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Villain to hero: Disgraced WWII soldier sacrificed himself to save lives of 20 children

Hero: Robert Key, who was thought to have died while showing off, actually saved the lives of 20 children
Hero: Robert Key, who was thought to have died while showing off, actually saved the lives of 20 children
They were told he killed himself in a reckless stunt that also put the lives of children at risk.

But now the family of Bombardier Robert Key have discovered that far from 'showing off' with a live grenade, as the Army had said, their relative was in fact saving a child who had pulled out the device's pin.

The tragedy happened in a small town in northern France in the latter part of the Second World War.

And the 'disgrace' meant that for more than half a century the bombardier's family refused to talk about his death.

The truth came to light only when the mayor of the town where it happened traced the soldier's relatives to tell them a road was being named in his honour as he was considered a local hero.

Now his family want the Ministry of Defence to amend the bombardier's military service record to reflect his heroism.

Niece Gill Mills, 54, of Coventry, said: 'The family never talked about Robert and it was always an uncomfortable subject because of what it said on his service record.

relatives of dead ww2 soldier
From left, Margaret Crabtree, sister Gill Mills and brother Robert Furber, nieces and nephews of Bombardier Key

Bombardier Key
The former miner was single with no children when he joined the Army in 1934 aged 21
'The inquiry into his death must have been totally flawed if you ask me.

'We are just glad that his courage has finally been revealed and we can be proud of his actions.'
The incident happened on September 5, 1944, the day after Liberation Day in the small town of Annezin, 50 miles south of Calais.

The bombardier, who was on patrol on his own, rushed over and grabbed the grenade from a child who had picked it up and pulled out the pin.

As he cradled the device in his jacket and rushed away, it exploded, killing him instantly.

The military inquiry accused him of 'showing off' after discovering locals had signalled using hand gestures that somebody was playing with the grenade.

But his family have been told by locals that the Army apparently failed to properly translate the accounts of townsfolk.

Bombardier Key, a former miner from County Durham, was single when he joined the Army in 1934 aged 21.

He fought at Dunkirk before being sent to Annezin, a ' commune' of 5,000 people outside the small town of Begrave, thune, in 1944.

Mayor Daniel Delomez traced Mrs Mills to invite the family to the naming of a new road in a housing estate built on the field where the bombardier died.

He said he wanted to revive the memory of the soldier to allow local children to understand the 'horror and heroism' of war.

He added: 'He (Key) was a brave hero who saved the lives of several children without thought for his own safety.'

The war memorial in the village of Annezin
The war memorial in the village of Annezin. A road is to be named in honour of Robert Key's actions in 1944

annezin in france
The village is in the Pas de Calais region of northern France

More than 15 members of the soldier's family are hoping to travel to France for the ceremony next year.

Mrs Mills said: 'It will be comforting to know that his memory will live on.'

The MoD would not comment on the initial inquiry and said last night it was unable to change an individual's service record.

But a spokesman added: 'If Mr Key's family write to us asking for a permanent letter to be put in his file, recognising what he did, we can do that.'

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