Veteran Royal Marine Ailwyn Stephens receives the Legion d’Honneur
- Credit: Archant
A Royal Marine who is believed to be the first ashore when his Commando unit landed in Normandy on D-Day has been presented with a top French award.
Three hundred people turned out to see Ailwyn Stephens receive the Legion d’Honneur from Deputy Lord Lieutenant Col Roger Herriot, representing the Queen, in a special ceremony in his home village of Pidley.
Mr Stephens, 94, was serving with 48 Commando and was the first Royal Marine in the first landing craft to arrive at Juno Beach at 8.10am on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The honour, the highest the French can offer for military and civilian merit, was opened up to D-Day survivors for their part in the nation’s liberation.
Mr Stephens was also presented with a framed Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife - as used by Commando troops - a model of the Second World War Commando memorial in Scotland and a copy of Hitler’s order that all captured Commandos would be executed.
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Mr Stephens’s unit became the first to touch French soil in the confusion of the landings, arriving ahead of Canadian troops who were supposed to have secured the beachhead.
The Royal Marines then faced “extreme resistance” as they fought their way off the beach and towards their objective.
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During the fighting, Mr Stephens met his brother Herbert, who was serving with 41 Commando, and was able to give him birthday greetings. His brother was wounded and they did not meet again for three years.
The presentation came after local man Gil Boyd, a former paratrooper and police officer, set about getting war medals for five veterans who had not received them.
Mr Boyd said: “Without the sacrifice that these few men made for us on that historic day we would perhaps not be enjoying our freedom.”
He said it had taken almost four years to obtain the Legion d’Honneur and that the process had to be speeded up because of Mr Stephens’ age.
Mr Boyd said: “Ailwyn has always been a very humble man and didn’t want to talk about his experiences.
“But one night my son Tom, who is in 2 Para, was here with some of his mates and, after a couple of pints, he opened up and had them all in tears.”
He said the ceremony had been “special” and that Mr Stephens had not wanted to make a fuss.
Mr Boyd added that another villager, Arnie Beeby, whose medals he helped to obtain, had served with Mr Stephens in 48 Commando but died six years ago before he could receive the award.