The Royal Naval Association (RNA) Torrevieja Branch reflect on the accolade of

Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur

                              conferred on WWII veteran in 2019

It is with immense pride that the RNA Torrevieja branch has amidst its members Joseph Billet, affectionately known locally as “Joe The Cat Man” and a previous Standard Bearer for the RNA Torrevieja Branch for over seven years, who was accompanied by his partner Rose Lyon and his son Jimmy at a ceremony where he was presented with the Medal and award by Colonel Xavier Toutain, the French Military Attaché to Madrid, at The French School of Alicante situated in El Campello on 9th July 2019.

Although the Legion D’Honneur awards are ostensibly for French nationals, other non-French national are recognised for their exceptional contribution to benefiting society and each new cohort tells the richness and diversity of meritorious life paths and depicts the multifaceted contours of French society both civilian and military.

Joe’s award was for the Normandy Landing in June 1944 and he is now a privileged Legion D’Honneur recipient who represent a community of men and women, a reflection of French society and a model for future generations.

Joe’s voyage to this award ceremony started in 2014 and has been arduous and needed persistent fortitude from Joe and Rose, which he has demonstrated throughout his life, when the French government announced that they were to award Normandy veterans the ‘Chevalier de Legion D’Honneur’. 

In August 2016 Joe received an acknowledgment from the British MOD that his previously submitted application form had been approved by the French Government and that he should receive notification from them in about six weeks.

Substantiating any further progress from the British MOD during the succeeding years through numerous phone calls, messages and letters was unfruitful until after lunch at the June 2019  D-Day 75 ceremony on Southsea Common where the French President, Emmanuel Macron, gave a 20 minute personal address to a group of WWII veterans which included Joe and Rose.

In Rose’s words Joe seized this opportunity:

“Joe said to me, now’s our chance to speak to Macron and tell him I haven’t received my medal.  Joe then pushed me to the front of the queue and I explained to President Macron that Joe had been told he was to receive the award but so far this hadn’t happened.  President Macron looked really concerned and said that they took these things very seriously.  He called over his Aides and introduced us to the French Military Attaché to London who gave me his business card and I gave him Joe’s details”.

Subsequently on arriving home after the trip, they received an email from the French authorities telling them that they would be contacted by Colonel Xavier Toutain the French Military Attaché to Madrid and after several successive emails a ceremony was arranged for Joe to be presented with his award. 

At the ceremony Colonel Xavier Toutain the French Military Attaché to Madrid made a speech where he welcomed Joe, his partner Rose, and his son Jimmy and went on to thank various other people for joining them, including individuals in the Spanish and French authorities for enabling and facilitating such a special event.

He also made reference to Joe’s military service with the reason for the award and the following is an extract from his speech:

 

“As French Defense attaché in Spain, I had the privilege to be present at Colleville the last 6th of June, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first Normandy landings, with the French and the United States Presidents. For me, it is a very special place. I don't say that only because I have Normand origins from my father ("Toutain" is indeed a Norman name), or because my wife's family has a house located at the very Omaha Beach, where I'm used to spending some holidays. I think that from these beautiful beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, with their unique sand color, and from these impressive memorials spread all along the coast and fields of Normandy, irradiate a very special spirit, like if we were in harmony with all the young soldiers that gave their lives for our liberty.

The United Kingdom's soldiers, close to the American, Canadian, French and many other ones sacrificed themselves for our values to survive, so that we could build together a better world. On one of these five beaches, Gold Beach to be precise, the morning of this 6th of June 1944, soldiers disembarked from many different kinds of vessels and boats. On one of them, had been sailing from England the young Joseph Billet, a 17 years old assistant steward. And I'm going to recount you a part of his incredible story.

Joseph joined the Merchant Navy as a boy of 15 in 1942 as a trainee steward. He worked aboard various merchant vessels on Atlantic and Mediterranean convoys, and also went to the Middle East to load aviation fuel, and to Far East with supplies for troops in Burma.

In March 1943 Joseph was working aboard the SS Fort a la Corne, taking war material to North Africa for the 8th Army, mainly ammunition. The ship was leaving empty when a U-boat's torpedo sank it, on the 30th of March 1943. Fortunately, all on board were saved except Joseph's cat, Skipper.

I know that many years later, in 1984, Joseph wrote to the commander of the German submarine and they started up a correspondence.

In 1944, Joseph joined the SS Fort Poplar in Newport, South Wales, as assistant steward, and sailed up to Loch Ewe in Scotland, where the ship was transformed in order to carry troops. Then, it was on a bank of the Thames Estuary where the ship's name was changed for a code number and where troops boarded, ready for the Normandy Landings.

