LEGION D’HONNEUR (UK NORMANDY VETERANS) – 21 July 2015

Dr Julian Lewis: I beg to move:

That this House has considered the administration of the award of the Légion d’Honneur to UK Normandy veterans.

It is a great pleasure to bring this subject before the House. It did not come as a complete surprise to me that this admirable scheme, in which the French Government have offered to award surviving veterans – not only from D-Day, but from the subsequent campaigns to free France from Nazi occupation – has run into a little administrative difficulty. I hope that the Minister will give us a hopeful sign that the glitches and delays that have temporarily marred a brilliant scheme and a wonderfully generous gesture by the French Government can soon be overcome.

It was some years ago that some Normandy veterans had the opportunity to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur. I have in mind a remarkable gentleman, Bill Price, who will be 101 this Friday. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and served throughout World War II. On D-Day, he was manning an anti-aircraft gun aboard a ship at Sword Beach. He was given his award under a different scheme a few years ago; but it was in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, that the Government of France made it clear that all surviving veterans of the landings, and of the subsequent campaigns to give France back her freedom, would be honoured in this way.

Bob Stewart: Does that apply to people in the Office of Strategic Services and to American forces? Does it apply to Canadian forces?

Dr Lewis: My understanding is that it does indeed apply to nationals of other countries, too. I suspect that there has been a bit of underestimation on the part of the French authorities, bearing in mind that most of the people involved would be in their 90s – the authorities probably underestimated the strength and resilience of the sort of people who stormed ashore on D-Day and battled their way through France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. The fact that we are dealing with some particularly formidable individuals means that there may be rather more nonagenarians left to claim the award than had originally been anticipated.

To its credit, when the Ministry of Defence prepared the application form for these awards, it did so in a straightforward, simple way: it is a single sheet of paper that asks for certain basic details and for a short paragraph justifying the reason for the award. However, some 3,000 applications have been submitted from the United Kingdom alone, and that is where problems have arisen.

The indication that all might not be well came in a letter from the Defence Minister in the upper House, Lord Astor of Hever, who stated in The Times on 19 November 2014:

"The MoD is undertaking administrative work on each application before forwarding it to the French Embassy. Extra staff have been allocated in order to process most applications by the end of the year. We would have preferred to have completed this work more quickly but we must respect the terms under which the French confer this award."

Jim Shannon: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. As the Member of Parliament for Strangford in Northern Ireland, I am obviously keen for those from Northern Ireland to be recognised. Sometimes those who served are unassuming, although never shy; they may not necessarily wish to register. Have efforts been made to chase up all those people who might otherwise miss out? Many people in the Republic of Ireland, although of a different religious persuasion and tradition, served in uniform in the Second World War. What efforts have been made to ensure that they are also included?

Dr Lewis: The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I definitely think that it is up to the individual to make the application, wherever they may now be residing. The Normandy Veterans Association, which was recently formally wound up, had membership lists, where records existed. However, there is no way of getting a comprehensive list because tens of thousands of people would qualify if they were still with us today. What has happened, therefore, is that the authorities – particularly the Ministry of Defence – have been doing a very good job of making the application process perfectly straightforward and the scheme well known, so that people know how to apply. There are no complaints about that.

Bob Stewart: I thank my very good friend for giving way. There is a problem with the special forces, with which I have quite a lot of dealings. It is that the Jedburgh teams of the Special Operations Executive, and 1 SAS, in particular – I have met a couple of them – are quite under the cover and remain under the cover. I have been encouraging them to come forward and get their names in, but there are still problems and people are still coming out of the woodwork. The Jedburgh teams, the SOE, 1 SAS and other special forces must be encouraged as well.

Dr Lewis: These people, who went behind the lines in advance of everyone else, are the bravest of the brave. They also take their obligations of confidentiality most seriously.

Bob Stewart: Very seriously.

Dr Lewis: I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend agrees. Those special forces members should really put this aside now; they are in their 90s, after all. We can say to them, "It’s okay, fellas! Come forward and get the public acclamation that you deserve." Of course, I am sure that privately they know how much their brilliant, courageous activities are appreciated.

A spate of reports over the intervening months has suggested that there have been hold-ups and delays. A report in The Times in November 2014 stated:

"The MoD and French Embassy in London said there had been ceremonies held in London for the award. Both said the level of interest had been higher than anticipated."

