France’s top honour

JOHN Coles drove ashore in Normandy as part of the Allied invasion force in June 1944 and survived the campaign which forced the Nazis to surrender and end the Second World War.

Seventy-four years later, as he approaches his 100th birthday, he is being honoured by France with its highest accolade, recognising the part he played in that country’s liberation.

John Coles with (from left) son-in-law Richard Griffiths, great-grandson Thomas, granddaughter Anna Martin, daughter Pru and great-grandson James

John, who lives in White Rose Lane, Woking, has been awarded the Légion d’honneur, a welcome bonus for someone who devoted six-and-a-half years of his life to war service.

John, who is 100 on Thursday next week, was called up as a Territorial Army member three days before war was declared in September 1939. His service with the 4th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment took him to Gibraltar, North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy and then to France.

As a transport officer, he had a vital part to play in keeping supplies flowing to the fighting troops, which included regiments in the famous 8th Army under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, known as Monty.

“We were due to go to France on D-Day plus three, but Monty needed the landing craft we were due to sail in to take more tanks over,” said John. “Our lorries landed at Arromanches on D-Day plus six, and we were soon driving across France, keeping up with the fighting.”

John was initially posted as a sergeant to Gibraltar, where he spent two years as part of the British garrison. He came back to the UK in 1943 for officer training – where he met and married the woman who was to be his wife of 70 years.

Nancy Storey was the friend of a fellow sergeant’s wife in Newcastle. She was shown a photograph of John with his colleague and later said she instantly knew he could be the “man for her”.

John was equally attracted by Nancy when they met while he was on leave. He proposed and they were soon married.

Back on the European mainland as a lieutenant, he was part of the Allied army which fought across France, Belgium and Germany to Berlin – where he made a memorable visit to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s office, the Reich Chancellery.

“I saw a pile of Iron Cross medals on a table and took a handful as souvenirs,” said John. “I’ve also got some of Hitler’s headed notepaper, signed by him and ready for his staff to send out orders.”

He was demobbed from the Army in February 1946, after being part of the Allied occupation force in Berlin and went back to his pre-war career with the National Provincial Bank.

His career had started in Newquay, Cornwall, as a clerk in 1934 and he retired as manager of the Penzance branch of NatWest in 1976.

John and Nancy came to Woking after she became ill and needed constant care. He went to live with their daughter Pru Griffiths and her husband Richard and Nancy moved to a nursing home. She died in 2013 at the age of 92.

They had two daughters, Pru and Judith, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

During their years together, John and Nancy shared a passion for caravanning. “We spent our holidays travelling around Europe in May and June each year and then we toured in Great Britain in September,” said John. “We had some wonderful times.”

He is now looking forward to a big family party to celebrate his centenary and, of course, the receipt of his Légion d’honneur.

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