On the 5th of June 1944, Joseph and his ship joined the invasion fleet and sailed towards Normandy, where the troops landed, on Gold beach, early on the 6th of June. Then, they went to Saint-Malo where there was a terrible shelling from the ships, especially the HMS Rodney.

Joseph later joined the SS Bunting ll carrying coal back up the river Seine to Rouen, Le Grand-Quevilly and Caen until March 1945.

Leaving the Merchant Navy in 1946, he joined the Army, first in the artillery, then in the Parachute regiment before becoming a Malay Scout serving in the jungles of the British Malaysia until 1953. The Malay Scouts then became the 22 SAS — The Special Air Service.

Joseph got married in 1953 and as his new wife didn't want him away for months or years at a time, he reluctantly left the SAS in 1953 although he did join the Territorial Army for four years until they were disbanded. He is still a member of the SAS Regimental Association, which he joined in 1953.

In his civilian life, Joseph worked in civil engineering as a supervisor on projects in many different countries until retiring to Spain in 1992 where he is a member of both The Royal Naval Association and The Royal Air Force Association, represented today.

What an extraordinary destiny... l'm sure that Joseph could spend hours telling us much more. As his partner Rose told me, he has many tales to tell and always makes them sound like "a boys own adventure". Maybe we'll have the opportunity to learn more about him after the ceremony.

What I can tell you, is that Joseph has been many times recognized for his actions, and was already awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the Atlantic Star with France and Germany bar for Atlantic convoys, the North Africa Star with North Africa bar for Sicily and for Mediterranean convoys, Burma Star for taking petrol supplies to the 14th Army, Defence and Victory Medals, and Malaysian medal for fighting terrorists in the Malaysian jungles when Malaysia was still a British colony. But the French Republic didn't forget him at all. On the 20th of October 2017, the French President awarded him the Legion of Honor. But because of a combination of factors that I cannot explain, I have today the fabulous honor to actually give him this exceptional award. Because, in France, the Legion of Honor is the first decoration in the formal order. It was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to unite the nation around a common ideal of public spirit and individual honor... So l'm very proud to be the young 45 year old (since yesterday) French colonel, who awards the Legion of honor to a 92 year old very fit United Kingdom veteran, whose whole life and multiple commitments for international liberty, especially during the Normandy Landing of June 1944, are the best examples for all of us.

 

Thank you for your attention, and now I'm going to proceed to the presentation of the Legion of Honor”.

Joe and Rose felt very privileged to have been invited to participate in the ‘Voyage of Remembrance’ in June 2019, which was organised by The Royal British Legion to take 300 Normandy Veterans aboard the MV Boudicca ( A Fred Olsen Line cruise ship) for the D-Day 75 commemorations in both Normandy and Southsea and an account of their adventure in Rose’s words can be found on the ‘News’ Tab at the RNA Torrevieja Branch website  www.rnatorrevieja.com 

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Joe Billet WWII Veteran

&

VOYAGE OF REMEMBRANCE 2-9 JUNE 2019

By Rose Lyon

I am the partner of Joseph Billet who is still known locally as ‘Joe, The Cat Man’.  Joe has led quite an adventurous life starting when he joined the Merchant Navy in 1942 at just 15 years of age, on D Day he was working aboard a merchant vessel carrying troops for the landings in Normandy and that is how we came to be part of the Voyage of Remembrance organized by The Royal British Legion for 300 D-Day Veterans each accompanied by a family member or carer. 

 

“It was a truly amazing experience that we feel very

privileged to have been a part of”.

 

The Royal British Legion (RBL) arranged for coaches to collect the veterans from various pick up points and be taken to Dover where there was a welcoming party to greet us including a band , refreshments were served inside the cruise terminal where a duo entertained us singing favourite wartime songs. 

We were soon aboard The MV Boudicca and shown to our comfortable cabin.  After the safety drill we spent the evening having dinner and meeting other veterans, leaving Dover about 9pm and waking up in Dunkirk the next morning. 

 

Bob Gamble, of The Royal British Legion gave us a welcoming talk and what a lovely, down to earth man he is.  There was plenty of RBL staff on board to look after all the veterans and answer any questions. 

Shuttle buses were on the quayside ready to take anyone who wanted into Dunkirk for a look around.  It was a day for relaxing, finding our way around, meeting other veterans and hearing their stories – the Observatory lounge at the top of the ship was a good place for this not least because of the free beer!

