Last year the President of France, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, announced that France would present the Legion d'Honneur award to surviving veterans of the Battle of Normandy. Since then I have been trying to obtain the awards for our Typhoon veterans in the face of unexplained delays and bureaucracy. Letters to MPs and Ministers of State and a debate in the Commons produced reassuring promises, but it was not until the beginning of October that any medals became available.
We were delighted to be
able to assemble 6 Hawker Typhoon veteran pilots and one Bomber
Command Lancaster veteran together with a large groups of family
members and friends at the Jet Age Museum (JAM), Staverton,
Gloucestershire on Thursday Oct.29th. Staverton is close
to where the Typhoons were manufactured by the Gloster Aircraft
Company and JAM has a Typhoon restoration project.. There would have
been 8 Typhoon veterans but one, the Rev George Wood from Rustington,
had decided to do things differently - see later and another, Percy
Beake (himself a Battle of Britain veteran), had already received his
It was very fortunate that the Headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Task Force was nearby, at Imjin Barracks, and that it is currently commanded by a French officer, General Ducret, who was able to make the presentations. The General and a number of his senior staff, resplendent in their best uniforms, made a great impression on the crowd that was somehow fitted into the museum's display hall alongside the partially-restored Hawker Typhoon cockpit section. It was wonderful to see the veterans, all in excellent form, being honoured and to hear the very sincere congratulations offered by General Ducret.
The TECT President is the Commanding Officer of RAF Coningsby, where the Eurofighter Typhoons are based, so, despite the very bad weather in Gloucestershire, we were delighted to receive news that a Typhoon was taxying at Coningsby. A short while later we all moved outside, in the rain, and with a great roar the Coningsby Typhoon flew down the Staverton Instrument Landing approach beam, emerged from the clouds and swept over the museum in salute- wonderful!
That was a very special day, but my duties as TECT Secretary had only just begun.
My wife and I left Staverton, heading back to our home in Sussex in the car to pick up two friends and then drove to Portsmouth to catch the overnight ferry to Brittany. We were going to witness the presentation of the Legion d'Honneur to our friend and TECT Member, the Rev.George Wood.
In September 1943 George had been flying a Westland Whirlwind, attacking Morlaix airfield in Brittany, when his aircraft was hit by flak and exploded. George was trapped in the cockpit and could only pray for release. Suddenly he was outside, watching the remains of his cockpit crashing below him. After a very risky escape through a minefield, George eventually hid in a barn, where he was discovered by members of the local Resistance movement. The local network gave George a false identity and papers and he stayed in Carantec, near Roscoff, while a small boat was built, in 11 days, in a local shipyard. On October 30th 1943, exactly 72 years ago, George set sail with a number of French refugees, and eventually reached Plymouth. He rejoined his Squadron (263) which was then converting to Typhoons. He then flew Typhoons throughout the Normandy campaign. After the war George was ordained as a minister in the Church of England and served for some years in South Africa.
When he heard of the Legion d'Honneur award, George resolved to go to Brittany, despite being 93 years old and partially blind, to present his medal to the people of Carantec who had cared for him and helped him to escape. George and his story are well-known in Brittany, so it was no surprise that large numbers of people gathered wherever we went. George was taken flying, by the Morlaix Flying Club, over the airfield that he had attacked and the route of his escape. We followed George's escape route on the ground, hearing of the heroism of the local people who risked certain death to help him. On the Saturday a huge parade with banners, including some from the Royal British Legion, marched to the Carantec war memorial where George and I laid a wreath to commemorate his former comrades, Whirlwind and Typhoon pilots. In the local assembly hall (part of the Maritime Museum), with George's small boat on display, George was presented with his medal, to the great delight of the large audience.
After Mass in the church on Sunday morning, where George's story was told again, we lunched at a sea-side restaurant. News had got round and people gathered outside. One small boy came in, his eyes like saucers, asking to meet George who greeted him warmly. Then the boy said that his name was Pierre. George had been "Pierre" during his time in Carantec, so there was an immediate bond!
After lunch we returned to the Maritime Museum where George formally presented his Legion d'Honneur medal to his Carantec friends.
So ended a very special long weekend. I was exhausted, especially after a 4-hour drive back to the ferry and I could only imagine how George and the other veterans must have felt. However, our route passed Noyers Bocage, so, by the car headlights, we were able to pay our respects at the Typhoon Memorial and to lay a spray of poppies in memory of Georges' comrades. It was a great privilege to have been involved in the two events and a great relief that we had any medals to present!