French Government honours D Day Veterans
Tuesday, 24 January 2017
The Town Councils of Hebden Royd & Todmorden jointly hosted the formal presentation, by the French Government, of Medals to two servicemen, in recognition of their part in the D Day Landings in Normandy in 1944 at Hebden Bridge Town Hall on Wednesday 18th January.
William Birch of Elphin Close, Mytholmroyd and Robert Johnson of Rochdale Road, Todmorden were presented with the Insignia of Rank of Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur. Joining the Légion of Honour is the highest French order for military and civil merits, and was established in 1802 by Napoléon Bonaparte.
The order's motto is "Honneur et Patrie" ("Honour and Fatherland")
The French government has been awarding the Légion d’Honneur to D-Day veterans for several years, as a way of honouring and thanking those who fought and risked their lives to secure France’s liberation during the Second World War.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June 2014, the French President, François Hollande, announced that the distinction would be awarded to all British veterans who fought for the liberation of France during the Second World War, taking part in military operations in France between 1944 and 1945. Since June 2014, more than 4,100 medals have been awarded.
The Presentation of Insignia of Rank was made by Mr Jeremy Burton, French Honorary Consul, escorted by Major Stan Hardy, Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire representing the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire and the Queen.
William Birch was born in 1923 in Lower Callis and moved to Todmorden from where he joined the East Yorkshire Regiment completing his basic training in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Further specialist training continued on the Loch’s of Scotland.
On the second day of the Allied Invasion of Normandy he landed at Sword Beach having set off from his host ship ten minutes late due to issues lowering the landing craft. As a Bren Gun Operator he approached the beach holding the gun above his head to keep the gun dry.
Mr Birch was accompanied by his partner, Rita, four of his five daughters, his eldest daughter lives in South Australia, one son, a granddaughter and a great grandson.
Robert Johnson was also born and raised in Todmorden joining the Royal Marine Commandos in 1937. He later joined 40 Royal Marine Commando, the first Marine commando unit to be formed and consisting entirely of volunteers from other Marine units.
His first serious engagement was the 1942 Dieppe raid in which the Canadians suffered heavy casualties and he also served in North Africa and spent time with the Fleet Air Arm on various aircraft carriers leaving HMS Eagle shortly before its sinking.
At the age of 23 he held the rank of Colour Sergeant and led a landing craft onto Sword Beach during the Normandy landings.
His distinguished service also saw him act as a small arms instructor for the Marine Commandos who took part in Operation Frankton, an attack on the captive French port of Bordeaux in 1942, immortalised in the film ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’.
He served with the Marines unit until being discharged in 1952 and upon returning to Todmorden joined the Fire Service.
Mr Johnson was unwell on the day but his eldest son Kevin accepted the award on his behalf and he was joined by Mr Johnson’s daughter with one son unable to attend the ceremony and the other looking after Mr Johnson at home.
Civic thanks and appreciations were made by the Mayors of Hebden Royd, Cllr Tony Hodgins and the Mayor of Todmorden, Cllr Tony Greenwood along with the presentation of Official letters of thanks.
Flowers were presented to the partner of Mr William Birch and the daughter of Mr Robert Johnson.