Four Royal Navy veterans of D-Day received France’s highest honour – 100 days before the 75th anniversary of the invasion.
Denis Haley, Charles Kavanagh, Patrick Reardon and John Nicholls were invited aboard HMS Belfast – also a veteran of the 1944 campaign – to receive the Legion d’Honneur from French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Jouyet in recognition for their efforts in liberating his land from the Nazi yoke three quarters of a century ago.
Over the past five years, the French Government has sought veterans who played a role, however small, in the liberation of their sacred soil, presenting more than 6,000 medals with the help of the MOD.
The four former sailors – all in their early 90s – gathered in the ward room of the cruiser, now a floating museum on the Thames next to Tower Bridge, to receive their decorations and recall a day indelibly etched in their memories.
Patrick Reardon served with Combined Ops as a forward observer, directing the bombardment of the German defences. He was landed on June 6 on Omaha Beach, where US troops were mauled – as depicted in the brutal opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
Denis Haley was a signalman aboard HMS Southward Ho which towed sections of the Mulberry artificial harbour from Portsmouth to Arromanches, spending a month of Normandy generating smoke to help fend off air attacks.
Mr Charles Kavanagh helped put tanks ashore on D-Day while crewing a tank and was later involved in ferrying supplies to American troops at Omaha.
And 93-year-old John Nicholls from Greenwich served aboard HMS Argonaut which bombarded German positions; he also drove landing craft.
The tumult of battle severely damaged his hearing – he’s been 65 percent deaf ever since, but he remains haunted by the sight of men who lost so much more.
“I looked at some of those troops as they were going in and thought: I wonder how many of them are going to come back.’” he recalled. “I came 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. Not just on Remembrance Day. They’re going through my mind all times of the year.”
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson joined M Jouyet in thanking the four veterans for their sacrifice and commitment 75 years ago – sacrifice and commitment which will be honoured on both sides of the Channel in June at what is likely to the last major commemoration of D-Day with veterans present.
“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,” the minister added.
As it was in 1944, Portsmouth will be the hub on this side of the Channel for a series of commemorative events involving both veterans and serving personnel, while the Royal British Legion has chartered a cruise ship to take D-Day survivors to the beaches one last time to remember their comrades and take centre stage at international events.
Places are still available – but veterans and their families must register by Monday March 4. Details at www.britishlegion.org.uk/community/d-day75.
Words and images courtesy of the Royal Navy