The same report quoted Margaret Dickinson, a lady of 92:

" 'I was all ready to go to London ... Then I got a letter saying that the weather was too bad. They said they thought it would be too bad for a lot of people. I was taken aback. The weather was not that bad.' "

All I can say is that it is just as well that the people organising that ceremony, who were put off by a minor inconvenience such as a rainy day, were not in charge of organising the Normandy landings. Before anyone intervenes, I should say that I know that the invasion was postponed by 24 hours because of bad weather, but I do not think the problem in London was quite on the same scale – and it did not justify postponing that ceremony.

I know that colleagues wish to contribute, so in the time remaining I shall mention a few individuals, to give the House a sense of the people we are dealing with and why it is so important that the French authorities, having made this wonderful gesture with the support of the British authorities, do not now turn a good news story into a catalogue of disappointment.

From my family’s own circle of friends, I know of Sergeant Peter Carne, Royal Engineers, who landed on Juno Beach on 8 June 1944. He was primarily tasked with constructing Bailey bridges to enable vehicles to break out of the beachhead. Peter will be 93 in two days’ time. As it happens, he is in very good health; indeed, he often gives talks about the landings and would relish coming to London or even going to France for an investiture. He sent his form electronically to the MoD on 9 February this year. So far, he has had no receipt and the MoD apparently cannot confirm whether it has passed the form on to the French.

Kirsten Oswald: Cannot people such as the brave gentleman to whom the right hon. Gentleman is referring get some kind of reassurance that the system is working? Many people in the situation we are discussing will be reluctant to chase things up because of their character – they might feel that they are being a nuisance. If there was some kind of confirmation for them that things will be progressed, that would be terribly helpful.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Lady makes an important point. As will emerge from my other examples, people have for the most part had confirmation, but the fact that some have not is a cause for concern. I thank her for that helpful intervention.

Retired Royal Marine Stephen Roche, who is Peter’s son-in-law, has contacted the French embassy several times. He has been promised a reply, but none has ever come. I will give a few more cases from the recently closed New Forest Branch (No. 70) of the Normandy Veterans Association. I am particularly obliged to Roy Tamplin, who at the grand age of 91 has meticulously prepared many of the personal details that follow. Roy’s own contribution was as a lance-corporal in the Royal Air Force. He began as part of the ground crew in the network of New Forest airfields, preparing the aircraft to cover the initial landings. On 17 June, he and his comrades were shipped by landing craft to Gold Beach, from where they moved to a forward airfield near Caen to act as a staging post for the Hampshire-based squadrons. Roy survived all that, and campaigns in Belgium and Holland too. His application was made in August 2014 and acknowledged by the MoD on 15 December 2014. It was confirmed that the application had been sent to the French Government, but nothing more has been heard for more than six months.

Another RAF veteran is former Warrant Officer George Heaton, who is also 91. George was an air gunner in a Halifax bomber. D-Day began just a little early for him when he was shot down on the night of 3/4 June while attacking targets in the Normandy region. Rescued by the French Resistance, George evaded capture and eventually made it home. His application on 1 August 2014 was not confirmed as having been sent to the French until 19 March this year, more than seven months after the application was made.

I turn to the Senior Service. Able Seaman Sidney Slatter, 91, served on the battleship Ramillies on D-Day itself, bombarding shore batteries and other targets in the vicinity of Bénouville with 15-inch shells, as well as tank formations later on. Sidney’s form was sent in August last year and was confirmed as processed and sent on by the MoD in December – since then, not a word. Sadly, Sidney’s wife died earlier this week, so she will not be seeing his award.

Veteran Ted Kingswell was an infantryman who landed on 6 June and went on to fight at Nijmegen in Operation Market Garden. Ted is now confined to a care home, but is known to have applied and received an MoD acknowledgement. Two days after Ted fought his way ashore, Rifleman Fred Newman landed on Gold Beach. He took part in the long, hard slog through France and into the heart of Germany. Fred is now 93 and has a letter dated 15 December last year confirming that his application had been forwarded to the French. That was seven long months ago.

