Five local veterans received France’s highest honour in recognition of their role in the D-Day landings more than 70 years ago.
The Mayor of Blainville-sur-Orne, which was liberated by the 1st Batallion Royal Norfolk Regiment, accompanied by other dignitaries, made the trip from France to present the Legion d’Honneur.
Bill Holden, Ken Mason, Victor Keech and David Johnson were presented with the medal in a moving ceremony at Norwich City Hall on Friday 12 February, alongside the widow of their comrade, James (Jim) King.
The honour, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is bestowed in acknowledgement of extraordinary bravery and service in times of war.
The event, organised by The Royal Norfolk Regiment D-Day Veteran’s 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 pay tribute to our veterans for fighting for our liberty, it’s a debt we should never forget and we should always be grateful.”
Daniel Francoise – the French mayor – spoke in French. He said, when translated:
“We have come to express to you the gratitude of France…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…I am extremely proud to have come from France to give you the highest honour of our country.”
Now 97 years old and living in Norwich, Ken Mason was posted to France in 1940 and returned again on D-Day, He was 26 when he landed on Sword Beach on June 6, 1944.
“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 demobbed in 1946.
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 Holland and demobbed in 1947.
Bill Holden landed on Sword Beach in a Bren Carrier at the age of 21. Now 92, Mr Holden who lives in Norwich, 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 large German bunker. The Battalion suffered approximately 50 killed and wounded and finally captured their target, which they named 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, now 90 and living in Wymondham, turned 19 on June, 6 1944. He 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.
James (Jim) King
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
“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.
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.”