At age 91 and after a career in the navy, D-Day veteran and Thirroul resident Roy Pyrah wouldn’t think too much could surprise him.
But receiving the Legion of Honour – France’s highest decoration – for his military service has the old sailor feeling pretty chuffed.
Mr Pyrah received the honour via a diplomatic bag about a week ago, special delivery on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron, for actions he took when he was just 17.
Back then, Able Bodied Seaman (Torpedo) Pyrah was one of the heroes of the D-Day invasion, when masses of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in the key moment of what would begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.
Roy Pyrah was a young Yorkshireman when he joined the British Royal Navy in 1943 to help Europe in its time of need. He and his shipmates on the HMS Hazelmere had been involved with the deployment and installation of the great mobile harbour breakwalls known as Mulberry Harbours, or more recently, “Phoenix caissons”. These hulking concrete structures were built off the coast of England and then sunk to avoid being spotted by German planes.
When it was time for the D-Day invasion – which began on June 6, 1944 – the Phoenix caissons were dragged into place, and once filled with air, rose and became a harbour which allowed ships to dock and vehicles and thousands of soldiers to roll onto the land. The carnage of the D-Day landings was vast but once the beaches were captured the liberation of France could begin.
And 73 years later, almost to the day, France’s symbol of gratitude arrived in Thirroul. The Legion of Honour features a five-armed Maltese asterisk hung on a red oak and laurel wreath.
That young Yorkshireman is now a 91-year-old Australian, having met his wife Doris in Woonona while he was on leave from active duty – he family billeted Allied servicemen.
Some years ago the Legion of Honour was awarded to thank Australians who served at D-Day – but with Mr Pyrah’s health not as great as it once was, he couldn’t make it to France to collect it.
So Roy’s son Derek pursued other methods, and with the help of embassies and the war office in London, the medal now adorns Roy’s bedside – or on special occasions, his lapel. It’s quite enough to make an old Yorkshireman grin.