War hero’s final wish

D-Day landings survivor Russell Dunkeld from Lancaster.
D-Day landings survivor Russell Dunkeld from Lancaster.

He fought for his country on the beaches at D-Day as a teenager – now an 89-year-old war hero is facing his final battle and has just one last wish.

As the country pauses to remember its fallen servicemen and women this week, veteran Russell Dunkeld wants to hold in his hand one of the highest available honours which is due to be bestowed upon him, his Legion d’Honneur.

But as he wages war against cancer, Lancaster-born Russell’s family fears the honour may come too late.

So today the Lancaster Guardian is urging the Ministry of Defence and the French Government, which announced it would recognise the selfless acts of heroism displayed by all surviving veterans of the Normandy landings, to speed up the process awarding Russell’s Legion d’Honneur.

Russell was just 18 when he took part in the D-Day landings and, aboard HM Landing Ship (tank) 304, was one of the first to arrive on French soil at Sword Beach on June 6 1944.

As an Acting Able Seaman in the Royal Navy, Russell was a medic/stretcher bearer with the role of collecting the wounded from the beaches and conveying them back to the ship for medical treatment.

He then continued care for the patients as the ship returned to the UK to discharge patients and reload with reinforcements and supplies.

The ship returned to the landing beaches a further 25 times in the next three months, and on each occasion Russell repeated his duties, collecting injured French civilians, Allied and enemy soldiers from increasing distances as fighting moved further inland.

Russell’s bravery featured on the front of the Guardian back in June, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

At the time he recalled the horrors that he and thousands of other young men faced during the largest seaborne invasion in history.

He said: “You put things to the back of your mind but there are some that never go away.

“I have millions of memories. I used to wake up at night, my insides trembling like a jelly.

“It was bloody frightening. I was lucky to get out alive but you don’t think about that at the time.

“There was this young lad who’d been blown off his motorbike by a mortar bomb. One of the surgeons said to me ‘here, hold this’. It was this lad’s foot.

“I held it while the surgeon sawed it off. He said: ‘Don’t just stand there looking at it, get rid of it.’ So I flung it onto the sand.

“At one point I was on the beach and there was a hobnail boot, all nice and shiny. I pulled it out, and there was a leg still attached to it.

“You shouldn’t have to see things like that. It was mind-boggling.

“I came across another young lad, only about the same age as me. He had a bullet hole where your appendix is.

“He was quite lucid, talking away, talking about his girlfriend and his home. I held his hand while he died.”

Requests for the Legion d’Honneur award are being processed by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), who then forward the details to the French authorities to make the final decisions on the awards.

Widowed father-of-two Russell, 89, has just undergone the last of 20 sessions of radiotherapy and is now recovering at his home in Hala.

Consultants say the next three months are crucial for his recovery.

His family hopes he will receive his Legion d’Honneur before it is too late.

His son, also called Russell, said: “It’s all that’s been keeping him going through his dreadful treatment.

“We have kept on reminding him that he has to get through it to get his medal.

“He is very seriously ill and incredibly frail.

“We are so proud of him and it’s very important to all the family to get the medal.

“He has got a chest full of medals but this one would just top it off.”

His daughter Carole Knight added: “All the paperwork has been sent off but we are desperately hoping we can speed things up a bit because it’s all dad is thinking about.

“This is the highest award that the French can bestow on someone and the thought of it is keeping him going.”

Lancaster MP Eric Ollerenshaw has backed the family’s bid and is liaising with the MOD on behalf of the Lancaster Guardian.

A spokesman said: “Eric is doing everything he can to get this medal awarded; however, the ultimate decision is with the French authorities.”

An MOD spokesman said: “The decision in July by the Government of France to award the Legion d’Honneur to those involved in the liberation of France in 1944 has attracted a very high level of interest, with around 2,700 applications so far.

“We have processed hundreds of these so far, and are working hard at the remainder.

“We are aware the wait can be frustrating for veterans and their families and will endeavour to keep them updated.

“Veterans should be assured that the MOD is working closely with the French Embassy on the detail of each application and a personal presentation for each award.”