Understanding your Grand-parents (or Great Grandfather’s/Grandmother’s or even Father’s/Mother’s) World War 2 medals. This is the standard set received by many South Africans who fought in both the North/East African theatre of operations and the Italian campaign. These are in the correct order of precedence and from left to right they are:
1. The 1939 – 1945 Star – campaign medal awarded to all British and Commonwealth personnel who fought in any theatre of operations during WW2. The ribbon shows arms of service – Navy (dark blue), Army (red) and Air Force (light blue).
2. The Africa Star – campaign medal awarded to all British and Commonwealth personnel who fought in African theatre of operations during World War 2 – either ‘east’ Africa or ‘north’ Africa’ or in both these campaigns. The ribbon is distinguished by the “Sahara” sand colour.
3. The Italy Star – campaign medal awarded to all British and Commonwealth combatants who fought in the Italy theatre of operations during World War 2. Distinguished by ribbon in the colours of the Italian flag.
4. The Defence Medal – campaign medal awarded for both Operational and non-Operational service during WW2 to British and Commonwealth service personnel (and civilians involved in Service to armed forces). The ribbon is symbolic of the air attacks on green land of UK and the ‘Black outs’ during the bombings are shown by the two thin black lines.
5. The War Medal 1939-1945 – campaign medal for British and Commonwealth personnel who had served full-time in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy for at least 28 days between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. The medal ribbon is distinguished by the colours of the British Union Flag/Jack.
6. The Africa Service Medal – a South African campaign medal for service during the Second World War, which was awarded to members of the South African Union Defence Force (UDF), the South African Police and the South African Railways Police who served during World War 2. The ribbon represents the Two Oaths taken (red tab for Africa Service Oath and the later General Service Oath) and the green and gold colours of South Africa.
Have a look at your Grandfather’s or Dad’s medals (or your Mum/ Grandmother’s) and see if they are in the right order and which of these six medals you now recognise.
If there are any higher decorations to the ones shown here, the ones usually for bravery, these will be found before the ‘Stars’ in the ‘senior’ position an example of this is a DFC – Distinguished Flying Cross. The senior position is defined as the highest value medal/decoration positioned closest to the ‘heart’ i.e. the centre of the body when the rack of medals is worn on the left breast. Medals awarded by other countries, regardless if they are decorations for bravery, campaign or service medals will be found after The Africa Service Medal in the junior position i.e. furtherest from the ‘heart’.
It’s not common to the ‘average’ South African rack as expressed here, but If your old folks served in the France and Germany theatre of operations, or in the North Atlantic (if they were in the Royal Navy) or even in the Pacific theatre they would carry the ‘Stars’ for these theatres of operations. Commonly, South Africans attached to or serving in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force or Royal Marines tend to have these campaign stars.
Note: This is a very complex field and I’m no expert, the intension here is to show the basic outline, each of the medals has rather extensive qualifying criteria and medal racks can vary substantially.
By Peter Dickens