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Gunnery heroes of D-Day reunited aboard HMS Westminster

3 November 2016
HMS Westminster LET Ben Walton holds a shell from the RN’s main gun for the past 35 years – the 4.5in – for D-Day veteran gunners Norman Burns and Alfred ‘Alfie’ Booker.

On June 6th – and for some time after – their ship, battleship HMS Ramillies, pummelled Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and the defences beyond with 15in shells.

Indeed, no Allied warship laid down a more ferocious barrage of German positions during the liberation of Normandy.

More than seven decades later, the former shipmates were reunited aboard the frigate to receive France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for their part in freeing the country from Nazi tyranny... and for a combined birthday party organised by the RNRMC.

They are a true inspiration for today’s serving sailors. They have certainly inspired the crew here on HMS Westminster.

Commander Simon Kelly RN

Both former sailors wanted to mark their 90th birthdays in style and the wardroom of the Portsmouth-based Type 23 obliged by hosting a tip-top lunch, with CO Cdr Simon Kelly serving the drinks.

Norman, who lives in Bournemouth, and Alfie from Lichfield, met each other as trainee gunners on the Revenge-class battleship at the age of just 17.

Ramillies was sent to support the Allied invasion first of northern France – her guns were used to subdue the German battery guarding Sword Beach, knocked out in the first 80 minutes of the invasion.

After her stint on the gunline in Normandy, the veteran man o’war moved to the Mediterranean to pound German guns defending Toulon during the operation to liberate southern and central France.

Put in reserve at the beginning of 1945, Ramillies was broken up post war, although one of her 15in gun barrels was salvaged and now greets visitors to the Imperial War Museum in London.

Accompanied by their wives, Betty and Bronwyn, the veterans regaled HMS Westminster’s crew with other wartime dits, occasionally breaking out into song – including the Vera Lynn classic We’ll Meet Again – before being awarded with their medals.

Among the more unusual tales the two former shipmates vividly remember is Ramillies slightly eccentric commanding officer, Capt Gervese Middleton, who wore a piupiu (a Maori grass skirt) throughout the two invasion operations as a good luck charm (it evidently worked, for the battleship came through both operations virtually unscathed).

Alfie’s son Murray said his father thoroughly enjoyed the occasion – and appreciated the hospitality shown by today’s Senior Service.

“Everybody on Westminster really played their part in making their birthday celebrations more than special this is, something that we will remember for the rest of our lives,” he said.

“Lunch in the wardroom was something special, especially when the captain served us drinks.”

Cdr Kelly said: “It’s an absolute honour to present the Legion d’Honneur to two of the nation’s Royal Navy veterans.

“They are a true inspiration for today’s serving sailors. They have certainly inspired the crew here on HMS Westminster.”

Lauren Kempton, RNRMC human resources officer, said that although reunions were not typically part of her charity’s day-to-day work, on this occasion, it was happy to oblige.

“The fact that Norman and Alfie are still friends 73 years since they met as trainee gunners on HMS Ramillies is inspirational. I feel lucky and proud to have been a part of their Birthday celebrations,” she said.

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