely hero: not big and strong. “He was no daredevil”, according to his father. He had worked at a printing company before the war, was married and had three children.
The reluctant hero
On 15 October 1944 his battalion, the 4th battalion of the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry advanced towards the Nijmegen – Venlo railway line. The attack became stranded in an orchard close to the target during the afternoon. German machine guns fired continuously while the Shropshires were stranded on open ground. That’s when sergeant George Eardley went into action.
In an act of apparent suicide, Eardley stood up. Firing his sten gun and throwing grenades, he succeeded in disabling German machine gun posts three times without any cover. Four of his comrades were injured. His actions earned him the Victoria Cross.
The highest award
The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest bravery award. It was initiated by Queen Victoria in 1856 and was awarded only 61 times to the British Army during the Second World War, mostly posthumously. Ten were awarded for action in the Netherlands, one of which was Eardley’s battle in North Brabant. However, the medal is not awarded instantly as all superior authorities – right up to the British monarch – have to give their approval.
On 2 January 1945 his wife received a telegram informing her that her husband had received the highest military award. Eardley arrived back a few days later and was reunited with his family. He was received like a hero. There were parties in which even film stars appeared. A month later he was handed the Victoria Cross by King George VI, who confided in him that he was happy to be able, finally, to award this medal to a living soldier
Post-traumatic stress syndrome?
Then something seemed to happen to Eardley’s mind. He started fantasising. He claimed to have captured the highest German military officer on Walcheren, General Daser, which was clearly not true. He also wore the so-called Italy Star although he never served in Italy. His biggest claim was that he had taken General Rommel, the famous Desert Fox, prisoner in Libya but that he had escaped! And all of this without setting foot in Africa.
He left the army in 1950. Within a few months he separated from his wife and alienated himself from his three children. He remarried, left Congleton and took a job with Rolls Royce. In a road accident in 1964 his second wife was killed and part of his left leg had to be amputated. When his sons visited him in hospital he told them, ‘It’s fine that you came, but you can leave me alone now.’ Five months later Eardley married for the third time and in the summer of 1991 me moved back to Congleton without telling his children. He died a few months later.
A lonely farewell
On 11 September 1991 George Eardley’s children received a telephone call from their aunt. ‘Have you read the death notices in the newspaper?’ The children hadn’t. ‘Your father has died.’ They hadn’t spoken to him for more than 20 years.
The church was almost empty for his funeral, a stark contrast to the tumultuous reception in his home town in 1944. Many people in the town could not forget how he had abandoned his family. Two of the sons had in turn forgiven their father. After his death they committed themselves to his remembrance and in 2004 a life-size bronze statue of Eardley was unveiled in Congleton.
This story was part of Brabant Remembers, a campaign for 75 years of Freedom in the province of North Brabant.