Sixty years on, France honours the seven D-Day heroes who saved 2,700 of its men

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By Cahal Milmo

Seven war veterans who among them helped rescue 2,700 French soldiers in the Libyan desert and led the assault on the D-Day beaches were formally thanked yesterday for their part in the liberation of France.

By Cahal Milmo

Seven war veterans who among them helped rescue 2,700 French soldiers in the Libyan desert and led the assault on the D-Day beaches were formally thanked yesterday for their part in the liberation of France.

More than 60 years after their extraordinary endeavours, the British soldiers, now aged between 79 and 85, were awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French ambassador at a ceremony in London. The medals are the first of 70 awards being made by France to British veterans ahead of the 60th commemoration of the D-Day landings in two weeks.

The men honoured yesterday, many great-grandparents whose families were with them, went on to careers ranging from a university librarian to a London bus conductor.

But Alexander Barron, 82, who as a lieutenant in the 114th Armoured Regiment landed on Sword Beach on D-Day, said he considered his award, the highest for bravery in France, to be for his comrades who died.

After the ceremony at Admiralty House in Whitehall, Mr Barron said: "I'm proud of all of us but I'm most proud for the people who did not come back. I feel very, very lucky. Warfare is full of accidents; it never goes according to plan; you just don't know what will happen."

The awards marked the bravery of soldiers who served in and with Free French forces in theatres from Normandy to Morocco and Italy to Libya.

Nominated by British veterans' associations, the seven men share breathtaking feats of bravery, ranging from a 19-year-old radio operator who steered his badly damaged torpedo boat and wounded crew to safety, to the young major who led a desert convoy through enemy lines to a besieged French garrison.

Gerard Errera, the French ambassador, said: "It's a day ... where we pay tribute to those men and women who gave their lives, and fortunately some who are still with us today, for what is the most important thing in human life, freedom. We will never forget what Britain has done for this fight for freedom."

The ceremony was also attended by another veteran, Patrick Churchill, 80, who was a Royal Marines commando in the Normandy landings. Mr Churchill, decorated for gallantry in a battle with German SS to take Antwerp, has been selected to receive his Legion d'Honneur from the French President, Jacques Chirac, at the commemoration of D-Day on 6 June. He will be with his German-born wife, who survived the carpet bombing of Dresden by the RAF.

The seven honoured veterans

Tom Bird

When he was asked to relieve the besieged French garrison at Bir Hakeim near Tobruk, it was just one of several perilous endeavours that Major Bird was to face in the depths of the North African desert.

At the head of a column of 25 lorries carrying food and ammunition, it was his task to break through German lines in June 1942 at a crucial stage in the battle for North Africa.

The officer of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade of the British Eighth Army managed to pick a route through minefields to reach the citadel. But his mission was not over. On the night of 10 June, the commanding officer of the French garrison, General Koenig, combined with the British force to stage a break-out.

A total of 2,700 men were rescued through minefields and enemy fire.

For Major Bird, 85, from Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, who went on to become an architect, the Légion d'Honneur is the latest addition to an already exceptional collection of medals.

The grandfather of seven holds the Distinguished Service Order and two Military Crosses for a career which included capturing 2,000 Italian prisoners of war in a single day and helping destroy General Erwin Rommel's counter-assault at El Alamein.

Percy Redfern

As one of the first British soldiers to land on Gold Beach on D-Day, Mr Redfern took part in the hazardous but vital operation to clear mines from the shore and roads ahead of the Allied armours' spearhead pressing into Normandy.

The 79-year-old former garage manager, from Macclesfield, Cheshire, then fought with the British Army across France.

Dennis Cox

As a university librarian and submariner, the contrast between Mr Cox's peacetime and wartime careers could not have been greater.

The now 83-year-old worked as a liaison officer on a French submarine from 1943, patrolling the Mediterranean to intercept German supply vessels and help prevent German U-boats from trying to penetrate British defences at Gibraltar.

The now retired librarian, who worked at Leeds University, said yesterday: "I think if you think of all those people in the East End of London being bombed by the German aircraft, they had a much harder time."

Gordon Fleming

It was 8.30am on 6 June 1944 when Gordon Fleming and the British 6 th Commando landed on Sword Beach at the start of the D-Day landings.

Within hours, the commandos were engaged in the fierce battle for control of Pegasus bridge - a vital crossing to allow Allied armour to break out from the beach heads into Normandy.

A fortnight later, Mr Fleming, now a 79-year-old grandfather of four, was badly wounded at the town of Gonneville and was evacuated back to Britain. According to military records, he "hovered between life and death" for weeks. As he received his Legion d'Honneur yesterday, the former solicitor from Brighton said: "I feel I am accepting this on behalf of all those that did not return, very much the rank and file rather than the higher ups, as I was a trooper."

Frank Jones

As a teenage radio operator, Mr Jones was seconded to the Free French naval forces in May 1941.

At the age of 19, the naval rating single-handedly saved the crew of his torpedo boat by steering it back to England from France after all his comrades were killed or injured by German bombs.

Mr Jones, now 83, from Sutton-on-Sea, Lincolnshire, went on to serve 65 missions off the enemy coast by the end of the war.

Charles Kennedy

While his compatriots were battling through northern France, Mr Kennedy was fighting with the French First Army in Provence. It was during the battle for the port of Marseille that he excelled.

In an American Jeep he sped across enemy lines to evacuate two wounded French comrades.

Mr Kennedy, 83, a retired London bus conductor, spent most of the war fighting alongside the French in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Italy.

Alexander Barron

When Mr Barron landed at Sword Beach on D-Day with the 114th Armoured Regiment, his superiors did not rate his chances of survival. But Mr Barron, 82, a former dean of Napier University, and his unit pursued Nazi forces across France until the end of the war.