 

Overnight we sailed to Poole where The Royal Marines were waiting to greet us on the quayside, all very keen to talk to veterans and show off their modern equipment and weapons.  This was another “relaxing” day to be taken at our own pace in between trips to the dining room for delicious meals!  The veterans were aged from 90 to 101, all very smart wearing their berets and blazers with their unit badges and weighted down with their medals, many of them still quite fit and all happy to share their amazing stories.

 

The next day, the 5th of June we arrived in Portsmouth to attend the big D-Day ceremony on Southsea Common.  As the gangway to leave the ship was quite steep it was decided that every veteran would have to leave the ship in wheelchairs – they said it was for speed!  Several Royal Marines and wheelchairs were on the quayside for this purpose but it was a difficult task taking the men in wheelchairs backwards down the steep slope to disembark.  Anyway, once off the ship we were soon aboard the coaches taking us to Southsea Common where marquees had been set up and refreshments laid on.  There to look after and wait upon us were many service personnel who had all volunteered to look after us for the day, in fact the volunteer posts had been well over subscribed as so many wanted to hear the veterans stories and share the day with them.  We then had a chance to walk around and chat with serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. 

Soon it was time to go into the arena where a large stage was set up.  At the back of the arena set high up was a seating area for veterans and the central part was where all the VIP’s sat including The Queen with Prince Charles, President Trump and his wife Melania, President Macron of France and Theresa May, among others. 

Choirs and bands were each side of the stage then on came the Guards looking magnificent in their red coats and Bearskins, followed by the RAF Regiment and the Royal Navy. 

The story of D-day was told with commentary and pictures after which President Trump came on stage to speak followed by President Macron and then Theresa May.  The last speaker to come on stage was a 99-year-old veteran who was met with outstanding applause. Our Queen did not come on stage but did give a speech saying, “My generation was very resilient.”

Finally, we enjoyed a fly past with the Red Arrows and other planes and helicopters.

We returned to the marquees for lunch followed by a chance to speak with the dignitaries including Theresa May and President Macron before returning to the ship.

 

Setting off for Le Havre later in the evening amid a big flotilla of naval ships, their crews lined up on deck to see us on our way. 

 

The Boudicca docked early next morning and after breakfast we were taken by coach to Bayeux War Graves Cemetery – with a police escort no less. 

Once again marquees had been erected for refreshments but alas no English Breakfast Tea!  The delicious pastries made up in part for that and we settled for coffee or any kind of herbal tea.

After we had all been suitably refreshed it was time to gather around the memorial for the service followed by the laying of wreaths which was all very moving.  This ceremony was attended by Prince Charles with Camilla, Theresa May and President Macron. 

Afterwards we returned to the marquee for lunch and found British soldiers had saved the day by going back to their station for English Tea bags! 

Then it was back to the ship which was staying overnight in Le Havre.

 

The next day was pouring with rain but several of us boarded coaches once more to visit the Beaches.  Our coach first went to Arromanches on Gold beach where the D-Day museum presented all the veterans with a booklet of a hundred euros worth of vouchers to spend in the town and a backpack containing various presents.  By this time it had stopped raining and the sun did try to make an appearance. On the way back we stopped at Sword Beach for a photo opportunity around the memorial.

French people of all ages were very welcoming throughout the trip and came out specially to thank the veterans for “liberating our country”. 

The RBL guide on our coach throughout was Eugenie Brooks and she looked after us particularly well, helping Joe to lay a wreath at Bayeux cemetery.

 

The Boudicca stayed in Le Havre overnight again as a storm was on its way and we set off on Saturday morning for Portsmouth. Later in the morning the Captain decided it was too rough to proceed to Portsmouth as originally planned and we went straight back to Dover where a lot of the townspeople came out to greet us.

 

On the Sunday morning we all returned by coach to our drop off points full of emotions after the busy but wonderful time we’d all had.  The President of RBL boarded each coach before we left to say a few words and wish us Godspeed.

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History of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and the Remembrance Poppy

Armistice Day is always commemorated every year on the 11th November to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and their opponent Germany, at Le Francport near Compiègne in France at 5:45 am, for the cessation of hostilities on land, sea and air on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. 

But, according to Thomas R. Gowenlock, an intelligence officer with the US First Division, shelling from both sides continued for the rest of the day, only ending at nightfall.

The armistice initially expired after a period of 36 days and had to be extended several times. A formal peace agreement was only reached when the Treaty of Versailles was signed following year on 28 June 1919, took effect on 10 January 1920.

The armistice date is a national holiday in France and was declared a national holiday in many Allied Nations.

