A humble Burnley veteran of the D-Day landings says he is only a custodian for his comrades after being presented with France’s top military decoration.
Mr Winston Davidson (91) has been awarded the Légion d’honneur in recognition of the role he played while serving with the Royal Navy in the famous Allied invasion of Normandy in the Second World War.
Winston, who lives in Athol Street South, was a stoker on board landing craft LCT506 which landed Canadian tanks and troops at “Juno” Beach on June 6th, 1944 – part of the biggest seaborne invasion in history.
I met Winston at the small house he has called home for the last 54 years where he proudly showed me his new medal and recounted his remarkable wartime service as if it was only yesterday.
Winston, whose blazer was adorned with his other wartime medals, said: “I am obviously proud to receive this medal, but I didn’t gain this on my own.
“I would like to be the representative of all those men who didn’t make and be the custodian of the medal in their honour.”
Winston, whose bright eyes and sharp memory belie his 91 years, admits he was one of the lucky ones. And it’s not hard to disagree especially as he recounts his part in the historic landings which saw the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
“I will never forget hearing this bump as we approached the beach. It turned out we’d hit a Teller mine which had blown the ramp off our boat and into the air.
“We were transporting Canadian tanks, which obviously couldn’t get off as a result.
“The Canadian commander suggested using a bulldozer on another tank to create a makeshift ramp out of sand.
“By this time, though, the tide had gone out and we had to stay the night.”
Winston then recounted, with astonishing alacrity, how he and a few comrades “went for a walk” on the beach, but soon found a grim reminder of the costs of that day.
“I was walking along and saw a bunch of Canadian soldiers laying down. It was only when I got closer that I realised they had been shot. I then saw my first dead German. He had been shot through the neck. It was terrible to see.”
Another chance encounter drove home to Winston just how close they had been to the enemy when he stumbled upon a German bunker.
“The Germans had obviously got out of there sharpish because there was still shaving foam and wine glasses. I took these and an officer’s jacket with me, but my commanding officer took them from me!”
D-Day was not the end of Winston’s war however.
Indeed, he found himself in an even more perilous situation some months after the Normandy landings when his landing craft was ordered to take part in an attack on German guns at the Walcheren Islands in Belgium.
He said: “We were relatively lucky at D-Day in that we met with little resistance but Walcheren in November was something else, it was hell on earth.
“We were part of an operation to drops off troops and armour designed to knock out these 6in. German guns.
“It was terrifying. A boat 400 yards to our left received a direct hit. It was a rocket ship and so everything went up. It just simply disappeared.
“I’ve only ever been fired on once in my life. I was running down the deck and I could hear and see the bullets.
“I always joke that I saw the bullets twice – once when they went past me and again when I went past them, I was running so quick.”
The Battle of Walcheren Causeway, part of the Battle of the Scheldt, is not an engagement that many people today will be familiar, but it was vital if the success of the D-Day landings was to be recognised.
After the breakout from Normandy by the Allied armies, in August, the German forces held on stubbornly to the French and Belgian English Channel ports.
Antwerp, which had fallen to Field Marshall Montgomery in September, could not be supplied until the German forces holding the lower reaches of the Scheldt, between Antwerp and the North Sea, were removed.
Towards the end of the war, Winston travelled to the southern French port of Bordeaux where he helped to hand over his landing craft to the French.
Ever the opportunist, he spotted that the boat’s White Ensign, the flag of the Royal Navy, was still flying. He took the flag and still proudly looks after it to this day.
Travelling back from Bordeaux, Winston was lucky enough to be in Paris on the city’s first Bastille Day celebrations following liberation.
After the war, Winston returned to a less hazardous civilian life working for Burnley Corporation, living with sweetheart and wife of 68 years, Betty, who died earlier this year.
Winston said: “I’ve had a good life and I’ll never forget my wartime experiences and those we left behind.”
A letter Winston received from the French Government informing him of his award read: “I have the pleasure of informing you that the President of the Republic has appointed you to the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.
“I offer you my warmest congratulations on this high honour in recognition of your acknowledged military engagement and your steadfast involvement in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.
“As we contemplate this Europe of peace, we must never forget the heroes like you, who came from Britain and the Commonwealth to begin the liberation of Europe by liberating France.
“We owe our freedom and security to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your life.”
• The Légion d’honneur) is the highest French order for military and civil merits, established in 1802 by Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte.