Belfast Telegraph

The cap fits for war hero Norman as grateful donors to replace prized beret and badge he lost years ago

By Claire McNeilly

Norman Dickson doesn't need to be reminded that he's a war hero.

Indeed, even at the age of 96 the memories remain vivid.

And the sprightly veteran, who is originally from Comber, has a host of medals testifying to the courage he displayed on the battlefields of the Second World War.

Even so, former Royal Engineer Norman remained vexed about the precious beret and badge he lost many years ago.

Not any more, however, because today the Co Down pensioner will be presented with replacements by people grateful for the role he and so many others played in the conflict.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from the Portaferry residential home where he now lives, the father-of-four recalled some of the horrors he experienced.

"I saw all my mates - all young lads - being blown up and there was nothing I could do about it," he said, wiping away tears.

"I lost a brave lot of friends. On one occasion they blew up a boat off the Isle of Wight and there were no survivors."

Mr Dickson, who has 10 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, pointed to the deeply scarred rims surrounding both his ears.

"That's where the mice ate me," he said. "They were so hungry. They also ate my back.

"A friend fell asleep one night and fell into a pig pen and they ate him alive. It happened on a farm in Holland."

Norman started his training at the Ballykinler base in south Down before going to England, where it was his job to check that the boats were suitable for landing. Also trained in explosives, he said he had no fear of handling them and said he believed it was "your own fault if you made a mistake".

"I didn't make any mistakes," he added.

He remembers taking part in the D-Day landings in 1944 when, along with three other colleagues, he was tasked with transporting 90 tonnes of ammunition and artillery shells.

He also remembers sailing to Gold Beach in Normandy on boat number 51 laden with shells and "with the sea practically above our heads".

Norman not only holds the War Medal, but also the France and Germany Star, the 1939-45 Star and, earlier this year, he was also awarded the Legion of Honour Medal for his participation in the D-Day landings.

"I've very proud of all my achievements but the Legion of Honour medal is probably the most special to me because it's the biggest medal that ever entered Ireland," he said.

The youngest of 10 children, and a twin, Norman - who said he's being well looked-after by care home manager Frances Mullan and her team - recalls existing on little other than chocolate during his soldiering days.

"We had a big bar of chocolate that we all carried about in the tops of our trousers," he said.

"I used to have one square of it for breakfast, one square for dinner and one square for tea. I lived on that for about five years and whatever else I managed to steal."

Although he lost his beloved wife Sarah, who passed away very suddenly in 2013 at the age 89, Norman, who down the years also lost his nine siblings, remains very philosophical about death.

"It was one of those things; when you die, you die," he said.

He also said he fondly thinks of a Dutch farmer he met during his time in combat who wanted him to return to Holland to marry his daughter.

"I can't remember the girl's name but I think about her father often these days," Norman confided.

Sitting in a room beside him in Ard Cuan, his home of nine months following a hip operation, are his daughter Carol (67) and her husband James Davidson (67), who revealed how fate plucked Norman from the claws of death.

"His platoon was split in two," explained James.

"Norman had to go into hospital to get his tonsils out so they took someone from the other half of the platoon and put him in his place and they were sent to sea.

"The next day the commanding officer came in and told Norman that the boat had been hit and that all his mates had been killed."

He added: "Norman always reminds us that it could have been him."

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