Royal reward for war hero

Ipswich war hero Aubrey Francis has a date to meet The Queen.

Tom Potter

Ipswich war hero Aubrey Francis has a date to meet The Queen. TOM POTTER meets the pensioner with an incredible story to tell.

HE fought in Normandy, escaped capture by the Nazis, and rescued children from burning buildings during his years as a firefighter in Ipswich - now 84-year-old Aubrey Francis is proudly looking forward to meeting the Queen.

Mr Francis was thrilled to receive an invitation from the palace inviting him to receive Maundy money from Her Majesty in April - signifying another remarkable achievement in a fascinating life.

An Ipswich boy born and bred, Mr Francis joined the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service in 1940, aged just 16, before being called up two years later to serve his country in the Second World War.

His campaign in the Royal Scots began on D-Day in Normandy, where he “got his feet wet”, and ended in Hamburg as news broke that the war was over.

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Along the way he took part in one of the fiercest battles of the war and dodged sniper fire but was later captured by the Germans and locked up.

Escaping through a window, Mr Francis joined a group of Canadian soldiers and made it to Hamburg, meeting General Eisenhower at the side of a Dutch road on the way. There he stayed until the war was over and it was time to come home.

On his return, a chance meeting with a land girl named Emmie turned out to be the first encounter with his wife of 60 years. Mrs Francis said: “I met him in the chip shop and thought he was such a big head!

“I didn't see him for a while after that until I went to the picture house. He asked if he could sit next to me and I agreed but then he climbed over the seat.”

Mrs Francis forgave him for his bad manners and the pair were soon engaged. They married in 1948 and settled down in Ipswich where Mr Francis returned to the fire service.

He stepped straight into action when called to attend a fire that destroyed a cinema in Elm Street, Ipswich. The blaze was so severe it took crews more than a week to damp down.

His firefighting career continued as it started, with frequent acts of courage including the rescue of a woman from a fire in Crown Street and little boy in Norwich Road who was trapped under a bed as flames spread through the house.

Mr Francis was rewarded for his 30 years as a firefighter when he was named guest of honour at a recent 60th anniversary celebration of the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service.

He said: “They do things differently nowadays. When I was a firefighter we used to have an appliance at the old Bond Street station that had a bike strapped to it. We used it to get to the nearest phone when we arrived at a fire.”

After leaving the service he spent ten years as a physiotherapist's assistance at Ipswich Hospital before retiring to his Heathlands Park home.

Maundy money

The word 'Maundy' comes from the Latin 'mandatum' - the Biblical command to love one another which Christ made at the Last Supper.

The tradition of the Sovereign giving money to poorer people dates back to the 13th Century when the Monarch would also give food and clothing and even wash the recipients' feet.

The white Maundy purse contains silver pennies, two-pence, three-piece and four-penny pieces to the value of 83 pence. The red purse contains a small allowance of �5.50 which was originally for clothing and provisions.

On April 9 Mr Francis will meet the Queen at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. He will be one of 166 pensioners to receive specially minted Maundy money during the traditional ceremony which recognises service to the community.

Mrs Francis had the final word on her husband's achievement, saying: “We are all very proud of him. “He has been a very good husband and father and is always making us laugh.”

The battle of Hill 112:

Mr Francis was involved in the notorious battle of Hill 112, which started on the night of July 9, 1944 just south of the Normandy town of Caen.

The hill was described by the German Commander Rommel as being the most important hill in Normandy and whoever had control of it had control of all around it.

Many soldiers, both Allied and Axis, were to lose their lives over Hill 112. Mr Francis, who revisited the site with his family last year, said: “We lost a lot of good blokes in our division during that one battle.”

During his recent return to France, Mr Francis retraced the journey he made across the country, stopping off at a church ten miles from Caen where he and his division encountered a pair of German snipers.

He said: “We had a sergeant who told us the nearer we were to the enemy, the safer we would be, so we made a quick dash for the church wall and the snipers were right there above us.”

Mr Francis was captured by German soldiers during a skirmish outside Normandy. He and his companions promptly escaped and rejoined the allied campaign. He said: “We had just taken out a Jerry tank but another one came round the corner and that was it,” he recalled. “You don't argue with a tank.”

“They stuck us all in a house and then cleared off. We nipped out of a back window and into a cornfield. We even managed to find our rifles which they had thrown in a ditch.”

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