She began by typing the letters and straightening the stamps on the envelopes but soon became involved in the planning of church services, receptions, tea parties and meetings with the Royal Family for the biennial reunions. Gradually she demonstrated her administrative skills by tactfully carrying out the withdrawal of the earlier Albert and Edward Medals for gallantry and the smooth translation of their 160 holders to the George Cross, which brought the association’s membership briefly to 400.
After two years she left to remarry and become a farmer’s wife, but was never forgotten. When trouble was brewing over the Asian community in newly independent Uganda, her second husband, Major Iain Grahame, was asked by the Foreign Office to make a series of visits to Idi Amin, his former sergeant in the Uganda Rifles; on one occasion Didy went too.
When she was introduced to President Amin she showed her mettle by promptly telling him to remove the fake VC from his chest, saying it made him look a fool. The assembled company went grey. But he took it off and never wore it again. Later Amin asked Didy if she was sometimes afraid of her husband, because he was.
After some years helping her husband to start the World Pheasant Association, run bird watching safaris in East Africa and build up a bookselling business, she returned to the association’s office in Admiralty Arch as the secretary. There was much more to do, thanks to improved communications, in maintaining contact with overseas members, liaising with Buckingham Palace, departments of state, the armed forces and Commonwealth governments. But it became clear that the job required much more in the modern world.
The VC and the GC may be the most prestigious gallantry medals in the world but the recipients receive no great benefits apart from the chance to ride in the RAF aircraft which used to collect overseas members from around the world for the reunion. (Today the holders have to travel on commercial airliners.)
They come from very different cultures in a group whose ages currently range from 27 to 99. Those from the dominions can fit seamlessly into London life, first timers need to be shown what to do when they meet the Queen, encounter the Press and face crowds. For many, Didy has seemed a fairy godmother with her ravishing smile and soft, assuring voice and ability to make friends instantly. She can cope with any emergency, share a joke or offer sympathy; though officials who have worked with her note steel beneath the surface if she feels her friends – as they all are – have been insulted, ignored or forced to do things of which they disapprove. A few, who have been bruised crossing swords with her, say she is a dragon lady. Robert Fellowes, the Queen’s former private secretary, has tactfully commented: “A happy Didy. A happy Robert”.
While pacifist journalists are not so common these days, she still encounters those who come to her inadequately briefed; and politicians have been known to try to push their way into events. Three years ago when an Australian inquiry was considering the possibility of making retrospective awards for actions in the First and Second World Wars, Didy submitted a judicious paper pointing out that although the VC-GC Association played no part in the selection process she advised there was a risk of witnesses’ memories dimming with age and therefore risking the standard for the VC. In addition she had to be on the lookout for commercial encroachment, similar to when the English Rugby Union unwisely incorporated VC images logo their team shirt without any consultation.
Above all, she has memories. She remembers the time the Royal party was sweeping past 44 GCs on a state visit to Malta – until she drew attention to them with a significant glance to the Queen; and when the Australian VC, Sir Roden [sic] Cutler, rose to introduce his fellow members to her at the Royal Tournament only to find his metal leg had suddenly come loose. There was the time she received a call in the office, saying an Australian member had just died over India when the plane was carrying the party home from a reunion. Luckily Keith Payne, who won the VC in Vietnam, came up with a practical suggestion: the body was to be made upright for easier removal as rigor mortis set in, then placed in a lavatory guarded by a steward. And there was the time when she introduced New York firemen who had fought the twin towers conflagration to Harry Errington, GC. He held them enraptured describing how the Auxiliary Fire Service coped with the Blitz in 1940.
Having known her beloved charges so long she knows what drives them. “The extraordinary thing is the way the experience of cheating death gives a huge feeling of humility,” she says. “The members tend to be perfectionists, tidy, or at least well-ordered, aware of what is going on in the world and living their lives to the full whatever their age. They are happy to do whatever they are asked – until they see some injustice. And several have said to me: ‘If I had not won the award I could have ended up in prison. But it put me on the straight and narrow. One doesn’t want to let others down.’
“They have an inner quality which doesn’t need to show off or throw their weight around in any way. Seventy-five per cent of those I’ve known were the responsible child of an early widowed mother or the eldest in a large family, which meant they spent their whole childhood looking after their siblings”.
When she went back to the association in 1981 it was clear that the previous inglorious decade had sharpened the public’s appreciation of its heroes, particularly when Colonel H Jones and Sergeant Ian McKay were awarded posthumous VCs for the Falklands war. Since then a long queue of anniversaries have needed the association’s participation. VE Day, VJ Day, the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday and funeral, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation; all could not possibly be celebrated without the presence of the association’s members.
As many of the Second World War generation aged, with newspaper stories appearing about some having to eke out their last days before dying in straitened circumstances, Didy started to visit them. On a visit to Harare in 2002 she rapped the knuckles of the British High Commission by suggesting that Captain Gerard Norton, who had won a VC in Italy in 1944, should come to a lunch at the British High Commission: he had never been invited before.
But while for long much of her activity involved funerals and memorial services, new awards stemming from the Blair wars led to significant change. Aged 18, Trooper Chris Finney earned a GC in Iraq in 2003 after rescuing a comrade from one burning vehicle and trying to rescue another while wounded himself; afterwards he faced a roar of publicity far fiercer than any before. Such younger recipients meant Didy underwent new experiences, meeting a new kind of award-holder who might have a different girl on his arm each time, and finding herself drawn into their weddings, babies and divorces while counselling them on the responsibilities of fame and career changes.
In recent years she has also played important roles in getting published a three-volume authoritative account of all VCs and GCs and the unveiling of the memorial to holders at a ceremony attended by their descendants at Westminster Abbey. She has helped to create a benevolent fund to provide for the restoration of graves, and invited widows to be involved in the charitable work of the association.
After finally handing over to an able successor a month ago, Didy claims to be resting at the moment, though she still has much to do as a board member of several different charities. But as a private individual at last she is focusing her attention now on the extraordinary small number of civilians being recognised for brave actions while the military and police service have well practised procedures making recommendations. “The system needs to be rebooted,” she says. And no doubt she will play an important part in achieving that.