Six Ipswich war veterans awarded Legion d’Honneur for D-Day service honoured at special event

The six Ipswich Second World War veterans.

The six Ipswich Second World War veterans.

The recipients are: Arthur Scoffield, Gordon Catling, Sydney Podd, Norman Kent, Stanley Chambers, and Tony Booth.

“You won’t get a better example of heroes in one room,” remarks Robin Vickery, chairman of the Ipswich branch of The Royal British Legion, during his poignant speech.

Seated in front of him are six Ipswich war veterans who have been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, for their role in liberating the country during the Second World War.

Brandishing 37 war medals in total, they yesterday gathered at an honorary event after recently receiving the prestigious medals in the post.

Some haven’t seen each other for 40 years. Most have never met before. Their ages range from 90 to 99. One was stood next to his sergeant who was shot dead instantly at Normandy on D-Day. He took over his squad aged 19.

Another was told by his doctor, after the war, that he had 18 months to live. He turns 100 next month.

“I’ve met each one in the last week and they’ve all got a different story to tell, and what stories they are,” added Mr Vickery.

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He was addressing guests and families in the suitably decorated communal lounge of Vinnicombe Court Sheltered Housing Complex in Cambridge Drive, Ipswich, where two of the war heroes live.

Union Jacks adorned the sheltered accommodation outside, while French and Great British flags stood side by side inside.

Mr Vickery continued: “There has been a wonderful turnout for this unique occasion.

“Tony Booth was driving a tank during the Second World War and was one of the first tanks to go up the beach on D-Day.

“Gordon Catling was an air gunner in the RAF and flew many, many flights… and took part in many raids.

“Stanley Chambers served also in the RAF and when he got fed up with that he moved to the Navy!

“Norman Kent was in the Royal Engineers and played such an important role in the D-Day landings.

“Sydney Podd, another one of the RAF, and finally, Arthur Scoffield. Arthur was in the army, and although I’ve mentioned him last today, he was actually first on D-Day because he went with his comrades in the advanced force that went to clear the minefields ready for the main force coming through.

“I’ve been told 75 of his colleagues were killed. Arthur was hit with shrapnel in his leg and back and when he got back to England, his own doctor gave him 18 months to live. On February 17, he will be celebrating his 100th birthday.”

The Legion d’Honneur is France’s top accolade for an elite group of people who distinguish themselves through civilian or military valour. It was initiated by the then First Consul of the French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1802.

French president Francois Hollande announced during the 70th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy landings that France would give its highest honour to all surviving D-Day veterans.

Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, Clare, Countess of Euston, also paid tribute to the six war veterans.

Lady Euston said: “This is an extraordinary day. We have six of the best Ipswich boys here, nearly 80s years on, and I am just so overwhelmed by your courage.

“For people of my generation, it is quite extraordinary to think what you all did. My own grandfather was in the D-Day landings and through is stories – he died some time ago and was a tank man – I know what you all went through and really we all owe you all such a debt of gratitude.

“It is an enormous privilege for me as Her Majesty’s representative in Suffolk to share this celebration.

“I know that the Queen was very touched when President Hollande said that he wanted to honour all the D-Day veterans in this way and I can pass on her best wishes to you all. We are so grateful.”

The war veterans continued their blend of eager story-telling and sombre recollections following the speeches and renditions of both British and French national anthems. They were patient, humble, funny, considerate and informed; a worthy depiction of the old guard.

Tony Booth’s son Ian Booth, 56, of Sproughton, summed up the mood of family members present.

“We are very proud of what they did and it is very nice for them to be recognised in this way.

“We have taken dad back to Normandy twice. It is very harrowing: it brings back a lot of memories, some good, and some not so good.”

Arthur Scoffield (99), 26 Assault Squadron

Brothers in arms, Arthur and Cyril Scoffield took part in the D-Day landings. This is his account of Sunday, June 4:

“We set sail, feeling nervous and a bit afraid, as we knew this was the one.

“There were hundreds of craft – troopships, tank landing craft, warships, destroyers, etc, with barrage balloons attached to some of them.

“We started our run-in about 7.20am, which took about 10 minutes. We were now in range of machine gun fire. The ramp dropped and I was up to my chest in water. I made the beach and sent a silent prayer...

“Each of our charges had 10-second fuses, so we didn’t have much time to run up the beach into position... we saw several bodies and body parts, including a head, washed around by the tide.

