D-Day veteran’s ‘swansong’ pilgrimage to honour fallen comrades
Harry Billinge has raised more than £10,000 for the national memorial being built in Normandy.
A D-Day veteran is making a final pilgrimage to Normandy to see how thousands of pounds he has raised is helping the construction of a national memorial honouring his fallen comrades.
Harry Billinge has managed to raise more than £10,000 for the Normandy Memorial Trust by relentlessly collecting donations in St Austell high street near his home.
The 93-year-old has become a local celebrity in the Cornish town where he says market days – and the summer when tourists flock to the area – are particularly prosperous.
As an 18-year-old Royal Engineers soldier, he landed on Gold Beach at 6.30am on June 6 1944 as part of the first wave of troops to arrive in Normandy for the operation.
Mr Billinge said: “When I went over to Normandy it made a big impression on me that I am unable to forget today.
“I wanted to help all the fellas that never came back.
“When I heard about the monument I thought ‘This is what I’ve been kept for – to collect for that’.
“I had to do that, it was a must.
“I shan’t be going again I don’t think. This is my swansong.
He said he will be “overcome” when he sees the first foundation stones of the monument laid on Thursday.
It will pay tribute to more than 20,000 members of the British armed forces who died in Normandy in the summer of 1944.
Mr Billinge will lay wreaths as part of an inauguration event attended by Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron.
A sculpture created by David Williams-Ellis will be unveiled during the event, marking the beginning of construction.
Anticipated to be completed within a year, it is being built on a hillside in Ver-sur-Mer overlooking Gold Beach and will include a roll of honour of the names of 22,442 members of the British armed forces who died in the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy.
Humbled by the generosity of donors and modest about his own efforts, Mr Billinge said: “Everybody calls me hero but I’m no hero.
“All the heroes died. I think of the fellas who are buried there. France is a big cemetery.
“Half of these poor devils who died, it was a waste. A terrible waste.
“You had to be mad to be there.
“There is this one thing that sticks in my mind. The sea was red with blood, human blood.
“They were baptised in their own blood. And I still see that at night too.
“When I first came home I never slept.
“That is what it was like.
“I wish I didn’t remember. I feel I’m very lucky.
“But it’s never going to stop, they are still killing people now. Everywhere you go it’s all murder.
The world’s crazy. And I wonder really whether it was worth fighting on the beach Harry Billinge
“The world’s crazy. And I wonder really whether it was worth fighting on the beach.”
His fundraising is particularly driven by the memory of the horrific moment he saw his friend Lance Corporal Joseph Neades killed in action in front of him.
Breaking down in tears, he said: “He died in the field. I was right close to him. He was 22. When he died he had a three-week-old baby that he never saw.”
When returning to Britain after the war, Mr Billinge’s trauma was such that he was treated in hospital for his vivid memories of the battlefield.
The proud Cockney, who grew up in Petts Wood in Kent, has been in Cornwall for 70 years after being advised to leave London for a better quality of life.
He set up shop as a barber and became president of the local clubs for the Royal British Legion and Royal Engineers.
His fundraising fame has even spread to the continent, which he visits every year to carry on his collections while making his annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries of Normandy.
He said: “My photograph is all over Arromanches because everybody knows me there.
“I can’t walk through Arromanches without someone wanting a photo.”
But he is somewhat surprised by his unlikely fame, adding: “I don’t want all this nonsense, I never wanted any of this. But if it’s doing a bit of good for the monument, I don’t mind.
“I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do Google.
“But if you type in my name, you don’t have to type in anything else, you’ll be there for weeks.”
Mr Billinge will be spending his free time this week collecting as usual in Arromanches – only this time with a giant banner. And he plans to continue fundraising in St Austell when he returns home.
Veterans suggested the monument because – while there are cemeteries – there is no national memorial combining the names of all those who died under British command in Normandy.
The Government has provided a £20 million grant and the trust is hoping to raise a further £9 million through its 22,442 Sacrifice For Freedom campaign.
The Prince of Wales is a royal patron and the great grandson of wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, Randolph Churchill, has also backed the plans.
The youngest known D-Day veteran, Jim Radford, 90, has released a charity single, The Shores Of Normandy, to also help raise funds for the campaign.