AS YOUNG men they put their lives on the line to help liberate Europe from the tyrannous Nazi regime.
And yesterday, four Second World War veterans again stood shoulder to shoulder to receive France’s highest military honour for their courage 72 years ago.
The men, now all in their 90s, were presented with the medal after joining a two-minute silence at the Royal Navy’s headquarters on Whale Island marking Armistice Day.
They were awarded the medal by Honorary French Consul Captain Francois Jean, who described them as ‘true heroes’ during the ceremony, in HMS Excellent’s historic Ward Room.
The four veterans were Lieutenant Commander Fredrick Davenport, 95, of Drayton, D-Day veteran Ron Smith, 91, of Rustington, North Atlantic and Normandy veteran Tony Fairminer, 91, of Midhurst, and Andrew Bramley, 93, of Colden Common, who worked as a despatch rider with war correspondents.
Capt Jean said: ‘You are true heroes and will be our heroes forever.
‘We French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom.’
Lt Cdr Davenport laid a wreath during the service in front of hundreds of sailors and Marines at navy headquarters.
The 95-year-old great-grandfather-of-three said: ‘I feel humbled and honoured.
‘I’m not a hero, I’m just an ordinary bloke. It feels fantastic to have been presented with this medal.’
Lt Cdr Davenport – known as Fred to friends and family – joined the navy in November 1940, aged 21.
He was ordered to join HMS Dunnottar Castle in the supply branch. From there he went to serve in HMS Eagle.
On August 11, 1942, he was part of the desperate relief convoy by the Allies to resupply Malta, known as Operation Pedestal.
Eagle was hit by four torpedoes from a U73 and was sunk leaving Fred stranded and treading water for almost four hours, not knowing if he would ever make it home.
He said: ‘I was young and felt invincible. I never really thought about dying,
‘I always thought it would be somebody else.
‘But this was a question of survival. I didn’t want to die and had to survive.’
After being rescued by HMS Laforey, Lt Cdr Davenport went on to serve for the rest of the war in HMS Sirius which went on to take part in the 1944 Normandy and south of France landings, before moving on to the Aegean to help liberate Athens.
HMS Sirius remained in the Mediterranean up to and past the conclusion of the war, leaving in 1946.
Lt Cdr Davenport went on to serve in the Royal Navy until he retired in 1971 from HMS Dolphin at Gosport.
His daughter Elizabeth said it was an amazing experience to see her dad picking up his honour.
She said: ‘I’m very proud of him. He has worked so hard and is very brave.
‘We’re very grateful for all the people who give their lives so that we can have the freedom we enjoy today.’
The men were all brought together as part of Project 71 which aims to support the remaining Normandy veterans.
Commander Steve Shaw, who volunteers with the scheme, said he was humbled by the bravery and courage of the four Second World War veterans.
He said: ‘The veterans were extremely proud and honoured to be recognised in this way. I was delighted to be able to help get this presentation organised – especially on Armistice Day which made their ceremony even more special.
‘It gave us the opportunity to show them how much the country and the Royal Navy cares about them – it gives them a sense of value.’
Two years ago the French government said all servicemen and women involved in the liberation of the country during the war would be presented with the medal. Since then, hundreds of veterans have been honoured.
THREE BRUSHES WITH DEATH
HE ALMOST died three times during the Second World War – his wife was even sent a telegram of his apparent death.
But yesterday Hampshire man Andrew Bramley picked up France’s top military honour for heroism at a ceremony at HMS Excellent, on Whale Island – alive and well.
The 93-year-old of Colden Common, but formerly of Wickham, was a despatch rider with war correspondents.
He survived the D-Day landings, the Battle of the Bulge, the invasion of Holland and helped war reporters tell the tales of the conflict.
Andrew had several close calls with death. On the third day of the Allied invasion, the road he was driving on was bombarded and a shell knocked him off his bike.
Later he almost drowned when his bike was tipped into the water. And while in Holland a land mine blew up in front of the staff car he was following, sending him flying.
When he reported back, his adjutant told him they had already telegrammed his wife that he was dead. He returned home to Wickham four days after she received the telegram – much to her surprise.
‘Being here to receive this medal is an honour,’ he said.
LANDING ON SWORD
HAUNTING memories of being shelled during D-Day will stay with Ron Smith forever.
The 91-year-old was just 19 when he left Gosport to take part in the Normandy landings.
He was a wireman on the LCT-947 when it landed on Sword beach at 7.35am.
From his position he could see the local church in flames as a landing craft next to him exploded when his vessel hit the shore.
While his craft was off-loading her cargo of two tanks and four armoured vehicles, one of the tanks was hit by an 88mm shell causing it to block the ramp.
‘I’ll never forget it,’ he said. ‘It was tremendously loud.’
After retreating, Ron returned to Normandy four days later – only to be injured when his craft was sunk by a German mine.