Celebration marks French honours for Suffolk D-Day heroes
For more than 70 years they have worn their British service medals with pride, but now they can add the Legion d’Honneur for their part in liberating France in 1944.
For most of the Normandy veterans, there was no medal presentation – they got them by post – so on Friday 10 of them gathered at Stowmarket’s Royal British Legion Club for a celebration attended by Suffolk’s Lord Lieutenant Lady Euston.
They were Reginald Oxford, 95, and Leslie Ivory, 94, from Stowmarket; Hubert Leggett, 91, from Wyverstone; Victor Mayhew, 90, from Elmswell; Len Manning, 91, from Little Waldingfield; Bill Chick, 91, from Felixstowe, Roy Eaton, 91, from Ipswich and Ted Bootle, 92, and Ivan Spall, 95, from Lowestoft.
Lady Euston said: “ These are our heroes. We live in difficult times today but nothing like the dangers that we were facing in 1944. My own grandfather took part in the D-Day landings. The horror of those days, and the courage and the bravery, is so understated by everyone here today.
“The Legion D’Honneur is France’s top accolade for an elite group of people who distinguish themselves through civilian or military valour.”
Reginald Oxford said his son got him the forms to apply for the medal as soon as it was announced.
“It was very nice of them but we deserved it!” he said.
He was a rifleman and a PIAT (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank) gunner with the Beds and Hearts Regiment when he landed at Arromanche before being transferred the 1st/7th Royal Warwickshires to advance on Bayeux and Caen. He fought his way north and crossed the Rhine into Germany near Rees.
Though he joined up in 1943 for the duration, he was not demobbed until 1947.
“They were going to send us to invade mainland Japan, but they dropped the bombs and ended it so we were sent to Palestine with the terrorists.”
Leslie Ivory modestly calls himself ‘a backroom boy’ doing his duty, but as a Royal Army Service Corps member with the 6th Airborne Division he was involved with planning D-Day. He landed in France two days afterwards and their headquarters was shelled and mortared daily. One day his mess tin, only a foot away from him, was hit by shrapnel.
He served in the far east and was demobbed in 1948.
Alan King joined up at 18 in 1942 and trained on tanks at Fritton Lake and Dunwich Heath. He landed on D-Day with the East Riding Yeomanry on Sword beach.
“As we were going in, the Warspite opened up – you never heard anything like it,” he said. “We went in blind. My tank was hit on the first day. It was the first of five hits my tank took during the war.”
He lost his best friend in the battle for Caen and recalls: “When our regiment eventually crossed the Rhine, I think there were only half of the men left of the 600 who trained on Fritton Lake.”
Hubert Leggett was called up from his Suffolk farm job in 1942, at 18, and posted to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who also landed on Sword. He lost a finger to a sniper and went to the medics where the sergeant major asked: “What are you doing here, Leggett?”
He was at Arnhem with the 1st Air Landing Brigade where he was hit by shrapnel.
Victor Mayhew volunteered in 1943 and joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers with 1st Btn Suffolk Regiment. He landed on Sword and fought into Holland where he was wounded and sent home, though he was in the Army until 1947, seeing service in Palestine.