By Joanne Warnock
Dyce D-Day veteran John Johnstone received France’s highest medal of honour last week at a ceremony in Dyce Parish Church.
Minister Manson Merchant had the honor of presenting Mr Johnstone with his “Ordre national de la Legion d’Honneur” of which he has been appointed the highest rank of “Chevalier” or ‘knight’.
In a letter sent with the medal Sylvie Bermann, the French Ambassador in London, said: “I offer you my warmest congratulations on this high honour in recognition of your acknowledged military engagement and your steadfast involvement in the liberation of France during the Second World War.”
President Francois Hollande announced the awarding of the Legion d’Honneur to Normandy veterans during the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day on June 6 2014.
John joined the Gordon Highlanders in 1939 and was among the troops taking part in ‘Operation Overlord’ now referred to as D-Day, who landed on Arromanches beach (code named Gold) on 6 June 1944, he said:
“We landed on the beach head at 11 am and it was my 24th birthday. I was the driver for General DAH Graham and it was my responsibility to waterproof the car, if we didn’t do it right, then the vehicle was going to sink. I put on a temporary exhaust pipe and waterproof taping all around. This was two days before the landings, but we weren’t told where we were going. We weren’t told the code names.
The landing craft couldn’t get too near to the shore, we were back a bit. We were ready to go and this naval man said he’d seal me in my car. I had sandbags in the boot, sandbags in the back seats and front seats and I was sitting on sandbags in case of mines.
So I drove off the landing craft and the car just sank to the bottom of the sea and the water was half way up the windscreen, my first reaction was ‘Gee I’ll have to put on the wipers!’ It drove through the water right onto the beach, no bother.
It was quite quiet, just a few shells going off here and there, we were very lucky landing at that part.”
From there John moved to Bayeux, then up through France and Belgium towards Arnhem where he remembers seeing paratroopers “turn the sky black” as they landed at Arnhem. In what popularly is known as ‘a bridge too far’, John’s fellow troops waited to hold Arnhem Bridge, “but it didn’t happen. We didn’t get across.”
John then was sent on the P&O Liner Stratheden, to Oslo, where en route they heard the announcement of VE Day. Still the driver for General DAH Graham, who was in charge of troops in Norway, they took over deposed Nazi occupation leader, Vidkun Quisling’s mansion named Gimle and remained there for 6 months until late 1945, liberating Norway. John said: “we were there mostly to send Germans home to Germany.”
John was discharged in August 1946, at Abergavenny in South Wales and went home to Inverurie to finish off his plumbing apprenticeship, eventually working as a superintendent at the Water Board until retiring in 1985.
John received his medal through the post in February after applying for it in 2014 and followed Sylvie Bermann’s instructions to contact his region’s French consulate: “I shall be unable to present this honour personally to every single veteran. However, if you would like an award ceremony to be organised for you, I invite you to contact your region’s French Honorary Consul.”
The French Honorary consul in Aberdeen, Dr David Bell told him over the phone: “You have just missed the ceremony at the Townhouse we had for three other recipients, it was this morning.”
Mr Bell has since said: “We have nothing organised yet, but there should be a ceremony shortly. We have a number of veterans due for an official ceremony, which will be organised once the Consul General from Edinburgh is back in Britain and able to come up, as per the previous ceremonies.”
John said he was told: “They can’t do individual presentations. That there might be another one, but they don’t know when. So I asked Manson to do it as I wanted to have all my family and people I know there at the church. He said he’d be honored.”
Rosalind, John’s wife of almost 25 years, said: “I have to curtsy every time I come into the room now.”
Great-grandfather John, who is now 95, said of France: “I often wished I had gone back.”