Selkirk veteran is set to receive France’s highest decoration

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Hollywood movie, Saving Private Ryan, shocked with its graphic depiction of the carnage at Omaha Beach in the wartime Normandy Landings.

But Selkirk-born Andrew Henderson does not need any cinematic reminders. He has his own vivid memories of what Omaha Beach was like in those early days of June, 1944.

RAF veteran Andrew Henderson with his Legion d'Honneur at his home in West Moors. ''Pictures - Corin Messer - 10/11/15 - Catchline - cm101115bHendersonHonour

RAF veteran Andrew Henderson with his Legion d'Honneur at his home in West Moors. ''Pictures - Corin Messer - 10/11/15 - Catchline - cm101115bHendersonHonour

US forces suffered the heaviest toll from any of the five allied invasion beaches, taking almost 4,000 casualties by tea-time on D-Day, with the beach littered with hundreds of bodies, burned-out tanks, vehicles and boats.

What is much less well known, however, is that attached to the American units was a small number of Royal Air Force personnel, tasked with a vital role.

Some 180 men of the RAF’s 21-BDS (Base Defence Sector) went ashore at Omaha Beach around 5.30pm on D-Day, with others following in the days after.

The RAF men were radar and signals specialists whose role would be to help provide ground troops with the maximum protection from the Luftwaffe (German Air Force).

And in recognition of his service with 21-BDS during Operation Overlord, as the invasion of Normandy was codenamed, Andrew will today (Thursday) receive France’s highest decoration.

Andrew, who is now 93 and lives in the Dorset town of Poole, will be presented with the Legion d’honneur, along with two other Normandy veterans, at a special ceremony at Sherborne Abbey.

The ceremony is the latest in a number of special commemorations that have taken place since the 70th anniversary of D-Day last year, when French President François Hollande pledged to honour all those British veterans who had served in France during the Second World War.

The ceremony will take place during a special concert in aid of the Royal British Legion, with the French Honorary Consul presenting the medals to Andrew and his fellow Normandy veterans.

Speaking to us from his Dorset home, Andrew says he can hardly remember how he got ashore.

“I was a signals officer, I think the youngest in the unit aged just 20 or 21, and was a casualty replacement, going ashore on D-Day plus three.

“Things had quietened down a bit by then, but the Americans had been very badly shot up and there were some terrible sights.

“The Germans had been rolled back a fair bit by the time I got there, and although German shells were still occasionally landing on the beach, people had pretty much started ignoring them by then.”

While Andrew has not lived in Selkirk for many years, he will still be remembered both as a local cricketer who played for Scotland, as well as a rugby player in the town.

The Henderson family can trace its links with Selkirk back to the 1400s and Andrew’s family ran a butcher’s business, although his father will be better remembered as an optician.

Andrew considers himself a “lucky character” during the war, surviving not just the invasion of Normandy, but also such notable campaigns as the Ardennes offensive in 1944 and the Liberation of Paris.

After the war he returned to finish his university studies in chemistry and physics, gaining his PhD in 1951.

After university, a career followed with such well-known firms as Ferranti and Plessey, the latter where Andrew was chief chemist and metallurgist.

A father of four with 11 grandchildren, he has been back to Normandy nine or 10 times over the years for commemorations, including last year’s special 70th anniversary events.

And he says he is very proud to be receiving the Legion d’honneur: “The first time I went back, which was for the 50th anniversary, people in France appeared unimpressed by any of it. But by the 70th anniversary last year, that had all changed and the French people were completely involved in the commemoration events and the contribution we had made,” said Andrew, who was Mentioned in Dispatches for his part in the fighting around Bastogne during the Ardennes campaign.

Asked if he had been aware he was helping make history during the Normandy invasion, Andrew answered: “Frankly no. All anybody at that stage was really interested in was when could you get some sleep, when could you eat, how to keep dry and how to keep yourself alive.”