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Naval hero presented with historic D-Day chart to mark 100th birthday

Naval hero presented with historic D-Day chart to mark 100th birthday
2 February 2024
Topic:
What do you give a D-Day naval veteran to celebrate his 100th birthday (aside, of course, from a card from the King and Queen).

How about a replica of the chart he used on that fateful June morning in 1944 when he safely delivered US troops on to the hostile Normandy shore.
As a 20-year-old, Lieutenant Richard Willis was second in command of a landing craft tasked with landing Americans on what was designated Utah beach – at the southern foot of the Cotentin peninsula in the western Seine Bay.

The landings at Utah – unlike the American assault at nearby Omaha Beach which turned into a bloodbath – encountered some of the weakest German resistance on D-Day.

But Lt Willis was nevertheless wounded in the attack – shrapnel was embedded in his leg; the former officer keeps a photograph of being carried ashore by stretcher bearers to this day.

And now there’s another permanent reminder of June 6 1944 in his flat at Nynehead Court Care Home, near Wellington.

The team at the UK Hydrographic Office in nearby Taunton dug around in their archives and found the charts of Utah – drawn up by their predecessors eight decades ago – and reproduced one for the Vice-Lieutenant of Somerset, Ted Allen, and Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, UKHO Chief Executive to present to the 100-year-old.

And as with most members of our ‘greatest generation’, the retired naval officer was rather surprised by all the fuss.

 

“I'm not sure what I've done to deserve this,” he said, playing down his role 80 years ago. “I was just there. But D-Day was an experience I will never forget.'
The chart – once labelled Top Secret – was inscribed: “Presented to Lieutenant Richard Willis…on the occasion of his 100th birthday. With the thanks and admiration of the Lord-Lieutenant and the people of Somerset.” It joins the Legion d'Honneur, presented by the French Government, as one of the sailor’s most treasured possessions.

“Landings onto opposed beaches are amongst the most dangerous combat experiences in any conflict,” said Admiral Sparkes.

“The fact that D-Day landings were successful changed the course of World War 2. The sacrifices made in those days should never be forgotten. To honour one of our local veterans in this way is really the least we could do.”

Mr Allen added: “It’s an honour for me to be here to celebrate the milestone birthday of a remarkable man. The country owes all our veterans an enormous debt of gratitude and it was a joy for me to be able to express that gratitude on behalf of His Majesty.”

Two other former senior military officers – Rear Admiral Ian Moncrieff and Brigadier Richard Toomey, both Deputy Lieutenants in Somerset – were also present at the birthday celebrations.

After leaving the Royal Navy, Mr Willis became a professional artist and his work – particularly in maritime art – has been highly acclaimed.

Much of his work was influenced by his wartime experiences and he was the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1942.


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