A 99-year-old Wearside veteran is to be awarded France’s highest honour for his role in helping to liberate the country during World War Two.
Ernie Jones, who was shot in the head during the Normandy Invasion, will receive the Legion d’honneur during a Remembrance Service at Durham Cathedral.
“I’m proud to be awarded the medal, and lucky as well. I lost many comrades while in France and, if the bullet had hit me two inches lower, I’d have died too,” he said.
“I often think about the men who were killed over in France, especially around Armistice Day, and I’ll definitely be thinking of them during the cathedral service.”
Ernie, son of shipyard plater Ernest and his wife Alice, was born in Trimdon Street in 1916 and grew up to work as a grocer at Thompson’s Red Stamp Store, Hendon.
At 18 he joined General Havelock Temperance Lodge in Monkwearmouth and, after taking the “no alcohol” pledge, threw himself into life in the Temperance Society.
“Once the business side of meetings was done, the entertainment started. Sometimes it would be a two-penny dance night, which included a cup of tea,” he said.
“I also joined a Templar bike club, and would cycle to lodges in Shields and Gateshead for meetings. We often did 80-mile rides on Sundays, too.”
Ernie spent several happy years as a member of the Good Templars, meeting his wife, Florence Butler, at the Monkwearmouth lodge in the 1930s.
The outbreak of war, however, brought an end to his temperance activities. On April 2, 1940 Ernie – by now a dad-of-three – was called up for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
“I honestly think the Army thought I was Welsh, because of my surname. The day I joined up there were 95 Joneses in the battalion – and I was number 45!” he said.
Ernie spent the next three years serving in Britain but, in 1944, was sent to France, landing on Gold Beach in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6.
More than 1,000 British men lost their lives on the beach that day, but Ernie survived to fight his way across German-occupied France for another six weeks.
“We ended up in a village called Evrecy, near Caen, by July 17 and were tasked with taking a German-occupied wood at the end of a corn field,” said Ernie, of Grindon.
“There were trees all around the field and what we didn’t know was that the trees were filled with German snipers. It was a very bad night for us and we lost 255 men.
“I was shot in the head. The bullet went through the edge of my helmet and the force of the helmet hitting my face broke my jaw. It made me deaf as it was so near my ear.”
Ernie was rescued from the battlefield and treated in a French hospital, where surgeons removed the bullet and set his jaw before shipping him back to Britain.
He then spent several months at Shotley Bridge Hospital, as he couldn’t eat, but returned to the Army that Christmas and was posted back to Europe in 1945.
“I saw a lot of action, and fought in several battles during the time I was in France before I got shot. And, when I went back, I fought in a few more battles,” he said. “But nothing really made me break my alcohol pledge, although I did have a small tot of brandy once – when it was handed out to warm the troops up.
“Eventually I finished up in Hamburg, when it was captured, and was demobbed in February 1946, after which I returned home to Florence and my children.”
Ernie switched careers following the end of the war, opting to leave the grocery business to work on plane pistons for Rolls Royce, where he worked for 30 years.
But, although it is now 71 years since the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy, the sights he saw – and the comrades he lost – still remain vivid in Ernie’s mind.
“It will be a proud moment, very proud, when I receive the French medal during the ceremony at Durham and I will certainly be remembering those lost,” he said.
l Ernie will receive his medal at a Remembrance Sunday service at Durham Cathedral on November 8, alongside other brave veterans from the North East.
A military parade – one of the largest seen in Durham City for many years – will also take place on that day, led by the Rifles and including many other army regiments.
The parade will march through Durham’s Market Place just after 11.30am and organisers are hoping thousands of people will cheer on the Forces, past and present.