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Rumours which cast a shadow over VC hero's exploit

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

In the heat of battle 75 years ago, a soldier wrote a glorious chapter for himself in the Shropshire regiment's history books.

Demonstrating astonishing courage, acting Sergeant George Eardley stormed enemy machine guns in an exploit for which he was awarded Britain's highest award for valour – the Victoria Cross.

He was feted as a hero as he returned to his home town. Yet locally an enduring rumour was to throw a shadow over the award.

Had Eardley, the only member of the 4th Battalion of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry to win the VC during the Second World War, stolen the glory which rightfully belonged to another soldier?

Or, as his feat was witnessed and verified by an officer and others, had he somehow upset somebody, who got their own back by casting doubt on his right to hold the medal?

Eardley didn't help himself. Perhaps as a result of post traumatic stress disorder, he told tall stories. One of the most outlandish was his claim to have captured Rommel, the Desert Fox, only for the famous German general to have escaped. And for a time he wore the Italy Star, despite never having served there.

With it being the 75th anniversary of Eardley's exploit at Overloon, Holland, on October 15, 1944, a chapter in a new book looks into his story.

How Modest Are The Bravest has been written by Ken Tout, now well into his 90s, who himself landed on the Normandy beaches in a Sherman tank. His book throws the spotlight on 22 decorated warriors from the battles which took place from D-Day to war's end.

Eardley, who hailed from Congleton in Cheshire, is revealed as a complex, humorous, and sometimes dark character who survived the war but was to endure personal tragedy.

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The 32-year-old had already won the Military Medal in earlier fighting. At Overloon conditions had made it impossible for tanks to advance to capture the only road into Germany capable of carrying heavy loads.

The task of breaking the last enemy defence fell to Eardley's small section as it was sent to clear German paratroops out of a wood near Smakt.

Eardley, armed only with a Sten gun and grenades, charged three enemy gun pits in succession and wiped them out, facilitating the advance of an entire army corps.

Tout puts the odds against his survival as he charged the first gun to have been at least 100 to one.

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"In due course the award of the Victoria Cross to Sergeant Eardley was gazetted," he writes.

"However an intriguing mystery still begs a solution. Eardley was a resident of Congleton and first worked in the print room of the Congleton Chronicle.

"In 2015 the Chronicle published a request for any member of the public who had memories of George Eardley to get in touch with the present editor, Jeremy Condliffe, son of the wartime editor who had been Eardley’s employer.

"Within 24 hours two elderly witnesses had responded, saying that they believed Eardley had stolen the Victoria Cross award from another soldier who had really earned it.

"This same rumour had been investigated by the father Condliffe as editor just after the war, yet still persisted 70 years later. What basis could there be for such an extraordinary story?

"The judgment of the editors, past and present, is that in some way Eardley must have caused offence, real or imagined, to someone locally in order to suffer from such a malicious impugning of his character."

Dr Tout says that the contemporary editor, John Condliffe, who knew Eardley well as a former employee, did not believe the rumour.

"He thought that staid residents of Congleton of the time might have felt that George Eardley’s subsequent behaviour did not conform to the stolid standards or style of citizenship which people thought appropriate from a holder of such a high honour."

Eardley continued in the Army post-war, and rose to become drill instructor to officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

One person who knew him said he had a sense of humour and did not flaunt his award, but also noticed a dark side to him.

Eardley, who married three times, once disappeared for three days on an apparent "bender." According to another account he alienated himself from his children.

Fate was to play a terrible trick on him when he was invited to Shrewsbury for the presentation of new colours to the KSLI on June 25, 1964.

As he and his second wife Winifred drove from their home at Wistaston, Crewe, they passed over the railway crossing at Nantwich. As they did so an express train crashed through the closed level crossing gates and ploughed into their Ford Zephyr.

Winifred suffered injuries from which she died three days later.

"George himself was pinned down by a trapped left leg while the right leg was badly fractured. With the car in danger of fire, a doctor, who happened to be at the scene, had to amputate George’s left leg immediately and without anaesthetic.

"George Eardley survived to marry again and also learned to drive an adapted car. In 1991 he moved back again to Congleton but died within weeks."

The date of Eardley's wartime exploit is officially given as October 16, 1944, but the Shropshire Regimental Museum website says the correct date was October 15.

The website adds: "At the time of his death in 1991, the parish church of St Peter in Congleton refused his wish for burial there and the poor local representation at his funeral – attended by comrades of the KSLI and various local veterans’ groups – was commented upon."

"How Modest Are The Bravest" is published by Helion & Company.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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