Oldest veteran of D-Day receives Légion d'Honneur

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The Independent Online

As a man who witnessed a Zeppelin bombing in Edinburgh in 1916 and was already retired from the regular Army when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Jock Wilson would be forgiven for not having expected to be involved in D-Day.

As a man who witnessed a Zeppelin bombing in Edinburgh in 1916 and was already retired from the regular Army when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Jock Wilson would be forgiven for not having expected to be involved in D-Day.

But when he was called up as a 38-year-old print worker in 1941, the Scottish artilleryman had no hesitation in taking up arms alongside comrades half his age. Three years later, he landed on Juno Beach in Normandy in the vanguard of the Allied attack.

Yesterday, 60 years later, Mr Wilson saw his status as Britain's oldest surviving veteran of the D-Day landings celebrated by the country he helped to liberate. The 100-year-old great-grandfather, from Dunbar, in East Lothian, was awarded France's highest medal for bravery, the Légion d'Honneur, at a ceremony led by the French ambassador to London at the country's embassy.

Mr Wilson, one of 70 British veterans from the Second World War who will receive the decoration as part of the D-Day commemorations, said it was "wonderful" to be given the medal. But he added that his memory remained with those who died on the day of the landings, 6 June 1944.

Speaking before he travels to Normandy this week to join the 60th anniversary celebrations, he said: "I always visit some of the graves of my mates. It's sad to think of this. I like going back because I always pay my respects to my friends. My driver was killed. He came from Dundee and he was only 24. The rest of us were knocked about a bit but we managed to hang on."

The bombardier with the 79th Royal Artillery regiment came ashore in the early hours of the landings with the objective of occupying a steeple beyond the front line to act as an observation post for the bombardment of German positions by his unit.

Supporting himself with a walking stick at the ceremony, Mr Wilson was self-effacing about the dangers he and his comrades faced as the Wehrmacht tried to regain the initiative. He said: "The job I did was a terrible job.

"I was an observation post assistant. The first week in Normandy I spent in a church steeple. The Germans knew it was an observation post and it was shot to bits."

The horror of the D-Day landings remains fresh in his memory. He said: "Everyone was scared, but it had to be done. I remember the noise of the guns, shells and men screaming. There were bodies lying everywhere but you couldn't stop to help anyone."

The experience of being under fire from German forces was nothing new for him. As a 13-year-old he witnessed an attack by a Zeppelin airship on Edinburgh's Grassmarket, killing 11 people during the First World War. Five years later he started his first military career by joining the Scottish Horse Guard. After finishing his service in 1930 he had expected his involvement in the Second World War would be on the home front. Instead, he was re-enlisted into the regular forces and fought all the way to Germany.

The Légion d'Honneur is just the latest decoration to be received by Mr Wilson, who was only told last Wednesday that he was to receive the French medal. He also holds the British Military Medal for helping to hold a German village against four counter-attacks.

Gérard Errera, the French ambassador, who was awarding 35 Légions d'Honneur to British veterans yesterday, said the decorations were to "pay tribute to you, whose experience, courage and commitment are honoured today and will stay for ever in our hearts". They are being made Commanders of the Légion d'Honneur, the third highest of the five categories of the decoration, which was created by Napoleon in 1802.

Kenneth Watson, 80, from Hull, another D-Day veteran who received the medal at the ceremony, said his abiding memory of the landings was the carnage of the beach heads. The infantryman from the 12th Ordnance Beach Detachment, said of the decoration: "I consider it an honour not only for myself but also those that didn't make it back."

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