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D-Day veterans receive France's highest honour

Published 16/02/2016

The Legion d'Honneur is France's highest honour
The Legion d'Honneur is France's highest honour

World War II veterans who took part in the D-Day landings have said they are humbled and honoured to receive France's highest decoration.

Some 23 former servicemen, now all pensioners, were awarded the Legion d'Honneur during a special ceremony at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim.

Among the soldiers recognised was Neville Henshaw, 91, from Comber, Co Down who, as a sergeant with the Royal Signals, landed at Juno Beach and helped set up vital communications networks.

He said: "It's a surprise but at the same time, I think it's great recognition for what we did 71 years ago.

"I got a letter from the French president and I think I am more proud of the letter than I am of the medal because it thanks us for the part that we played when we brought freedom to France."

D-Day marked a major turning point in the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of Allied forces, carried on the largest armada ever seen, landed on five beaches across Normandy on June 6, 1944 for a major offensive against the Nazis.

Thousands of paratroopers were also dropped behind enemy lines.

Although 4,000 men were killed during the operation, codenamed Overloard, Adolf Hitler was defeated 11 months later.

Recalling the horror that unfolded, Mr Henshaw added: "We were very frightened and nervous but we had a job to do.

"I landed about midday on Tuesday, June 6 and a landing ship took us across. I landed in about two or three foot of water - I nearly drowned before I got there but, somebody pulled me out. I was soaking wet.

"Then the shooting started a nd it was all around us. They were firing at us. I was very lucky.

"You had to keep on going - trying to get across that beach as fast as possible. It was slow going because the sand was so soft. I was part of a small group and the group - they were all shot except me. Two were wounded - the chap alongside me was immediately shot dead. But I managed to cross that beach and meet up with other men.

"We had to get into the ruins of some building to set up communications between different regiments because I was a wireless operator. That's what we had to do."

Former flight lieutenant Frank Ferguson from Ballycarry in Co Antrim, who was mentioned in despatches for his role in Normandy, said he was "deeply honoured" to receive the medal.

The National Order of the Legion of Honour was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and is the highest decoration in France.

"It is a great honour. I have waited 70 years to get it," added Retired Royal Navy able seaman Samuel McGookin, from Belfast, who was part of the first wave supporting the landings at Juno Beach.

Medals were presented to 17 former servicemen by Regine McCullough, France's honorary consul in the region.

She said: "This is the highest distinction in France so, it's very important.

"It is a big thankyou. We will never forget what they did for freedom and for France. Without them who knows what would have happened."

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