Havant family of Britain's first black paratrooper hero are reunited with his lost war medal
DESCENDANTS of the first black paratrooper to land in Normandy on D-Day have finally been reunited with one of his lost war medals after it was found on the banks of the River Thames by a mudlarker.
Penny Cornell's grandfather, Sergeant Sidney Cornell, of Portsmouth, jumped into Normandy on June 6 1944 as part of the 7th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.
He was the first black soldier to be dropped behind enemy lines that day and was tasked with running messages between military headquarters after radio communications failed despite being wounded four times.
Sgt Cornell died during the war, the same year Penny's father was born, so she did not know much about him.
But four years ago a mudlarker found Sgt Cornell's France and Germany campaign medal on the South Bank of the River Thames in London.
When the mudlarker, named Ann, moved to Pembrokeshire, Wales, she showed her collection of findings to metal detectorist Gary Scourfield.
He noticed an engraving on the back which included a service number and the words: ‘Pte. Sidney Cornell DCM 7th Battn. Parachute Regiment 'Normandy'.’
So he tracked down Chris Cornell, Sgt Cornell's great-nephew, who has now managed to return the medal to Sgt Cornell's granddaughter.
Penny, 32, who lives in Havant, is now overjoyed after the medal's remarkable journey
She said: ‘I was over the moon. It's just amazing, I couldn't believe it to be honest. I don't have a clue how it ended up in the Thames.
‘It's amazing to know what my granddad had to go through to get this medal. He was an outstanding soldier as well so he definitely deserved it.
‘I have a little shelf for his medal and a replica of his beret. There was some people saying about it going to a museum but I really wanted it to stay in the family as it had been lost for so long.’
Chris and Penny met for the first time three years ago when they met the director who wanted to create a film or series about paratroopers including Sgt Cornell.
Chris said that Death in Paradise actor Tobi Bakare was set to play his great-uncle in the production, but this has lost momentum due to coronavirus as much of the filming was due to take place in France.
He added: ‘My great granddad Charlie was Sidney's oldest brother. My father always looked up as a child to Sidney as his favourite uncle.
‘I never met him because he died in the war but my father would always speak about Sidney because he worked as a lorry driver for a builders merchants in Portsmouth and he used to take the nephews out to work with him to help unload bricks.
‘Whilst I knew my great-uncle had won the DCM it didn't occur to me at that time he was anything more significant than just a brave man, it's only more recently that it came to light that he was one of the only black paratroopers.
‘It was a total surprise when Gary phoned me because we sort of didn't expect to ever see his medals. If someone sees this and knows where his other medals are that would be incredible.
‘Some people suggested it should go in a museum but its been lost once, we didn't want to lose it again so we decided to keep it in the family.’
Sgt Cornell was one of just three black soldiers in the 7th battalion’s 300-strong squad of men.
He was well known and respected among the division after becoming the battalion boxing champion.
His father was an American acrobat with the Barnum & Bailey Circus – which inspired the Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman – but ran away when the circus came to England.
Sgt Cornell grew up in the city with his parents and brother and two sisters before marrying his childhood sweetheart Eileen when she was 16 and he was 19. They had two sons together, of whom Alan went on to have children called Aaron and Penny.
When the war started he joined the army and he landed in occupied France on June 6 1944 as part of Operation Deadstick.
Sgt Cornell bravely spent all day weaving to and fro and penetrating enemy lines, while being shot at, to deliver vital information to the front line. He had to kill at least one German soldier to survive during his missions that day.
During another operation a few weeks later he was again tasked with relaying messages and was shot twice by enemy machine gun fire, but struggled onwards and was still able to relay crucial communications despite injuries to his arm and carry on fighting.
He was wounded four times during operations but completed every mission and was never evacuated.
In another notable episode, he and his Major carried out a two-man hunting mission where they tracked and killed snipers who had been picking off men over an orchard.
Sgt Cornell's heroic and brave actions in Normandy earned him the Distinguished Conduct Medal in January 1945 and he was promoted to Sergeant.
But he sadly never received his medal as he was killed in combat while crossing the Neustadt bridge in Germany as part of Operation Varsity.
He was just 31 and is buried at the Commonwealth Becklingen War Cemetery.