Then there are the artillerymen, such as Staff Sergeant William Chick, who fought in Normandy and later at Arnhem. Gunner Ivor Hopkins was at Caen, Falaise and later in Holland and Germany. The one I know best is the baby of the team, at only 90 years old. Gunner Tony Mott was recommended for an award at the time for his exploits, but nothing happened. It would be a pity if he were disappointed for a second time in relation to the Légion d’Honneur. Tony served with the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery and was a 19-year-old motorcycle dispatch rider when he came ashore at Arromanches towards the end of June. A few weeks later, he and his sergeant went out under shellfire to repair breaks in the cable to D Battery. Sent to Battery Headquarters with a report, Tony was stopped by a civilian in great distress – many civilians had been wounded by German shellfire. As soon as he had delivered the message, he alerted the local doctor. That enabled help to be got to save the lives of those injured civilians; all the telephone lines had been knocked out, so otherwise they would have received no medical help. Tony’s form was sent on 3 July 2014. It was acknowledged in August or September 2014, but further queries on his place and date of birth were made as recently as March 2015. He is still waiting to know whether his award will be made.

Finally, I have been asked by the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker), who cannot be here today, to raise the case of one of his constituents. Mr Geoffrey Noble applied for his medal in June 2014 and has still heard nothing. Despite my hon. Friend’s writing to the Ministry of Defence and the French Embassy several times on Mr Noble’s behalf, he is still waiting to hear. My hon. Friend’s office tells me:

"Mr Noble is not a well gentleman, is very frail and suffers, amongst other things, from heart failure. He is anxious as he knows that the medal is not awarded posthumously."

With that in mind, can the cases involving particularly frail individuals be given priority? If they can, how do we let the Ministry know of the urgency of those cases?

I know that others wish to speak, so I will close with a final comment. Given his exemplary record of service in the Armed Forces, the Minister is ideally placed, if anyone is, to ensure that the scheme works and that these people – not superheroes, but ordinary people doing extraordinary things in highly dangerous circumstances – reap the belated benefit of a generous gesture by the French authorities. Let us now ensure that heads are knocked together and that the process is sped up in time for these 90-year-olds to receive the award – one that they so richly deserve and for which they have been encouraged to apply.

[Daniel Zeichner: I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing the debate and thoroughly endorse all his comments. My attention was brought to this issue by my constituent, Ken Bright, whom I met a few weeks ago with his wife, Bunnie. He is a sprightly 92-year-old and another great D-Day veteran. Ken and Bunnie are ever so keen that the medal be passed on to their 14 great-grandchildren. Sadly, many of his colleagues are no longer with us and one of his comrades from Cambridge died just a few weeks ago. The urgency is absolutely clear. I appreciate that hard-pressed civil servants are doing all they can, but I urge the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that the issue is resolved speedily.

Gareth Johnson: I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate. He is right to bring to the House’s attention the individual cases that he mentioned. If I may do something similar, I will mention a constituent of mine by the name of Ronald Perry. He lives in Wilmington. His son contacted me about his application, which was submitted some four months ago. I had the honour of meeting Mr Perry and discussing some of his activities in Normandy during the Second World War. He was a member of the 7th Battalion the Parachute Regiment. He landed with 649 of his colleagues on D-Day and took part in the fighting there over the subsequent months. Remarkably, of the 650 men who landed as part of that regiment, only 96 came back without being injured, being captured or losing their life. That says something about the huge sacrifice that took place on the beaches of Normandy, and in the subsequent battles, and about the debt we owe those people.

I briefly pay tribute to the French Government for bestowing these honours on our war heroes. I ask the Minister to look at Ronald Perry’s case to see whether his application can be expedited so that he can get the recognition that he so thoroughly deserves.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mark Lancaster): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on securing this debate and, of course, on his election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. As we have heard this morning, he and other hon. Members are rightly passionate about this subject, as indeed are veterans and their families. Those who fought so valiantly to help free France from the grip of Fascist tyranny, those who put their life on the line, deserve to be honoured, and this morning I hope to be able to offer them the reassurance that they seek.

It is fair to start by acknowledging President Hollande’s decision last year, 70 years on from the great D-Day battles on the beaches of Normandy, to award the Légion d’Honneur to all living veterans of the campaign to liberate France, which began on 6 June 1944. The Légion d’Honneur is the highest state honour that France can bestow, and it remains an extremely generous gesture. Since then, as we have heard, there has been a series of regrettable delays. My intention this morning is not to apportion blame, but simply to try to ensure that we move forward positively and constructively so that these awards can be presented as soon as possible. There are two principal reasons for the delays, and it is right that I should explain them because veterans will want to know why.

