French honour for veteran

Alan Harris, 91, a Normandy veteran with his Legiond-Honneur medal from the President of France. EMN-151231-141328001
Alan Harris, 91, a Normandy veteran with his Legiond-Honneur medal from the President of France. EMN-151231-141328001

A D-Day veteran has been awarded France’s top military honour for his part in a secret mission during the D-Day landings.

Alan Harris, 91, of Mount Lane, Kirkby La Thorpe has just received the medal along with a number of other surviving veterans for their part in the days of the Normandy landings during the closing stages of the Second World War in 1944.

In a letter from the British Embassy in France, which accompanied Mr Harris’ medal, it explains that the President of France has given him the rank of ‘chevalier’. It has been awarded to the surviving Normandy veterans and Mr Harris said: “I am very proud of my award. It is something special as it is the highest award from a foreign country.”

The ambassador said in his letter: “We must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France. We owe our freedom to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”

Originally from Norwich, he started life as an apprentice jockey, aged 17 when the war broke out. He said: “I saw stable lads being called up and didn’t think the army was for me, so I volunteered for the Royal Navy.”

He was posted to HMS Woodpecker, one of six ships under the command of Captain Johnny Walker, an ace U-boat hunter, but the ship was sunk by torpedo outside the Bay of Biscay in February 1944.

Mr Harris said: “We were only in the water for a few hours before being picked up by another ship.”

He is the final living member of that crew.

Back in Britain he was placed with MTBs patrolling the coast out of Great Yarmouth until he noticed a poster seeking volunteers for a ‘naval party’.

He put his name down and was duly attached to a team of commandos to take them to France aboard a light landing craft on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day.

He recalls having to sign a mysterious piece of paper beforehand while at Chatham barracks for a medical and could not go into details about his secret mission, saying: “I cannot say a lot. We did various things to help the commandos with their mission. We did what we had to do and some things were a bit strange.

“I landed at Sword beach but had to travel from there to Gold and Juno beaches. It was scary getting off the landing craft onto the beach, there were still soldiers’ bodies lying there and at night we had Stukas bombing and strafing.

“One night the Germans were sending over fragmentation shells. I was lying on the grass and heard a thud. In the morning they found a piece of shrapnel near me. I was taken to a field hospital and came round not knowing why I was there as I was unhurt.” He eventually rejoined his unit.

He said: “We worked our way through Normandy and Northern France, into Belgium, Holland and finished up in Germany. When we got to Holland the end was nigh and our unit was disbanded, so we ended up doing any jobs that came along.”

He is one of only three remaining survivors of the mission, spread across the country.

Demobbed in 1946, he went on to work in advertising for the rest of his career, starting at the bottom of the ladder as a bill poster.

He continued riding horses into his 80s.

Known for having long, shoulder-length hair for over 50 years, Mr Harris said: “This year has been very good to me. In April I passed my advanced driving test and got a silver award for it. Without a car I just don’t know what I would do.

“In another two years I am determined to pass my next driving exam with a gold.”