War heroes given top French medal
Memories of being shelled during D-Day and watching a baby being born in a convent will stay with Ron Smith and Albert Northeast forever.
Mr Smith, 91, from Rustington was awarded France’s highest military honour, the Legion d’Honneur, in a ceremony at the Royal Navy’s headquarters on Whale Island, near Portsmouth on Armistice Day.
Mr Northeast, 95, received his medal on Saturday at Manor House in Littlehampton.
Mr Smith was just 19 when he left Gosport in a landing craft to take part in the decisive Normandy invasion on June 2, 1944.
He was a wireman on HMLCT-947 when it landed on Sword beach at 7.35am.
From his action station on the telegraph in the wheelhouse of the ship, Ron could see see the local church in flames as a landing craft next to him exploded.
Speaking to the Gazette during the ceremony, Mr Smith, of The Street, Rustington, said: “I’ll never forget it. It was tremendously loud. The beach was chaos, even a crab wouldn’t have survived. Every bit of it had been shelled by 1,000 rockets fired at it to destroy any land mines on it.”
As the bows of the ship hit the beach the ramp went down and her two tanks and four armoured vehicles tried to disembark. One of the tanks, ‘Dunbar’, was hit by an 88mm shell causing it to slew sideways and block the exit.
After another explosion the craft’s Bangalore torpedoes exploded. One of the armoured vehicles, ‘Barbarian’ tried to nudge ‘Dunbar’ to clear the exit, but failed. The damaged tank blocked up the ramp of Mr Smith’s landing craft, forcing them to retreat. Then, four days later, he returned to Normandy – only to have his ankle broken when his craft was sunk by a German mine.
“The mine going off was a huge shock. I found myself on the deck with a broken ankle,” he said.
“We were left marooned on a sunken merchant ship from about 5.30am to 7.30pm until we were picked up.”
Mr Smith was evacuated on a stretcher and taken back to England to recover.
The grandfather-of-one added: “I felt really embarrassed, there I was with a broken ankle and there were chaps with hardly any arms left next to me.”
His medal was presented by Honorary French Consul Captain Francois Jean, who said: “You are true heroes and will be our heroes forever.
“We French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom.”
Mr Northeast, of Beaconsfield Road, joined the Royal Air Force and trained as an electrician after receiving his call up papers.
He described D-Day as ‘the scariest moment of our lives’, and dedicated his medal to his fallen comrades.
He said: “We didn’t know what was going to happen next until the commanding officer gave the okay to fire, and the guns started on the warships. We had to come from behind in our landing craft and go towards the beach, and we were thinking: who is going to die next?
“Bullets were flying everywhere, and two of my comrades got shot down. The sea was red with blood; not blue, not green. Once we got on the beach, we had to keep moving. It was a horrible sight, so many dead bodies everywhere. I wouldn’t wish anybody to see anything like it again.”
After D-Day, his squadron stopped at a convent in Normandy which was a maternity hospital run by nuns. It had been affected by a power cut, so Mr Northeast used their main generator to restore electricity to it.
He remembered the nun in charge, Sister Phylamena, showed him a baby being born. “The put a gown on me and a mask on my face and we went in. It was the first time I had seen it, and it quite a sight.”
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