South Yorkshire D-Day heroes receive France’s highest military honour

(l-r) Cyril Elliott, Douglas Austin, Ken Johnson, Les Giles and Bill Hartley, all of Sheffield Normandy Veterans, have been awarded the Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

(l-r) Cyril Elliott, Douglas Austin, Ken Johnson, Les Giles and Bill Hartley, all of Sheffield Normandy Veterans, have been awarded the Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

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As young men they helped liberate a nation from Nazism. Now, almost 72 years later, this band of brothers – all in their 90s – have been recognised by the French for their heroism.

Eight proud D-Day veterans from Sheffield and Doncaster are the latest to receive France’s highest military honour – the Légion d’honneur.

The Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

The Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

Charlie Hill, 90, of Gleadless Valley, and Doug Parker, 93, of Owlthorpe – who both landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day itself, June 6, 1944 – have received the prestigious award, along with Cyril Elliott, aged 95, of Shiregreen, Doug Austin, 92, of Harthill, Les Giles, 92 of Woodhouse, Bill Hartley, 93, of Woodhouse, Doncaster ex-RAF gunner Ken Johnson, 91, and Patrick Strafford, 90 of Shiregreen.

Doug Austin, part of the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers fighting alongside the 3rd Tank Battalion The Scots Guards, landed on Gold Beach in Normandy 24 days after the initial invasion.

“It was really strange when we first got there but after a while you got used to it,” Doug said.

Doug spent his 21st birthday on July 23 in Normandy before being involved in the Battle of Falaise Gap the following month which turned out to be a turning point after a crushing defeat for the Nazis.

(l-r) Cyril Elliott, Douglas Austin, Ken Johnson, Les Giles and Bill Hartley, all of Sheffield Normandy Veterans, have been awarded the Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

(l-r) Cyril Elliott, Douglas Austin, Ken Johnson, Les Giles and Bill Hartley, all of Sheffield Normandy Veterans, have been awarded the Legion D'Honneur. Picture: Andrew Roe

The decisive victory for the Allied forces opened the road to liberate Paris and then to advance on the German border.

After the battle, Doug made his way through Belgium and Holland before ending up 20 miles outside Lubeck on the Baltic for VE Day on May 8, 1945.

Doug said: “Going through towns and villages on our 10-month journey, all you saw was rubble.”

After the war, Doug signed up for the Army for another 18 years, leaving in 1960. He spent three years in Hong Kong and his last post was in Germany.

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Today's front page

“When I go back to France, the French are always very welcoming, especially the younger generations who have learned about the war at school,” Doug added.

“I’m so pleased and humbled to be acknowledged for this medal. It means a lot.”

RAF gunner Ken Johnson, of Lowell Avenue in Balby, was lucky to escape alive when a British Lancaster bomber dropped a bomb on his plane around seven days after D-Day in France.

“We were flying in a formation and I looked up and saw the plane above us open up its bomb doors,” he said.

Douglas Austin, with his letter and Legion D'Honneur medal. Picture: Andrew Roe

Douglas Austin, with his letter and Legion D'Honneur medal. Picture: Andrew Roe

“We tried to radio but it was too late, the bomb dropped and took our tail clean off.

“A Canadian lad, Carson Foye his name was, got taken out by the bomb. Our pilot managed to fly us to safety, God knows how.”

Ken still keeps in touch with Carson’s sister in Canada.

He said: “I consider myself a very, very lucky man. I did my bit and I’m proud that I did so. I’m over the moon to receive the medal. It’s such an honour.”

When Ken received his medal, he had to sign for it with the postman.

He said: “My daughter was saying to me, ‘What have you been buying?’ She probably thought I was doing some online shopping!”

Sheffield Normandy veteran Patrick Strafford with France's Legion d'Honneur medal.

Sheffield Normandy veteran Patrick Strafford with France's Legion d'Honneur medal.

A letter from French ambassador Sylvie Bermann was sent to all the recipients of the accolade.

It said: “I offer my warmest congratulations on this high honour in recognition of your acknowledged military engagement and your steadfast involvement in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.

“As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France.

“We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”

Graham Askham, secretary of the Normandy Veterans Sheffield and district, said: “I’m so proud of them. They just say they turned up and did a job but they are real heroes.

“I was three weeks old when the first wave of troops landed on the beach on D-Day and I can’t think what my life would have been like if these brave men had failed.

“It’s been a long time coming, they’ve waited patiently for this and there are still others who come to our meetings who are still waiting.”

In 2014, French president Francois Hollande, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, pledged that all servicemen who fought alongside France to defeat the Nazis would receive the nation’s highest military honour.

But due to the number that still need to be presented, medals are now being sent in the post.

“It’s left the French government a bit red-faced to be honest,” Graham added.

“They used to officially give them out at a special ceremony but now they post them through the door.”

Other veterans in Sheffield are still waiting to receive the honour.

Now talks are taking place to arrange a ceremony at Sheffield Town Hall for the men who have received the accolade this time around.

An Honorary French Consulate from Wetherby is to come for the presentation.

The Legion of Honour was first established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

D Day soldier Doug Parker from Owlthorpe who landed on Shark beach

D Day soldier Doug Parker from Owlthorpe who landed on Shark beach

D-Day soldier Doug Parker from Owlthorpe who landed on Shark beach

D-Day soldier Doug Parker from Owlthorpe who landed on Shark beach

WWII veteran Charlie Hill celebrates his 90th birthday at The Penny Black with other Green Howards

WWII veteran Charlie Hill celebrates his 90th birthday at The Penny Black with other Green Howards

D Day soldier Charlie Hill from Gleadless

D Day soldier Charlie Hill from Gleadless

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