Ninety six year old Joseph Thomas, who helped liberate southern France as a teenager, has received France’s highest honour this lunchtime.
In a ceremony at Salford Civic Centre, Mr Thomas, from Pendlebury, was presented with the Legion d’Honneur by the French Consul Monsieur Rodolphe Soulard. It is the highest honour the French government can confer on a foreign national.
Monsieur Soulard said it was a great honour and pleasure for him make Mr Thomas a Chevalier or Knight of the Order and that France would never forget the courage and sacrifice of those who helped liberate France.
“You are a living witness to the history you wrote on our soil, a history which shaped the identity of Britain and France. You are a great example for me, for young people, for our countries and for Europe. The Nazis tried to eliminate freedom but did not reckon with the incredible strength of women and men,” he said.
Councillor Karen Garrido, the Ceremonial mayor of Salford who hosted the ceremony, said Mr Thomas was a worthy recipient of such an honour.
Mr Thomas, who was surrounded by family and friends, said it was a great privilege to receive the medal
“I feel both humble and sad that so many of my comrades paid the ultimate price in trying to liberate the people of France. I feel grateful that what was achieved then has brought lasting peace over the last 70 years. Life lived in peace and freedom is a precious gift,” he said.
Mr Thomas took part in the less well-known Operation Dragoon which followed the famous Normandy landings in the summer of 1944. Both operations were originally planned to run simultaneously but Dragoon was cancelled due to lack of resources.
However after over two million men successfully landed in Normandy in June, the French High Command pushed for Operation Dragoon to go ahead. It was approved in July to be executed in August to secure vital ports on the French Mediterranean coast and increase pressure on the German forces by opening another front.
Hindered by total Allied air superiority and a large-scale uprising by the French Resistance the German forces were swiftly defeated enabling the Allies to liberate southern France in just four weeks.
Mr Thomas joined the Royal Navy in 1943, aged 18 and was assigned to Chatham Naval Base. He was sent on exercise in the North Sea off Scapa Flow, Orkney and then to the Mediterranean to escort the Malta and Gibraltar convoys and support the Italian campaign.
His landing craft was then involved in bombarding the southern coast of France near Marseille in preparation for the Dragoon landings in August. Both Dragoon and the Normandy landings are credited with hastening the end of the war in Europe.
Mr Thomas then set sail for the Far East to join the invasion fleet heading for Japan but the Hiroshima bombing ended the need for the invasion. Instead his craft was diverted to evacuate women and children from Batavia (now Jarkarta, Indonesia) from the war zone to Royal Navy cruisers. He returned to Scotland at the end of the war and was demobbed from there in 1945.