The ceremony went unnoticed in France and yet it concerned the Legion d’Honneur and a promise made by France during the 70th D-Day anniversary celebrations: to award France’s highest decoration to all those who had fought there.
The award was, finally, made to some of the Northern Irish soldiers who had fought on the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944. Nearly 70 years after the event, 23 of the veterans were made knights of the Legion of Honour on 16 February by Régine McCullough, honorary French consul for Northern Ireland… and a native of Normandy. The ceremony took place at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn, Co Antrim. One of the medals was awarded posthumously.
Amongst the veterans, wearing their regimental jackets clanging with rows of military medals and a few having donned their military berets, Neville Henshaw, 91, who landed at Juno Beach and helped set up vital communications networks, said he was a bit surprised by this honour. “I got a letter from the French president and I think I am more proud of the letter than I am of the medal because it thanks us for the part that we played when we brought freedom to France.”
Despite the passing time, these men have forgotten nothing of those terrible days: “I landed about midday on Tuesday, June 6 … in about two or three foot of water – I nearly drowned before I got there but, somebody pulled me out. I was soaking wet. Then the shooting started …You had to keep on going – trying to get across that beach as fast as possible. It was slow going because the sand was so soft. I was part of a small group and the group – they were all shot except me. The chap alongside me was immediately shot dead,” Henshaw recalls.
McCullough told them: “It is a big thankyou. We will never forget what they did for freedom and for France. Without them who knows what would have happened.”