The son of an Irish Second World War hero who spent a year travelling across Europe after escaping from a German prisoner of war camp has been given the medals his father never received.
Two years ago Tom McGrath, from Co Waterford, discovered that his father Tom Snr had served in the British Army after he was conscripted at the outbreak of war.
Further research revealed that his father had been captured in Dunkirk in 1940 and taken to Stalag XXA, a German prisoner of war camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
After two years he decided to escape and left the camp after finding a gap in the wire.
He was looked after by locals for a short time before he was put on a train to Berlin and then travelled on to Paris using a fake ID.
Around three months later he arrived in Paris before heading onto the Spanish border and crossing the Pyrenees.
He was in Spain for a short time before he was arrested by Spanish authorities and kept in a concentration camp for four months.
Through the help of diplomatic channels he was allowed to leave and went to Gibraltar before returning to England a year after he escaped the German camp.
In June 1943, the UK Government said he was to be awarded a Military Medal for his bravery in escaping the camp, but he never received it and instead he returned to Waterford.
His son Tom explained that at the age of 14 he lost his mother, Elizabeth, and his father within a year, and after moving to Spain later in life, he lost contact with Waterford. Tom Sr died in 1968.
“I had always had been looking for some trace of my family,” Tom Jr said.
“Through my son-in-law’s father, I discovered cousins I never met and we became very close.
“They knew my father and were able to tell me a lot about my family. Their mother and father wrote an essay about my father and his escape.
“I was given a copy of that and was gobsmacked. He never spoke about the war or his experience.
“I went to the national archives in London where I found his account of the escape.
“I have read a lot of books on that period and particularly soldiers who were captured and escaped. The conditions in which they were kept were horrendous. The food rations were abysmal.
“They suffered with lice and were working 12 hours a day. It was a very tough existence and what he went through for that year when he was on his own, where he had uncertainty every day he got out of bed, he didn’t know who he was going to meet, or what he was going to face.
“What is consistent with all these stories that I have read about is that they didn’t want to talk about their experience or relive it. That, compounded with the fact that he lived in a small town in southern Ireland in the 1950s and 60s.”
Tom was given the three medals – the Military Medal, the 1939-1945 Star and the War Medal – at a ceremony at the British ambassador’s residence in Dublin on Tuesday.
“We are extremely proud and I am so happy,” he added.
“Like every child you have your father on a pedestal and he was a strong man and loving man, and it’s only since I found out what he has done do I know how high that pedestal is.
“We are so proud and I think he would proud too.
“At this stage of my life to find this out has just changed my life.”
British Ambassador to Ireland Robin Barnett said: “It’s a wonderful story of an incredibly brave man.
“We have all seen the movies but we all know that the reality of escaping from a prisoner of war camp is something completely different.
“To get from Poland to the Pyrenees is something truly extraordinary.”