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Northern Ireland D-Day band of brothers granted France's top military honour


Veterans during the ceremony at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn

Veterans during the ceremony at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Radio link: George Thompson

Radio link: George Thompson

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The Honorary Consul for France with Frederick Jennings

The Honorary Consul for France with Frederick Jennings

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

The Honorary Consul for France presents Frank with his medal

The Honorary Consul for France presents Frank with his medal

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Samuel McGookin

Samuel McGookin

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

RAF veteran James McCune with his grandchildren (front) Bethany, Grace, Matthew and his daughter Valerie Hamilton

RAF veteran James McCune with his grandchildren (front) Bethany, Grace, Matthew and his daughter Valerie Hamilton

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Veterans during the ceremony at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn

More than 70 years after the D-Day landings, 31 veterans from Northern Ireland have been awarded France's highest honour.

The Legion d'Honneurs were personally ordered by President Francois Hollande after the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings two years ago for all allied soldiers who fought in France from 1944-45.

At Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, 15 of the veterans were presented with their medals by the honorary French consul for Northern Ireland, Regine McCullough.

Family members and other members of the armed forces heard stories of how each of the veterans served in the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

Giving an insight into the gigantic scale of the decisive victory for the allied forces, the veterans honoured were members of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Many of those were teenagers when they first saw combat, with one veteran navy commando celebrating his 18th birthday on the Normandy beaches shortly after being part of the landing party.

After the presentation, the veterans shared their incredible stories, with some recounting the moment they jumped out of their landing craft on to the Normandy beaches.

RAF veteran Andrew Nicholl called the award "a great honour to get so late in life". "It was very nice - I didn't expect to get it after 72 years," he said.

"I was a serving soldier when I received my previous medals."

James McCune from Co Armagh landed on Sword Beach and was tasked with looking after barrage balloons designed to repel enemy aircraft.

He said he recalled "a hairy moment" when a mountain of ammunition exploded, scattering deadly shrapnel for hours.

James' daughter, Valerie Hamilton, said: "It's lovely.

"He wasn't well at Christmas and we weren't sure he would survive to see today, so it's really extra special."

His grandson, Matthew (16), added: "I'm very proud of him, it's a great achievement. He talks about his experiences quite a lot and it's very interesting."

Granddaughter Grace (13) said: "It was nice seeing the young and old soldiers together". Second granddaughter Bethany (8) added: "He's fabulous."

French consul Regine McCullough explained the 31 recipients of "the highest distinction in France" from Northern Ireland joined 3,000 other veterans around the world.

"Because I'm from Normandy I've always wondered what it must have been like for these soldiers to land there," she added.

"To meet some of them is incredible."

The award was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

‘Of 129 commandos there were only four of us left’

George Thompson served as a telegraphist in the Royal Navy. On D-Day he was part of a commando unit and landed on Sword beach. He acted as a radio link between naval ships and shore troops, calling in gunfire on enemy positions.

"I was in the naval commandos. We were the first to land on D-Day. We guided the assault group in.

"Of the 129 commandos in my unit, there were only four left after D-Day. I landed on the beach when I was 17 and had my 18th birthday on the beach. Only four survived, I think I'm the only one left.

"We were well trained for it, we were trained all the time. It was just like an exercise in its own way, only the ones who went down didn't get up again.

"After the assault group came in, the peace was established and we met the paratroopers, we went home then.

"I joined a new group of commandos then and went to the Pacific against the Japanese.

"We were going up to the Philippines, we were passing through when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We thought it was the Aurora Borealis then we later found out it was the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

"Somebody once asked me 'did you ever dream after the war?'

"A psychiatrist one time told us, talk about it. She was right. When you do start talking about it, you forget about it.

"When you're keeping it inside you have nightmares, when you talk about it, it seems to leave.

"I don't look back, I just live my life, believe it or not, and drink dark rum."