“The job got done nearly perfect, so next job was mine-clearing… We’d lost 74 men in the first three hours, killed or wounded. We all finished bruised or cut, some of it from machine-gun fire hitting shingle.

“As we progressed, we all linked up, found little resistance and by the evening were about two miles inland. We had our first real stop for food.

“About 10pm we tried to settle, sleeping in a field with our two blankets for cover.

“That, basically, was my D-Day, rightly called the longest day, as mine started more or less at 4am. Roughly, start to finish, 18 hours. In that time I don’t know how many times I sang Abide With Me! It was my inspiration.”

Gordon Catling (90), rear gunner, 50 Squadron

“It is great that everyone has come together and we are being recognised, but it is a pity we didn’t get anyone from the French Embassy.

“I have been talking to Sydney and the last time we met was 40 years ago. We knew each other just growing up in Ipswich. We are the two air crew here.

“I can’t remember exactly what I did on D-Day. But we knew it was important because we were confined to our camp.

“It is sometimes difficult to talk about (the war). I do get certain flashbacks, especially if I read anything about Dresden.

“We were doing a job. We were told what our orders were and we had to do it.”

Sydney Podd (93), air gunner, 644 Squadron

Mr Podd served in the 644 Squadron in the Royal Air Force from 1944 to 1946 as a wireless operator and air gunner.

The 93-year-old said it was “wonderful” to be recognised.

The primary role of 644 Squadron during the Invasion of Normandy was to tow three of six Horsa gliders carrying the Coup de Main Force, which was set to assault the Bénouville and Ranville Bridges.

Mr Podd recalled: “On D-Day, we were stationed at Tarrant Rushton, Dorset. We were flying Halifax aircraft and towing gliders to Ranville, France… Landing Zone 11. I will always remember it. We towed the gliders there at 3pm and got back at 5pm.”

“I was proud to serve my country,” he added. “It didn’t seem like at the time we were going a great thing, but you realise more what you have done years later, especially at a one-off event like this.

“I knew Gordon from my younger days and I thought the speeches that were given were very apt for the occasion.”

Norman Kent (92), Royal Engineers: 294 Army Field Company.

Mr Kent, a resident at Vinnicombe Court Sheltered Housing Complex, said he felt honoured to receive the Légion d’honneur.

“Well, we made it,” he joked. “Some of us did, anyway. Some were not able to be here.”

At the age of 19, Norman witnesses the harrowing moment when his sergeant, standing next to him, was shot in the head and killed after their ship ramp had lowered at Normandy.

“I was the second officer in charge and as the ramp came down, he got it straight in the head,” he recalled.

“We made sure we got up that beach as fast as we could.”

Stanley Chambers (99), 165 Squadron

RAF Squadron No 165 supported the D-Day operation 70 years ago by patrolling the English Channel and escorting bombardment formations to the French coast.

Stanley operated between Cherbourg and Morlaix, close to the beaches of Normandy.

He remembers seeing huge battleships embarking from Land’s End.

“A few days before, our Vice-Marshal visited us and said ‘the great day will soon be here. It is colossal’,” he said.

His RAF career spanned from 1937 to 1958. He saw action in the medical branch at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk and later served with 165 Squadron, destroying German V-1 flying bombs at 2,500ft.

He added: “You only had a few seconds (to aim and fire). You are travelling at 300mph. You are coming down at a rate of knots and having a go. Bang! You watch the train (or plane) blow up and see a cloud of smoke. The adrenaline… it fills you up fast.”

Mr Chambers added that he enjoyed reminiscing with his fellow war veterans at the event yesterday.

Tony Booth (93) – The 49th Royal Tank Regiment

Mr Booth entered the British Army in 1938 at the age of 16 and served for 30 years in The 49th Royal Tank Regiment

Leaving the military as a Captain Quartermaster Technical, Mr Booth also served in the Far East and Hong Kong.

On D-Day, he landed at Gold Beach at 6.30am and eventually helped lead the specialist tank through to Belgium, France and eventually Germany.

He said: “I was just one of many. They say we are all heroes but we’re not. We were just doing our jobs. Some say there were not frightened but that is not true. But you had to overcome your fear.

“If you didn’t, you were letting down your comrades and everyone else in your team. If me as the driver failed, or anyone else, that was five men out of action.”