A veteran of the D-Day Landings has been recognised for his contribution to the Allied liberation of France in 1944.
Now aged 95 and living in Moredon, Jim Trew has received a medal from the French government which agreed earlier this year to award the rank of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, the equivalent to an MBE. In a letter to Jim, referring to those from around the world who fought for the Allies, the French Ambassador writes: ‘We owe our freedom and security largely to your dedication, because you were ready to risk your lives.’
Jim also has another European connection from the last year of the war when his unit was posted to Holland and he met his future wife Henny in a battered street in Nijmegen, shortly after the German occupation had ended.
With remarkable clarity he recalls events 75 years ago when he volunteered. “In 1938 it looked like a war was coming and every regiment was required to recruit and train a reserve unit which became the basis for the Territorial Army,” Jim explained. “Me and a friend went around all the recruiting offices and were turned away because they were already full. I was a stock clerk for the London office of Japanese firm Mitsui and when we told my boss that we weren’t successful he rang up a friend he served with in the first war and was told the 13th Kensington Regiment of the London Rifle Corps was still recruiting to their reserve unit. The boss gave us the taxi fare and we were signed on immediately. I had a lazy left eye and the medic asked me which eye I used I took aim with and I said the right, and I was in.
“We trained on two evenings a week and on Saturdays. On 26 August 1939, after a two week camp, we were on parade for ages at Hammersmith town hall car park. When the officers turned up it was announced that our battalion was now in the regular army and we had ten minutes to say goodbye to families and sweethearts. The next day we were guarding RAF stations around London. We were told it was because of increased Irish republican activity but we all knew it was about what was going on in Germany.”
After further training and guard duty at RAF installations at the time of the retreat from Dunkirk and the possibility of a German invasion in 1940 as the RAF fought the Luftwaffe for air supremacy, the battalion was shipped to Iceland to prevent it falling into enemy hands. In 1942 the battalion was back in Britain to start training for the invasion of Europe.
Jim said: “I found out later the original D-Day plan put Kensington’s Division, 49th West Riding in the first wave of landings on the west, next to the Americans until General Montgomery was put in charge of the British invasion planning. His staff told him we didn’t have combat experience and he replaced us with a division who served under him in the battles in North Africa. By the time we went in on the second wave there wasn’t any opposition. Interestingly when we were sent to recapture Le Havre we discovered the units which had fought in the desert were not very good at fighting in the fields and hedgerows of France and we had to show them what to do.
Because of their existing position on the Fontenay Ridge in the Odon river valley, 49th Division was brought into the plan to hold the ridge at all costs because the whole battle area of the British 2nd Army for the Goodwood operation would be observable from the ridge. This 49th Division achieved, in one day the Germans lost hundreds of men and 260 armoured vehicles, to the determined defence by the division. This was the last organised armoured force attack mounted by the Germans in Normandy and was an indication of the end of the Germans fighting machine. 49th Division units were awarded Odon as a battle honour for the Regimental Flags.
After the battle it was necessary to relieve the remaining airborne troops on the Eastern Flank plus any 51st Highland Division troops still there. Monty choose 49th division to traverse the total British bridgehead from the West to East across all the lines of communication. Monty’s staff officers protested against the move but Monty’s reply was “I can go to bed and sleep knowing that the 49th will still be there when I wake up in the morning”.
After the breakout from Normandy the 49th Division took part in the liberation of Le Havre and then various small towns up to Tilburg in Holland. The Kensingtons liberated Vorselaar in Belguim on their own without any assistance from any other units.
At the end of November 1944, I drove up from South East Belgium where we had cleared the West bank of the River Maas in preparation for a river crossing. We had been told to head for the civilian area to take up civilian billets in Nijmegen. It had been decided that a long hard winter lay ahead because the Germans had smashed the sluices to the river Rhine and flooded the area between Nijmegen and Arnhem. Forward movement was impossible until the flooded ground had drained and hardened enough for our truck vehicles to proceed. The winter of 1944/45 was to be spent in Nijmegen foiling German attempts to destroy the bridge at Nijmegen.
I drove into Rembrandt Strasse in Nijmegen and pulled up to see a lovely 15 year old school girl, Henny, standing on the doorstep of No. 68, the house next door to the house where battalion headquarters were based. Not a word or smile was passed, but something was passed because four years later we were married. The hardest part for Henny was to see me drive off when the battalion re-joined the battle for Arnhem and then Gelderland. This was followed by the surrender and dis-armament of the German 84th Korps.
The battalion had collected £1100 for the Dutch Red Cross and this was presented to Princess Juliana by the Colonel, but she refused this saying that it was the men had collected the money and she would like to accept the gift from the men. This led to a delay of a week for the battalion journey to take control of the Rhur coal mines so that Princess Juliana could inspect the battalion and receive the gift from the men. My first job on arriving in Germany was to travel the route to each of the coal mines to ensure that the bridges were passable and nothing mined. This of course gave me opportunities with my driver to visit Nijmegen. One of Henny’s father’s customers said that he was surprised that he was letting his daughter marry an English soldier; he said that he wished all of his daughters did the same.
After Jim returned to England 1946 Henny came over to visit his mother and sister for Christmas 1946, his father having died in 1928 from the effects of gas attacks in World War I. Jim’s mother travelled to Holland in 1947 to stay with Henny’s family to discuss arrangements for marriage
“A lot of family friends were a bit shocked that I was going to marry an Englishman,” said Henny. “But my parents were pleased for me and my father particularly liked Jim.
The couple had a registry office wedding in North London in February 1948 and then in November 1948 a ceremony was held at St Stephanus Church in Nijmegen, Jim having converted to Catholicism.
James was born in 1949, Michael in 1952 and Marganita in 1957. Jim and Henny now have four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
They moved to Swindon to be closer to children in the early 1990s and lived at Ravenglass Road, Westlea, before moving to Maple Court on The Street in Moredon in 2015.
Top, Jim pictured holding his Legion d’honneur by Richard Wintle of Calyx. Centre, Jim in 1938, pleased to be in the Kensingtons. Bottom, Jim and Henny in 2014 at the wedding of their granddaughter