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Derbyshire D-Day hero Bill to celebrate 100th birthday and Légion d’honneur medal

100 year old Bill Woolley.
100 year old Bill Woolley.

A former soldier from Codnor who fought through the D-Day landings will celebrate his 100th birthday on Sunday, and hopes it will be one of the quieter days of his life.

Bill Woolley said: “I shall be having a very little party with just my family. I don’t like a lot of fuss, I’m too old.”

His son, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren will be company enough on a day which has already given Bill reason to reflect.

He said: “Codnor has changed altogether, everything is different. I remember when someone would drive up in a car and everyone would come out to have a look at it. Now there are cars everywhere.”

Born on Mill Lane as one of seven children, Bill’s five brothers all descended into the local coal mine at a young age, but he did not follow.

Instead, after passing through Mill Lane and Whitegates schools he went to work at Heanor hosiery manufacturer I & R Morleys, aged 14.

At 21, he was called up to train as a militiaman, an Army reserves programme, seven weeks before the Second World War broke out.

Bill said: “I left home and work for six months, and never got back for seven years.”

He served in the Royal Artillery throughout the war, and eventually rose to the rank of sergeant major, in charge of a battery of four guns.

He said: “We were never in one place for long. We had 5.5-inch guns, firing 80 pound shells at targets about six or seven miles away. I was the one taking orders from above about where to aim, and making sure we got it right.”

At one point, Bill even crossed paths with Field Marshal Montgomery, the famous commander who masterminded some of the British Army’s most significant battles. Bill said: “He was a real soldier, no doubt about that. He was very strict, and very straightforward.”

Perhaps the most memorable moment of Bill’s war came in June 1944, as one of the 156,000 men who crossed the Channel for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

He said: “The preparations were conducted in secret, but I had been asked to fetch a water-proofing kit so I knew we were going somewhere wet.”

The secrecy also produced a brief encounter Bill recalls with great pride: “I would often represent my regiment on official occasions, but this time I was asked to go in a covered truck to a secret location with no idea what it was for.

“We were driven out to a country lane, and lined up on either side of the road. All of a sudden a car pulled up and King George got out. He performed an inspection and then he was gone again, quick as a flash. I felt honoured to have been there.”

The wait for the operation moved more slowly, with Bill and his men left to wait onboard a ship until the weather cleared for the crossing.

He said: “We had no idea what we were going into, and the men were getting so upset that two committed suicide. When we landed on Sword beach on June 6, it was like hell let loose. Everything moved so fast. I have never read a description of that day which comes anywhere close to the reality. It couldn’t.”

Two weeks ago, Bill received the Légion d’honneur medal in the post, the highest French order of merit which is being given to all Normandy survivors. He has added it to his collection of service medals, certificates and official records of bravery.

He said: “It felt great to receive it as a sign of appreciation for what we did.”

While many veterans end a war with mixed feelings, that is not the case for Bill: “I’ve never gone back to Normandy. I wouldn’t, I’ve seen enough, but I only have one thought — we did a good job.”

When Bill returned to Codnor, he returned to the factory and worked his way up to become manager after another brief, royal encounter.

He said: “In 1947, I was the last person to handle the Queen’s stockings before they were sent to London for her wedding. I was given a plaque for that which I still treasure.”