Norfolk D-Day nurse awarded top French honour for her caring work
- Credit: Archant
71 years ago, Margaret Dickinson was facing a battle of her own in Normandy: trying to save the lives of soldiers injured on D-Day and in the fighting that followed the June morning when Allied forces stepped out of landing crafts and into history.
Her efforts in the Normandy Campaign of 1944 have finally been rewarded by the French authorities who have awarded Mrs Dickinson their highest honour: the Légion d'honneur, an acknowledgement of extraordinary bravery and service in times of war which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
D-Day veterans were all promised the prestigious honour at the 70th anniversary of the Normandy campaign by president Francois Hollande, but only a fraction of the 3,000 who are due the decoration have actually received it.
Mrs Dickinson, 92, worked tirelessly to nurse injured soldiers in the station which had been hastily built by the Pioneer Corps and was under constant threat from German air attacks.
It was to be the first of several hospitals in France and Belgium where she was posted as Allied forces pushed the Nazis back across Europe.
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In a letter from the French authorities which accompanied her coveted medal, Mrs Dickinson was informed that she had been appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Légion d'honneur which recognises selfless acts of heroism and determination displayed by survivors of the Normandy landings.
The letter added: 'As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes of June 1944 like you, those men and women who came from across the Atlantic, the Channel, the Mediterranean and the Pacific to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France.
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'We owe our freedom and security largely to your dedication because you were ready to risk your lives.'
The French honour is the second for Norfolk's Normandy Veterans: Jack Woods, secretary of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans' Association, was presented with the rank of Officer of the Légion d'honneur by President Sarkozy on June 6, 2009, at a ceremony attended by Prince Charles, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama.
Mrs Dickinson, who was 22 when she arrived in Normandy, remembers basic conditions and new shipments of injured men arriving from the front lines on a daily basis at the field hospital.
Her training in Hull, a city which had been heavily bombed during the war and where she had helped treat some of the 3,000 injured civilians, had stood her in good stead for what she would see in France.
'I wasn't frightened because I had seen it before. It was terrible, seeing all these young men injured, but we had a job to do and we did it.
There was no time to feel worried because that time could be spent re-dressing wounds and trying to make the soldiers feel comfortable,' said Mrs Dickinson, who lives in Cromer and who was a district nurse for 30 years after returning from the war.
'When people talk about D-Day, they usually talk about the men who fought on the beaches, but of course there were women there, too. At the Normandy veterans' meetings, I am the only female veteran and I often wonder where the others are.
'For me, being around people who know what we went through is very important.'
As the war moved away from the beaches of Normandy, so did the hospitals used for treating inured soldiers, and Mrs Dickinson went with them, seeing at first hand the devastation left behind by the war in newly-liberated France.
One of Mrs Dickinson's patients was a young German prisoner-of-war who she nursed from serious illness to health.
'He was only 18 and I was absolutely determined that he'd get well – and he did. One day, he looked up at me and said: 'I want you to have this'. He gave me his mother's medal, it meant such a lot to me,' she said. 'He said to me: 'your bombs killed my mother but you have got me better and I am grateful and thankful and would be so pleased if you took this'. It was a moment that I will never forget – our countries were at war, but here was an act of kindness.'
Bearing the German swastika and Hitler's signature, the medal had been given to the German soldier's mother for her services to the Reich and he had carried it as a good luck charm before passing it to Mrs Dickinson as a reminder of how kindness can transcend war.
She will keep her Légion d'honneur next to that medal given to her by a grateful young German.
'I am honoured to receive this medal from the French and accept it on behalf of all the nursing staff who were in Normandy and all the veterans who are yet to receive their recognition from France,' said Mrs Dickinson, who returned to Normandy for the first time since 1944 last year for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
'We didn't do it for recognition, we did it because it needed to be done. But to receive such an important award is very special.'
The Norwich and District Normandy Veterans' Association is selling badges designed to show support for veterans. The Friend of the Normandy Veteran lapel pin is available for a donation of £3. Call George Holmes on 01493 858319 or Jack Woods on 01603 627706 for details.