Veterans formally presented with medals at Chivenor ceremony

The Legion d’Honneur medal. Picture: Andy KeebleThe Legion d’Honneur medal. Picture: Andy Keeble

World War Two heroes have been awarded France’s highest honour in recognition of their part in the D-Day landings.

Four North Devon veterans were formally appointed to the rank of Chevalier – or knight – in the Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur at an emotional ceremony at RMB Chivenor on Wednesday.

The recipients – Len Husband and Clifford Coates from Bideford; Dennis Small from Fremington; and George Laity from Pilton – all stormed the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944 to help liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi occupation.

There were puffed chests and some tears as the old warriors – all aged 91 – were presented with their medals by Alain Sibiril, French Honorary Consul to the South West.

Mr Husband, who as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy helped land men, vehicles and equipment on the Normandy beaches, said he was ‘very proud’.

Mr Husband, who became a teacher after the war and was headmaster at Instow Primary School for 20 years until 1984, said: “I still think about that day on occasion.

“One has nightmares – I still get them,” he added.

Mr Laity, a private with the Devonshire Regiment, was among the first assault troops to land on Gall beach and take out the snipers.

He repelled the German advance at the battle of Trugny and was later captured by the 12th Panzer Division and held prisoner of war in Germany until 1945.

He said: “The weather was horrendous on that day – we lost five landing craft and to me the crossing was the most frightening part of the job.”

His son Keith said: “Dad said that the opening scenes of the film Saving Private Ryan were very accurate so I think that says a lot about the horrors these man faced on that day.”

Former marine Mr Small also landed on Gall, where he and his crew secured the beach before ferrying men and materials from ship to shore for six weeks.

He said: “I often think of what it must have been like for the French people on that day to wake up and see a great battle.

“But I’m very proud to receive this medal; the French have done us well – it’s quite an honour.”

Clifford Coates, a sergeant with the Royal Marines and a coxswain aboard an assault landing craft, fought in a number of battles as his unit advanced into Belgium.

The then-19-year-old, who still remembers the invasion vividly, said: “It makes me very proud, but it is a shame it has been so long – there are not many of us around any more.”

In 2014 – the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings – the French government announced its intention to honour any surviving veterans who took part in the D-Day landings.

All had previously received their medals by post but accepted the offer of a formal presentation.

A Legion d’Honneur was also presented to the Pru Johns, the widow of Norman Johns of Instow, who died in January this year – just weeks after receiving his medal.

Mr Johns was torpedoed twice during the conflict and on one occasion spent 12 hours in the water despite being unable to swim.

Mrs Johns said: “Norman was so pleased to receive his medal – he wore it all day at home, even while doing the washing up.”

A Legion d’Honneur was also presented to the family of Bob Harding from Bideford, who was unable to attend the ceremony.