The military imposters who can’t resist wearing an unearned medal

Alan McIlwraith lied about being an officer in the Parachute Regiment
Alan McIlwraith lied about being an officer in the Parachute Regiment - ALAN SIMPSON

It certainly would have been worthy of an honour, had it ever happened: a 15 year-old cadet, nary an O-Level to his name let alone full military training, sent into war alongside the great men of the Royal Navy to defend the Falkland Islands from invasion.

Alas, it never did happen. And so the chief constable of Northamptonshire Police, Nick Adderley, has found himself in serious trouble this week, after wearing the South Atlantic Medal – given for service in the Falklands War – on his left breast, despite being a teenager when the conflict took place.

Adderley, who has been mooted for senior jobs with the Metropolitan Police in the past, is now facing accusations of “stolen valour”, prompting a probe by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and suggestions that he is a “Walter Mitty”, vividly imagining a richer life of personal triumphs than he’s had.

It feels worth noting that Adderley has had far from a drab career: he truly is a distinguished Royal Navy veteran, as well as highly successful police officer, with several unquestionable medals he could, and does, pin to his left breast. In a statement, he said that “I wear all my medals with pride and have always worn the two medals my brother gave me to wear when one became critically ill and one emigrated.”

It’s permissible to wear medals awarded to a family member, but they must be fixed on the right breast, to make clear they were not given to the wearer. “Having been made aware of this complaint, which has a private family impact upon me personally, I immediately took advice last week regarding the protocol and have changed the side of my chest on which these medals are worn.”

Chief constable Nick Adderley was accused of wearing a Falklands war combat service medal, despite being a 15-year-old sea cadet at the time of the conflict
Chief constable Nick Adderley was accused of wearing a Falklands war combat service medal, despite being a 15-year-old sea cadet at the time of the conflict

All very well, but the Northamptonshire Telegraph has since reported that Adderley has repeatedly been described as having served in the Falklands War, including in a press release sent by Northamptonshire Police, and several local newspaper reports over the last decade. For clarity: unlike medals, adopting a relative’s military experience is not at all permissible, no matter where on your biography it is pinned. Adderley has yet to comment further, but the assumption is that one of his brothers was awarded the South Atlantic Medal.

The term “stolen valour” is an American one, popularised after the title of a 1998 book about the rise of individuals claiming they were mentally scarred by the Vietnam War, despite never having fought in it. In Britain, “Walts”, after Walter Mitty, the short story and film character who daydreams himself into history, is preferred. “Military imposters”, “medal cheats”, “military phonies” and “fake warriors” are also used. Call them what you will, but they are strikingly common to all countries, even if motivations and explanations vary with each individual case.

The South Atlantic Medal is awarded to British military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands War
The South Atlantic Medal is awarded to British military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands War

Take the story of Alan Mcilwraith, for example. In the 2000s, he claimed to have been an officer in the Parachute Regiment who finished top of his class at Sandhurst and went on to become a terrorism expert, serving in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. At 28 he was, he said, Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, CBE, DSO, MC, MiD, and he both looked the part – with a gleaming row of medals on his chest – and had the war stories to boot.

Really, he was plain old Alan, a call centre worker who lived on a Glasgow council estate. He kept up his “Walter Ego” for two years, before he was rumbled when he was spotted in a society magazine by somebody who knew him and told a newspaper. He did, to his credit, have some military experience, but 18 months in the Territorial Army was not quite the same as serving as military adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or having the army’s chief of staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, laud him as “a splendid soldier, a credit to the country”, as McIlwraith had claimed.

At the time, a spokesperson for the British Army was quoted as saying: “I can confirm he is a fraud. He has never been an officer, soldier or Army cadet. May I suggest you try the space cadet organisation.” McIlwraith was fired from his job; his fiancée, an insurance underwriter who believed she was Lady Shona, not just Shona, took him to hospital on the day he was exposed, then posted him the engagement ring with no note.

But his was a sad story: he had started his ruse in order to stop being bullied at work, and after being attacked by youths in the street. “It’s like a lightbulb going off in your head. It seemed like a really good idea. If I tell people I am an officer in the army, they will leave me alone. A couple of days before I was attacked I watched a show on television about the army.

“It was following these couple of officers and nobody gave them any hassle. I figured to myself ‘that’s what I want to be’. By portraying myself as better than I was, they wouldn’t want to attack me,” McIlwraith told the Guardian. He went on to research everything he could about his new character, before going on to knight himself.

Eventually, “the lie had just gone too deep, it’s like a weed that invades your life,” he said, recalling how he “spiralled” and lost control of his own fictions. Only, a year later it was reported that he’d reinvented himself as a magician. He was caught, “I should have stopped lying after last time [...] I won’t ever do this again,” he said. Two years later he was accused of pretending to be a millionaire property tycoon at Strathclyde University.

If the motivation is purely for an Army pension, which used to be a fairly routine fraud before records of service were better kept, “Walts” generally kept their imaginations in check, so as not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. Sympathy, respect, medical treatment – there is much to gain from a carefully sold lie, but even more to lose if you are caught.

Occasionally impersonators strive for as much glory and attention as they can, as in the case of Walter Williams, who claimed to be the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War upon his death, aged – he said – 117 in 1959. Many believed him, and saw him as a national hero, but investigators could find no evidence his life took the course he insisted it did, and later discovered he was still a child when the war ended.

Some have written memoirs based on their fabricated experiences, or courted journalists, or earned money after-dinner speaking. L. Ron Hubbard, the father of Scientology, exaggerated his extremely underwhelming World War Two experience for most of his life, clouding biography with myth at every turn.

L. Ron Hubbard
L. Ron Hubbard famously exaggerated stories of his military service - HULTON ARCHIVE

Later in the 20th Century, Briton Jack Livesey became a historian, battlefield tour guide and consultant based on his twenty years in the Parachute Regiment, five tours in Northern Ireland and receipt of the Military Medal. In reality, Livesey, who was found to have hysterical personality disorder, served only as a cook in the army. He was found guilty of perverting the course of justice in 2011.

In the US in 2006, the same year in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn played characters who wear false Purple Hearts (awarded to those wounded or killed while serving in the US military) in the film Wedding Crashers, the Stolen Valor Act made it a federal crime to falsely claim receipt of a military award or decoration. It was challenged and modified in subsequent years, but President Barack Obama signed an amended statute into law in 2013.

The US has a particular history, and problem, with military imposters. As a result, various private detective agencies, such as are available to assist when a case of the “Walts” is suspected. These agencies tend to make it clear they do not condone assault or intimidation of suspects. It is an issue with the process, as it is in any kind of vigilante justice: the internet tends to chew and spit out anybody even accused of fictionalising their life, regardless of the truth.

In Britain, while it is a crime to wear a military uniform without permission, no such laws exist, despite The Commons Defence Committee recommending in 2016 that a new “Walter Mitty” law should be introduced to make it a crime punishable by three months in jail for anyone to pose as a military veteran by wearing medals they have not earned themselves. It never did become law, but maintains strong support, especially among the military community. According to reports, “The Walter Mitty Hunters Club” Facebook group – an amateur sleuthing network of mostly veterans which looks into claims – has exposed hundreds of impersonators.

In the end, it may well turn out that Nick Adderley’s mistake is merely foolish and ignorant, rather than calculated and manipulative. But never underestimate the vividness of imaginations, especially among men hungry to be treated a hero. As McIlwraith said, “once it’s taken root, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Not until you get caught, anyway.