‘The squadron was good and our aircraft reliable’

Frederick Jennings 90 served as a leading aircraftman, Royal Air Force radar technician with 320 (Netherlands) Squadron which operated over France prior and subsequent to the D-Day landings as part of the main body of the squadron was transported in a tank landing ship to beach near Dunkirk a few weeks after D-Day.

"Well I was in a RAF squadron, operated from France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Part of the tactical airforce, we used to bomb the Germans frequently, mainly miss them.

"I was in the 320 squadron of the air force, it was a Dutch squadron, They were short of people so the RAF lent them people like me.

"I joined the air force in 1943 and after leaving radar school I went straight to 320 squadron till the war finished and then for my sins I was transferred to India.

"It's very difficult in that my memories are more detached, you never came face-to-face with a German in an aeroplane. It was all very distant, but it was well organised unlike some of the things that went wrong.

"The particular squadron I was on was very good, the aircraft were extremely reliable.

"Very, very few crashed, the bombing was reasonably accurate and well-planned and organised. On the whole it worked very well."

‘I was flying against the bombers at night-time’

Frank Ferguson served as a flight lieutenant, Royal Air Force, navigator and radar operator, 264 squadron and flew dawn patrol over Normandy beaches on D-Day. He joined the RAF through Queen's University Air Squadron.

"On D-Day I was flying against the German bombers at night-time. We were over the coast and the beaches and then we moved into a place called Picauville.

"I was still doing defence of the beaches prior to the liberation of Paris. We came back to the UK we were on flying bombs for a while and flew against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, back into Lille, moved up to Holland, had victory in Holland and then went to Germany for victory there.

"It's a great recognition of what we did, and being over in D-Day, revisited two years ago it was a fantastic recognition we got from the French and the accolades we got.

"In Ulster we are all volunteers, there was no conscription. Ulster was the same as the colonial services, they all came and fought against the Germans."

‘It was just bloody murder, but I look back with pride’

Samuel McGookin served as an able seaman in the Royal Navy. Aboard Landing Ship Tank 419, he was part of the first wave supporting the initial landings at Juno beach on D-Day. Duties included operating a rear anchor winch and gunner on a 20mm Oerlikon cannon and 12-pound anti-aircraft gun. He spent June 6-10, 1944 transporting tanks and ammunition as well as removing wounded personnel back to the UK.

"Well I'm sky high and it's out of this world.

"My experience is going into France and getting these people sorted out. Of course everybody chased Jerry back.

"I was on a landing craft, LST tanks, we were full of tanks and ammunition and lorries and about 500 troops.

"Our ship just rolled up on to the beach, the doors opened and the ramp came down and then we were on the beach.

"What was it like? It was just bloody murder.

"I look back on it with pride, getting this medal today and being able to help those people. That's what you're there for, it's a job.

"This award today is just out of this world."

‘There were chunks of shell flying everywhere’

James McCune served as a leading aircraft hand for the Royal Air Force. Landed from tank landing craft on Sword Beach on D-Day.

"It seemed that long ago that I hardly believe it. I was in the RAF (looking after) barrage balloons. I joined commando training in preparation for the invasion. I was very excited to go on a tank landing craft. There were two of us in a crew. When we went out to sea our landing time was eight in the morning. We were able to touch down even with the big tank lander. They were able to bring the ramp down so close that I was able to jump ashore without even getting my feet wet.

"The German air force was nearly non-existent then and the beach commander decided that the balloons were only helping the enemy to target that area and told us to cut them adrift.

"We had a very hairy time after about three or four days. They had stored all sorts of ammunition and petrol and water and that sort of thing, a huge mountain of it. Something, I don't know whether it was a shell or a bomb, hit it and it was exploding for about three hours. Chunks of shells flying everywhere, I didn't think we would get through that. We went from there through Belgium, Holland and into Germany. We put the balloons up again in Antwerp and the flying bombs and rockets started then. I counted five German bombers above us. Some were flying on to London."

Belfast Telegraph