IT’S France’s highest honour, an award William Gray will wear with pride at the Remembrance Service next Sunday when he lays a wreath at the foot of the 23rd Hussars memorial in Bridlington.
This week the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur came through the post for the former tank driver - and by coincidence his co-driver - to mark the part they played in the liberation of France back in 1944.
A long and action-packed life, which has involved brushes with the London Underworld when he was a Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police he has survived being shot at on the streets of London - as well as being blown up more than once in his tank.
The 92-year-old, who lives in Flamborough, East Yorkshire, where his co-driver Frank Hicks also lives, is telling his story in the hope that the younger generation will “take up the flame” and continue the memory of the 23rd Hussars, which was raised in 1940 in the Second World War, and disbanded six years later.
Mr Gray arrived with the regiment in Normandy on June 16 1944 with Sherman tanks - the Germans called them Tommy Cookers while the British called them Ronson: “Lights first every time”.
The regiment lost many tanks in Normandy. In just the first week they lost two Crusaders, three Stuarts and 12 Shermans. Drivers trapped inside often resorted to a bullet in the brain; the men that did escape were often on fire as they ran. But they also had many successes - including helping finish off the remains of the German Luftwaffe by bringing down a Messerschmidt 109 and a Focke Wulf 190.
Mr Gray faced the most ferocious attacks on the Normandy front in Operations Epsom, Goodwood and Bluecoat before the Germans were on the run through the Falaise Gap.
After pursuing the enemy across Normandy the regiment crossed the Seine on August 28, liberating Amiens on September 1 and Antwerp, Belgium on September 4. During Operation Market Garden they were up parallel with the road to Arnhem “Hell’s Highway”, protecting the right flank of the British 30th Corps when he took a direct hit from a German 88m gun.
He had a split-second view of the red-hot shot hurtling down the middle of the road, tried to turn, and then heard a “terrific explosion: a shower of sparks, smoke and dust that clouded my eyes as I screamed, ‘Bale Out’.”
It was one of several near-death experiences - he also got blown up in a Dutch minefield. He said: “The Shermans were death traps; once struck, they lit up and exploded. I was blown up two or three times and survived. I lived a charmed life in certain ways.”
After the War, he joined the police and was stationed at Bethnal Green police station, near where the infamous Kray brothers lived. In fact he had a beer at the Blind Beggar pub half an hour before the twins audaciously murdered a criminal in the saloon bar in 1966. “The older brother was there Charlie - he was very friendly with the publicans. It was a pure chance I went in there but I went in and had a beer on the way back to the nick. I went back to Bethnal Green police station and there was a call to say there had been a murder. We knew who had done it - but proving it is a different thing.”