D Day veteran receives France’s top honour

Mike  Penning MP with Gadebridge resident Eric  Downing PNL-150709-124356001
Mike Penning MP with Gadebridge resident Eric Downing PNL-150709-124356001

A Gadebridge resident has been awarded France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur.

MP Mike Penning MP visited 91-year-old D ­Day veteran Eric Downing to congratulate him.

President François Hollande announced the awarding of the Legion d’Honneur to all surviving Normandy veterans during the 70th anniversary commemorations of D ­Day on June 6 2014.

Mr Downing was in the 22nd Dragoons, part of the 79th Armoured Division. At just 20 years old, he was one of the first to land at Juno beach in Normandy on D ­Day.

Mr Downing was a gun and wireless operator in a Sherman tank that been specially adapted as a flail-tank, with chains and balls that hit the ground to detonate any mines – creating a clear path up the beach for troops following on behind.

The 79th Armoured Division had a unique role developing specialist equipment to help ground troops get across soft sand and shingle and through beach obstacles and clear mines.

With their un­conventional appearance, they were known as “the Funnies”.

Mr Downing said: “I am overwhelmed to receive this award from the French government. I regret that so many of my contemporaries are no longer around to receive theirs, but it is a great honour and I am very proud.”

Mr Penning, who had personally arranged for the medal to be formally mounted, said: “I congratulate Eric on this honour and I am proud to have been invited to visit him and see the medal for myself and hear his incredible stories.”