‘They are our older brothers and our heroes’ - French tribute to Norfolk veterans receiving Legion d’Honneur
- Credit: Steve Adams
Five men, who all served with the 1st Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment, have been bestowed with France's highest honour for their part in the D-Day landings.
And, as a mark of respect for the regiment which liberated the French city of Blainville-sur-Orne more than 70 years ago, the city's mayor crossed the North Sea to present the Legion d'Honneur to the veterans.
Bill Holden, Ken Mason, Victor Keech and David Johnson were presented with the medal in a moving ceremony at Norwich City Hall yesterday alongside the widow of their comrade Jim King.
The honour, an acknowledgement of extraordinary bravery and service in times of war, was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
The men, who all took part in the Normandy campaign of the Second World War, continue to be a part of The Royal Norfolk Regiment D-Day Veteran's Association.
The event, organised by the Association and hosted by the Lord Mayor of Norwich, was attended by families and friends as well as seven French dignitaries, the Sheriff of Norwich, the Norfolk High Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk.
Lord Mayor of Norwich, councillor Brenda Arthur, said: 'I'm delighted to host this reception for our veterans, for their bravery and the contribution their actions have made to all our lives.
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'I pay tribute to our veterans for fighting for our liberty, it's a debt we should never forget and we should always be grateful.'
Mirielle Leparquier, who was six when the Royal Norfolk Regiment stormed Sword Beach on June 6, 1944, attended the event with her husband Roland.
'I was six and Roland was 12 when the English landed, we were very happy to see them coming.
'I wanted to be here today because they are our older brothers and our heroes. 'The Legion d'Honneur will be in a great place on their chests - they gave us peace and freedom.'
Talking to the veterans Mme Leparquier said: 'You will be our heroes forever, thank you.'
On the 70th anniversary of the Normandy campaign, D-Day veterans were all promised the prestigious honour by president Francois Hollande, but to date, only a small number of the 3,000 who are due the decoration have actually received it.
Richard Jewson, Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, said: 'It's entirely fitting that the French nation have chosen to remember and honour the extreme valour of soldiers in this way.
'Norfolk and Norwich have a proud military history in both world wars and subsequently. It's entirely right and proper we should remember those who secured our lives today.'
In a moving tribute to the regiment who liberated the city of Blainville-sur-Orne, its mayor Daniel Francoise, spoke in French before his tributes were translated by one of the city's councillors.
He said: 'I am here today as a representative of the President of the Republic, Francois Holland.
'Today, we have come to express to you the gratitude of France.
'You have indeed fought on our land like thousands of soldiers of allied countries to free our people. 'Your efforts, your commitment and your sacrifices - the deaths of your regiment and friends - will have helped save Europe from barbarism and to revive the democracy as we know today.
'We are touched and moved to be with you for having served France in the most difficult period in its history and acknowledge the merit belongs to you all.
'The Legion d'Honneur that France delivers to you, must be seen as a refusal to forget.
'I am extremely proud to have come from France to give you the highest honour of our country. Long live England. Long live France.'
In an emotional presentation, M. Francoise pinned each medal to the chests of the four men before presenting Mr King's medal to his widow Brenda.
David Johnson, who previously served as chairman of the Veteran's Association, thanked their 'French friends' for presenting the medals before saying: 'I can tell you that each of these veterans are very proud to wear the medal but having said that we are the recipients for our colleagues and friends who never made it back to the UK. I want to thank the Lord Mayor for allowing this presentation to happen in the city hall, and our friends and relatives for being here today, it really is an emotional and happy day for us.'
Ken Mason was 26 when he landed on Sword Beach on June 6, 1944.
Mr Mason, 97, who lives in Norwich, was posted to France in 1940 and returned again on D-Day.
'On June 6, the weather was terrible going over but when we got there the captain of the boat was wonderful. We walked straight off the ramp onto sand. We had waterproof leggings on and the navy boys were there cutting them off.
'We got off the beach as fast as we could. We got away fairly sharpish.
'We had to look out for a water tower. As we crossed the road and got off the beach there was an overgrown track with a little dyke on our left, we had our first shell fire and the moaning Minnie came over. There were several Germans dead and several British boys lay there wounded waiting to be picked up.
'When I look back on my life I'm the luckiest boy in the world.'
Mr Mason was wounded in Kervenheim, Germany in 1945 and was demobbed in 1946.
Bill Holden MBE
Bill Holden landed on Sword Beach in a Bren Carrier at the age of 21.
Now 92, Mr Holden said: 'The Bren Carrier's total weight landing on Sword beach was 11 tonnes. We proceeded inland to the village of Hermanville, then on to Colleville.
'The Battalion's first objective was Bellvue Farm, code name Rover. We left Colleville and in open farm land proceeded to our target. On reaching midway the two leading companies came under heavy machine gun fire from a very large German bunker.
'The Battalion suffered approximately 50 killed and wounded and finally captured their target, which they nicknamed Norfolk House.
'My best friend was killed. He has no grave and I often think why him and not me, it's something I don't understand. It was really terrible but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.'
After serving in Palestine and Egypt Mr Holden was demobbed in 1946.
Victor Keech turned 19 on June, 6 1944.
The 90-year-old, who lives in Wymondham, said: 'On D-Day I think we were all a little bit scared but had to put a brave face on things.
'It is part of history and was a grand turning point, without D-Day taking place there wouldn't have been the victory there was.
'We should be thinking of the regiment and all the people and Norfolk boys that gave their lives for the victory.'
Mr Keech was injured in Lebisey wood on June 7, 1944.
David Johnson, 91 from Norwich, said: 'France was particularly traumatic in places.
'Eventually we landed in France and after a few days we arrived on the outskirts of Caen. The city was destroyed with thousands of Germans killed and wounded.
'I will never forget the bombing of Caen although it was a very important objective.
'It's something you never ever forget.'
Mr Johnson was wounded in Venrai, Holland and was demobbed in 1947.
James King was assigned to the 1st Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment at the age of 18.
Too young to land on D-Day, he landed in Europe in September 1944.
On March, 1 1945 near Kervenheim, Germany Mr King was severely wounded by a bullet in the right shoulder and spent two years in hospital.
Throughout his life Mr King never forgot the debt owed to his comrades who didn't come home.
At the age of 89, Mr King died in August 2015.
Mr King's daughter, Julie Carpenter, said: 'Dad applied for his medal earlier in 2015, but sadly died on my mum's birthday in August last year.
'He would often talk about the medal and wondered if he would receive this honour.
'He would have been so pleased and proud to receive it.'
Mr King's widow, Brenda King, accepted the medal on behalf of her husband at the reception yesterday.
Mrs King said: 'Today meant so much to me, I felt so proud and emotional to receive the medal on Jim's behalf, and so grateful to the French people and dignitaries to have travelled from France to present this Legion d'Honneur medal, such an honour.'