‘Humble’ Second World War veterans receive Legion d’Honneur

Three Second World War veterans have received France’s highest civilian award, the Legion d’Honneur.

William Allen, who served as a guardsman in the Guards Armoured Division of the Coldstream Guards, Jean Neal, a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, and Keith Whiting, a Royal Marine assigned to HMS Ramillies, were awarded the honours on Armistice Day.

Hosted by French ambassador Catherine Colonna, the ceremony comes during a year which saw the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Second World War.

Ms Colonna, who awarded the honours, opened the ceremony by saying the three veterans were a “perfect example of individuals who deserve our gratitude”.

French ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna makes a speech during a Legion d’Honneur presentation ceremony at the French ambassador’s residence in Kensington Gardens, London
Catherine Colonna during the presentation ceremony at the French ambassador’s residence in Kensington Gardens, London (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mr Allen, who is due to celebrate his 100th birthday in a few weeks, landed in Normandy on August 28 1944 to take part in the advance to Brussels.

Following the ceremony on Monday, he said he was “so proud” to receive the award and commended the local people he met while in France.

“The French people to me are wonderful people,” Mr Allen told the PA news agency.

“They’ve been the battleground of two world wars, they’ve had thousands of people killed, and they’re still wonderful people.

“I hope they never have to fight for their freedom again. I hope they get their freedom forever and ever.”

The 99-year-old, from Leytonstone, east London, visited the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey on Thursday.

French ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna presents William Allen with the Legion d’Honneur, during a ceremony at the French Ambassador’s residence in Kensington Gardens, London
Catherine Colonna presents William Allen with the Legion d’Honneur (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

On meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, he told PA: “I met Prince Harry, he shook my hands and told me he wants to come to my party when I’m 100.

“(Meghan) gave me a cuddle. How many people can say they’ve been cuddled by a princess?”

Mr Allen added: “I have, and I’m so proud.”

Mrs Neal, who worked for the civilian Foreign Office in Bletchley Park from July 1943 to May 1945, referred to her work as “not very exciting”.

“It wasn’t a particularly exciting job in itself, but we did know it was important,” the 98-year-old told PA.

“And at the time of D-Day, it was really important.

“It probably did save the situation. I remember we spent about two days without going to bed, we were all on hand so that every message got dealt with at once.”

Jean Neal after being presented with the Legion d’Honneur during a ceremony at the French ambassador’s residence, in Kensington Gardens, London
Jean Neal was presented with the Legion d’Honneur in London (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mrs Neal, from Middlesbrough, added: “I didn’t do anything to deserve it, I just did my job, but nonetheless I’m very pleased to have (the honour).

“I haven’t had anything from the British government, I can tell you. Not a word from them in the last 50 years!”

Following the ceremony, Ms Colonna praised the veterans for their humble attitude “even though they are heroes”.

“They’re so witty and humble, in a way, even though they’ve been so brave,” she told PA.

Ms Colonna added: “It’s our duty to honour them, in the darkest hours of the war we’ve been able to count on the brave British people.

“The message is we want to remember. We will not forget.”

Mr Whiting, from Northampton, who was joined by his two daughters and their families at the ceremony, was onboard the ship that fired the first shells on D-Day.

Keith Whiting after being presented with the Legion d’Honneur during a ceremony at the French ambassador’s residence in Kensington Gardens, London
Keith Whiting after being presented with the Legion d’Honneur (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

On receiving the honour, the 94-year-old said: “I received this medal, really, for all those brave men and women who took part.

“And also the heroes who didn’t come back, that’s what it brings back to me.”

Since 2014, France has awarded nearly 6,000 medals to veterans of the Second World War in the UK.

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