The first reason is unexpected demand. Based on the numbers who expressed an interest in attending the anniversary events in Normandy, it was estimated that only a few hundred people would apply. A single MoD official was therefore assigned to deal with the applications. In the event, as we have heard, more than 3,000 applications were received, and more are coming in all the time. I am truly delighted that such large numbers of UK D-Day veterans have come forward to accept this prestigious honour, yet the response was far greater than anyone on either side of the Channel predicted. In the autumn of 2014, we increased the number of people working on the scheme, which meant that, by the end of 2014, more than 2,500 applications had been processed and sent to the French authorities for a final decision on the award, but those UK applications alone accounted for a larger total than the French authorities would expect to deal with for all categories of the Légion in any single year under normal circumstances. We must also keep in mind that those are just the UK applications. To answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) directly, the United States, Canada and other Allied nations have also been applying. It is easy to see how such an overwhelming volume of work seriously stretched the resources of the French authorities.

The second reason for the delays is sheer complexity. After all, not everyone who served in World War II is entitled to a Légion d’Honneur. The award is not comparable to a campaign medal, which can be handed out relatively quickly; it is an honour, and our nearest comparison is the OBE. There is a defined legal process to be followed, and each individual case must be cleared in accordance with the appropriate procedures laid down in French law.

Bob Stewart: My intervention will be very short. Does Her Majesty the Queen recognise that the Légion d’Honneur is one of the medals that can follow on from presumably British campaign medals and be worn on the chest with pride?

Mark Lancaster: Absolutely, and of course the regulations for wearing the Légion d’Honneur without Her Majesty’s permission apply only to serving soldiers, so no permission will be required for these veterans.

Once received, the French rightly and legally have a duty to ensure that each nomination receives an appropriate level of scrutiny. I am most grateful to the French authorities for the sensitive way in which they have ensured that the most pressing cases are handled first, such as those of veterans who are about to become centenarians or who are seriously ill – more of that in a moment. None the less, the process takes time. There is an additional complicating factor because, sadly, some veterans passed away after applying. In that regard, the French approach to honours parallels that of the UK. Awards are not made posthumously, hence the urgency, unless the recipient dies between the approval of their individual award and the date of its presentation.

Delays might be understandable for the reasons I have outlined, but I make it clear that that does not make them acceptable, especially not to the families and veterans concerned. One can entirely understand the hurt and upset caused to those still awaiting an outcome, but we are determined to remedy the situation. Our defence and diplomatic staff in London and Paris, alongside their French counterparts, have improved the assurance process for checking bona fides, thereby speeding up applications. To assist the Légion authorities further, we are resubmitting all cases in which awards have not already been made at an agreed rate of 100 a week to avoid over-taxing the system. We hope that those cases will be approved within about three weeks. We fully expect that process to result in a regular flow of awards. Although it will take some time to clear the backlog, we hope to reassure all applicants that the majority of veterans should receive honours this year.

Having spoken to veterans and read the large volume of correspondence received by my Department on this issue, I am under no illusion about the stress and frustration caused by the delays, but we are trying to put right what was wrong.

Kirsten Oswald: Will the Department consider advising veterans of when their case will be resubmitted in order to assure them that there will be progress on this important honour?

Mark Lancaster: We have already received many submissions, and we are now processing 100 applications a week. We have flexibility within the system to fast-track applications where we feel that there is a particular need. Of course, the whole cohort of veterans who are receiving this award are, by definition, elderly and potentially infirm, but we accept that some applications are more urgent than others. I encourage anyone – either veterans themselves or hon. Members – who feels that a particular case should be fast-tracked to contact the MOD. I will read out the e-mail address, which I am sure will magically appear in Hansard: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Fear not, that address will be in Hansard. If people contact us directly to suggest an application that needs to be fast-tracked, I will ensure that the Department does just that, because I recognise that time is of the essence.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East kindly highlighted, I have a particular interest in this subject, and I am determined to assure hon. Members that I will keep a very close watch on the process and do all I can to ensure a speedy resolution by working closely with our French colleagues. We are determined that those who have given their all for their country receive the honour that they are rightfully due.

Question put and agreed to.]

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