The first Armistice Day was held at Buckingham Palace, commencing with King George V hosting a "Banquet in Honour of the President of the French Republic" during the evening hours of 10 November 1919. The first official Armistice Day events were subsequently held in the grounds of Buckingham Palace on the morning of 11 November 1919, which included a two-minute-silence as a mark of respect for those who died in the war and those left behind. This would set the trend for a day of remembrance for decades to come.

Similar ceremonies developed in other countries during the inter-war period. In South Africa, for example, the Memorable Order of Tin Hats had by the late 1920s developed a ceremony whereby the toast of "Fallen Comrades" was observed not only in silence but darkness, all except for the "Light of Remembrance", with the ceremony ending with the Order's anthem "Old Soldiers Never Die".

In Britain, beginning in 1939, the two-minute silence was moved to the Sunday nearest to 11 November in order not to interfere with wartime production should 11 November fall on a weekday. This then became Remembrance Sunday.

During World War II, many countries changed the name of the holiday and after the end of World War II, most member states of the Commonwealth of Nations, like the United Kingdom adopted the name Remembrance Day as Canada had in 1931, in order to honour veterans of that and subsequent conflicts.

The United States celebrated Armistice Day on Nov. 11 to mark the end of the war for many years, then in 1954 Congress renamed it All Veterans Day, later shortened to 'Veterans Day', to explicitly honour military veterans, including those participating in other conflicts.

On 11 November 2018, the centenary of the World War I Armistice, commemorations were held globally. In France, more than 60 heads of government and heads of state gathered at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

 

Remembrance Day is held annually throughout the Commonwealth of Nations on the second Sunday in November and is therefore also called Remembrance Sunday, this is the Sunday nearest to the 11th November, which is the anniversary of the end of hostilities in the First World War at 11 a.m. in 1918

A group of people on a city street filled with lots of traffic

Description automatically generatedThe National Service of Remembrance is held annually on Remembrance Sunday at The Cenotaph on Whitehall, London. It commemorates "the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts".

The service has its origins in the 1920s and has changed little in format since. The ceremony has been broadcast nationally by the BBC on radio since 1928 and was first broadcast by the BBC Television Service in 1937.

To open the ceremony, a selection of national airs and solemn music representing each of the nations of the United Kingdom are played by massed bands and pipes. A short religious service is held with a two-minute-silence commencing when Big Ben chimes at 11 O’clock. Following this, wreaths are laid by the Queen and members of the British Royal Family, senior politicians representing their respective political parties and High commissioners from the Commonwealth of Nations. After a short religious service, a march-past of hundreds of veterans’ processes past the Cenotaph.

Remembrance Poppies form part of the wreaths and displays at all Armistice Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies nowadays in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—countries which are part of the British Commonwealth—to commemorate their servicemen and women killed in all conflicts.

 

The remembrance poppy is an artificial flower that has been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel who have died in war, and represents a common or field poppy, Papaver rhoeas. ... Many organisations adopted the poppy as their memorial flower after WWI came to an end and The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is a means to seek financial contributions from the general public in order for The Royal British Legion to provide support and services to UK military serving personnel & veterans and their families.

 

The opening lines of the WWI poem "In Flanders Fields" refers to many poppies growing among the graves of war victims in a region of Belgium. The poem is written from the point of view of the dead soldiers and, in the last verse, the soldiers call on the living to continue the conflict. The poem was written by Canadian physician, John McCrae, on May 3, 1915 after witnessing the death of his friend and fellow soldier the day before. The poem was first published in the London based magazine Punch on the 8th December 1915.

 

 

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

 

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them.

 

NEW STANDARD BEARER FOR RNA

 

Shipmate Bryan Dalton was voted in as the new Standard Bearer for the Royal Naval Association, Torrevieja Branch at their September meeting.  His first official engagement with the Standard was for the Royal Air Forces Association Battle Britain service at La Siesta Church on 15th September when he was unfazed by the torrential rain in Torrevieja that morning, kept calm and carried out his duties admirably.

Bryan, originally from Lincolnshire, joined the Royal Navy as a boy of 15 starting on HMS St Vincent in Gosport and served for twenty five years before retiring from The Royal Navy as a Chief Petty Officer.

The Royal Naval Association, Torrevieja Branch are always ready to welcome new members regardless of whether or not they have served in The Royal Navy.   For more information please call Chairman Paul Edwards on 618644934, Vice Chairman Danny Kay on 966716274 or Secretary Margaret Forshaw on 966921996.  We look forward to meeting you!

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