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British D-Day heroes’ long wait for Légion d'honneur

© Leon Neal, AFP | British veterans take part in a French ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2014

Text by Stéphanie TROUILLARD

Latest update : 2015-09-26

France’s secretary for veteran affairs will present on Tuesday the Légion d’honneur to 20 British soldiers who fought in World War II in France, following an outcry over President François Hollande’s unfulfilled promise to honour these heroes.

Corporal Walter Sharp, a 101-year-old World War II veteran, sits attentively on his couch and flashes a mischievous smile as he recalls the first time he crossed the English Channel: “I can still hear the captain on our landing barge ‘Get a move on, I have go back to get the rest of the lads!’”

On June 9, 1944, Sharp landed on Gold Beach with a regiment of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. His duties included protecting the supply chain for Allied troops who had advanced across Normandy and to remove the decomposing remains of livestock that died during the D-Day operation.

© Walter Sharp

Sharp had already worn the British army uniform for four years when Britain and its allies invaded Nazi-occupied France. Originally from Falkirk, in the Central Lowlands of Scotland, he saw action in North Africa and Italy before the Normandy campaign, after which his regiment fought its way to Belgium, the Netherlands and eventually Germany.

Special delivery

His military service was recognised seven decades later with France’s highest honour. In May, Sharp received the medal and rank of Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur. Today he sports the decoration proudly over his shirt pocket.

“It’s a great honour. Few people have this medal, but I didn’t imagine they would send it in the post,” a suprised Sharp recently told FRANCE 24 in his home in Falkirk. Indeed, France’s top honour was shipped to the WWII hero from the French Embassy in London.

In 2014, his son Brian completed an application for the Légion d’honneur after hearing Hollande speak at the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The French president pledged to bestow all surviving British veterans with the award during his speech.

France kept its promise to Walter Sharp, but the lack of ceremony and decorum raised eyebrows. “My father was disappointed he did not receive the medal from a representative of the French government. We even saw a newspaper photo of other veterans receiving theirs from the French ambassador in April,” Brian Sharp said.

Corporal Walter Sharp and his son Brian © Stéphanie Trouillard

The veteran’s son even called the French embassy in London for an explanation. “They told me that 3,000 veterans had applied for the medal and if the ambassador had to distribute each one personally it would take two or three years. They decided to start sending them by post in view of the age of the soldiers,” he said.

Race against time

Around 350 km south of Falkirk, in the city of York, Private Kenneth Smith has not been as lucky. A year after filling out the necessary paperwork, the 90-year-old veteran is still waiting for news about his medal.

“I wrote to the French Ambassador and received a reply to the effect that we must be patient. I wrote to the French President and received a similar reply,” Smith, who is the founder of the York Normandy Veterans, said in an email to FRANCE 24.

© Ken Smith

Smith landed on Gold Beach on June 6, 1944 with the 43rd British Infantry Division. Two bullets hit his radio as he waded through the surf. He returned to the front line, and was wounded on October 20, 1944 near the Dutch-German border.

Now Smith worries time is running out. For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he travelled to Normandy for the ceremony with six former brothers-in-arms from York. The band of friends was nicknamed “The Magnificent Seven” by the local French press. “Since then three of them have passed away,” he wrote. “One did receive the award just before he died, not the other two… on the Internet there are reports of the deaths of many Veterans every time I log in.”

He believes French officials failed to grasp the magnitude of the task when they pledged to award the Légion d’honneur to British veterans – and are now completely overwhelmed.

The applications are first sorted through by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, which checks the veteran’s service record before transferring the forms to the Légion d’honneur’s headquarters in Paris.

Red tape

Only a few hundred British D-Day heroes have received their medals to date, while applications and inquiries from veterans’ families keep flooding in to the French embassy in London. Frustration is growing, with an online petition launched in June to help the veterans in their last battle.

In response to a letter from FRANCE 24, the French Embassy in London said it had mobilised all its available to staff in order to respond to each request.

“The French government has been awarding the Légion d’honneur to D-Day veterans from many countries for several years.

“Processing this record number of applications takes some time, given the necessary checks and logistical constraints. However, the French authorities attach great importance to considering each request and are speeding things up,” the French embassy said, adding that all the decorations would be delivered “before the end of this year”.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Veteran Affairs Jean-Marc Todeschini will personally hand 20 British veterans their Légion d’honneur medals at the French ambassador’s residence in London.

For his own part Ken Smith is impatient to receive the award. He said: “I attend many public events and would love to be able to wear it on these occasions. I would be so proud.”

© Ken Smith

This article was translated from the original in French.

Date created : 2015-09-25

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