Navy veterans awarded Legion d’honneur for role in D-Day landings
Four British ex-servicemen received their medals on board HMS Belfast.
British D-Day veterans have been awarded France’s highest honour for their role in the liberation of Normandy in 1944.
The four former Royal Navy servicemen, all in their 90s and from London, received their Legion d’honneur medals on board HMS Belfast in London on Tuesday.
The ceremony, attended by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and French ambassador Jean-Pierre Jouyet, was held with 100 days to go until the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
A number of commemorative events for D-Day 75 are planned in the UK and France this summer.
John Nicholls, 93, a leading seaman who was born in Greenwich, served on HMS Argonaut, which fired on and destroyed German gun batteries in Normandy.
He drove landing craft from ship to shore delivering troops and supplies for the invasion.
He remembered only being told of the D-Day plan with four hours to go and arriving in France to see “all hell” break loose.
“You were so sort of busy doing bits and pieces you didn’t really have time to wander, have a cup of tea and talk about it,” he said.
“I looked at some of those troops, and as they were going in, I thought, ‘I wonder how many of them are going to come back’.
“I don’t only think of them on Remembrance Day, they’re going through my mind all times of the year.”
Mr Nicholls said he lost 65% of his hearing from the noise of explosions during the battle.
“I’ve come out of it with just half of my hearing gone, but those poor devils… they lost their lives. I think of them all the time.”
Denis Haley, 92, was a signalman aboard HMS Southward Ho, which towed parts of a temporary portable harbour to Arromanches in France on June 7 1944, and remained at the beach as part of a flotilla of small ships fitted with smokescreen-making equipment.
Patrick Reardon, 93, served as a seaman in Royal Navy Combined Operations aboard HMS Sheffield. He volunteered for Forward Observation Bombardment, landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day and arriving in Caen some weeks later.
Charles Kavanagh, 92, an able seaman, helped land tanks on Sword beach and was involved in landing supplies for the US Army on Omaha beach.
Mr Jouyet said it was a “very great honour” for his country to express its “full appreciation and gratitude to soldiers who helped liberate France during the Second World War”.
“At a time when Europe was dominated by a terrible dictatorship, France was able, from the first few hours of the war, to count on the support of its closest partner,” he said.
“The commitment to the law and democratic principles on which our societies are based inspired a shared battle for freedom. Long live Franco-British friendship.”
Mr Williamson said: “Today is a reminder of why this June we must show our special generation that we will never forget the debt we owe for the peace and freedom we now enjoy.
“To meet those veterans today, to talk with them, to listen to some of their stories, is truly inspiring. I think its fair to say there weren’t many dry eyes in the house when we actually saw them get that amazing award.”
Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on five invasion beaches on June 6 1944 as part of D-Day operations, sparking an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy involving three million troops and costing 250,000 lives.
London landmark HMS Belfast was the flagship for part of the allied armada and fired on German positions.
The real people who are at the centre of those commemorations and celebrations about how we liberated Europe are going to be those veterans who were willing to give everything for the freedoms that we enjoy today Gavin Williamson
The French government has been awarding the Legion d’honneur to D-Day veterans for the last five years to honour those who fought to secure France’s liberation.
Since June 2014, more than 6,000 medals have been awarded, with applications being processed by the Ministry of Defence and the French government.
The Legion d’honneur was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognise military and civilian merit.
Portsmouth, the base for many of the D-Day landing forces, will be the focal point of the UK’s D-Day 75 commemorations and will host a UK national event on June 5.
A specially chartered ship will carry D-Day veterans to commemorations in Portsmouth and Normandy in June.
Calling all Normandy veterans 📣 With 100 days to go until the nation officially commemorates D-Day 75, there are still places available for veterans on a specially chartered ship to take part in events. Find out more: https://t.co/yI1yS93Y10 @PoppyLegion #DDay75 pic.twitter.com/vA1dpXplKk— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 26, 2019
The Imperial War Museum, working in partnership with Daks Over Normandy, is organising a mass flight display at Duxford airfield, culminating in a cross-Channel flight and parachute landing in Normandy on June 6.
Mr Williamson said: “The real people who are at the centre of those commemorations and celebrations about how we liberated Europe are going to be those veterans who were willing to give everything for the freedoms that we enjoy today.”