The French Government has awarded several thousand World War II veterans who took part in the liberation of France the rank of Chevalier (knight) of the Legion d’Honneur and its accompanying medal. The Legion d’Honneur is France’s highest military honour and is in recognition of the selfless heroism that was displayed during the Normandy landings and the wider campaign in liberating France. French President, Francoise Holland, announced the intention to award the medals during the 70th anniversary D-day commemorations in 2014 and veterans are still receiving their awards over two years later.
One such man is William (Liam) Gray, aged 94, who enlisted in the Royal Engineers after his apprenticeship as a boiler-maker. Liam was born in Drogheda, Ireland in 1922. His parents and two brothers moved to Liverpool when he was a small boy, where his family continued to grow. He now lives in Bexley, Kent, where he settled with his wife and four children after the war.
Liam received his insignia of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in July 2016 and his receipt of this was celebrated with a party at his church on 2 October 2016, guests included his family, the congregation of his church and his local MP. His official presentation was on 3 October 2016 at the residence of the French Ambassador in London.
Liam and his comrades were tasked with assembling Mulberry Harbour ‘B’, crucial to the movement of troops and supplies and to France’s eventual liberation. A reserve company had been secured and trained to replace any casualties that may occur, ‘a sobering thought’, said Liam.
He recalls the terrifying sight of marching with his fellow troops in French countryside, reminiscent of Kent’s, past freshly dug graves, their plots, each marked with small wooden crosses, steel helmets and identity discs, and thought ‘What’s it all for? It doesn’t make sense.’
His company would also be sent out to round up Germans in the vicinity, having first been inspected ‘to check if we were smart enough to shoot Germans.’ They had been ordered to destroy any enemy hardware that was found and would smash up superior German arms against trees. On one occasion they were shot at, with the only casualty thankfully the heel of a colleagues boot! Their old rifles inefficient, they retreated back to camp after the officer in charge radioed for tank support.
Off duty hours were limited, but they managed a weekend in Paris, where Liam sold cigarettes and chocolate for perfume and a few beers. Company morale was boosted during off duty periods with sing-a-longs, Liam accompanying on his small accordion.
Liam’s part in the proceedings ended seven months after landing when he broke his leg with an errant steel pipe during operations. But at least this gave him the experience of an American troop hospital which offered an enticing array of goods to keep spirits boosted.