A 90-year-old war veteran has been presented with France’s highest military honour for his service to the country during the D-Day landings in 1944.
Bill Speake, a resident at Glanenig Care Home in Talgarth, near Brecon, received the rank of Chevalier in the Légion d’honneur – a highly-regarded military decoration usually reserved for the country’s own citizens – at a formal ceremony in the National Assembly Wales building in Cardiff.
The ceremony, which saw 12 Welsh war veterans presented with Légion d’honneur medals, was the latest in a series that have taken place since the 70th anniversary of D-Day when French President Francois Hollande pledged to honour British veterans who had served in the country during the war.
Bill, who has lived at Glanenig – a member of care standards campaigner Care Forum Wales – for the past six months, was just 18 when he arrived on the beaches of Normandy while serving with the South Wales Borderers Army Regiment, which has since been amalgamated to form the Royal Regiment of Wales.
“I was one of those who landed on the very first day,” said the father of four, who has eight grandchildren.
“All hell broke loose as you can imagine. That’s war. It was an incredibly frightening experience. I lost friends and colleagues – that’s why I’ve come back to France so many times since to visit their memorials all over Normandy.
“There were 300,000 or so soldiers arriving within the first week or two of D-Day. War is a frightening experience, and we were so young, but you have to get over it. Human beings have to get over many things in their lives.
“You’re on the frontline and you’re going to be shot at.”
Bill, who was born and raised in Talgarth but spent 15 years of his retirement in Clacton-on-sea in Essex before returning to his home town, joined the South Wales Borderers in June 1943.
“I was only in Normandy about four months. I was taken a prisoner of war in Germany shortly afterwards and brought to Poland to work in the coalmines throughout 1944,” he said.
“I was there for about nine months before we were marched from Poland to southern Germany and Munich in the winter of 1945. The Americans picked us up near Munich where we were freed. They brought us back to Reims in France when the war ended in 1945 and the RAF picked us up in Lancaster Bombers.”
At the end of the war, Bill was given two weeks annual leave to return home but after just 10 days back in Wales he found himself in hospital struck down with Tuberculosis.
“I was a prime candidate to pick up the germ because of my weakened state of health being a prisoner of war,” said the widower, whose wife Pearle Mary, died of cancer a few years ago.
Bill was severely undernourished and weighed only 10 stone, despite being 6ft in height. He joined the Army a physically fit young man but left the war with no energy to do simple tasks.
“I spent the next four years in military hospitals. What should have been the best years of my young life were spent in hospital,” he added.
During his illness, the former Talgarth Primary School pupil couldn’t work. Treatment for the condition in those days was simply bed rest and Bill was too unwell to do anything else besides.
“When I finally got better in 1950 I thought: ‘what am I going to do now?’ There were no training schemes like there is nowadays. I thought to myself: ‘I know as much about hospitals as anything else, having just spent the best part of four years in one’, so I became a trained nurse,” he said.
“I went to Hereford County Hospital to train as a state registered nurse and spent the rest of my life nursing in the Talgarth area.”
It was a profession that would bring him lifelong job satisfaction and happiness.
“I enjoyed it very much. It was hard work, nevertheless my reason for going into that line of work was in keeping with the Légion d’honneur, I wanted to do something for the people of this country and help the NHS as it had helped me,” he said.
“It was the very early days of the NHS. It only started in 1948 and I started working for it in 1952.
“I spent three years training and the next 30 years nursing, primarily looking after patients with Tuberculosis. These days it’s cured easily with tablets. Back then, rest was the key to recovery.”
The war veteran said he was humbled to receive the military award some 70 years after the events of the D-Day landings, which will remain in his memory forever.
Maureen Curran, manager of Glanenig Care Home, said: “We’re all very proud of Bill on receiving this award and it means so much to him. It’s wonderful recognition for his service during the war and very well deserved. His family are very proud of him.
“Bill has known the owners of the home, Marjorie and Keith Bowen, for a long time and we’re delighted he came back from Clacton-on-Sea to live with us here.”
Equally delighted was Mario Kreft MBE, the chairman of Care Forum Wales, who said: “It is vitally important we provide high quality care to demonstrate the value we place on the contribution of the older generation.
“Bill put himself in harm’s way and many of his contemporaries made the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of subsequent generations.
“It is wonderful that he received this richly deserved honour and it underlines that the older generation in general and Bill in particular should be treated as heroes.”
Speaking of his award, Bill said: “The recognition of course comes from the fact that we were among those who helped to free the country. There’s only a few of us alive now to receive the award.
“I’m very proud. It’s a pleasant-looking medal, it’s beautiful and my family will treasure it. My children are naturally very proud.
“I feel sorry for all those who didn’t survive long enough to receive it. This is something we all deserve.”