Member of Montgomery’s protection force honoured

Eric Virrels, proudly diplaying his Legion d'Honneur medal, with wife Pat
Eric Virrels, proudly diplaying his Legion d'Honneur medal, with wife Pat

A Worthing war veteran who was part of General Montgomery’s protection force after D-Day has been honoured by the French.

Eric Virrels, 96, has been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France, for his part in the D-Day landings.

General Montgomery inspecting his guard, including Eric Virrels, far right

General Montgomery inspecting his guard, including Eric Virrels, far right

Son Geoff Virrels said: “His story is somewhat unusual. He landed on Gold Beach as part of the D-Day landings as a tank gunner and was subsequently seconded as part of Montgomery’s bodyguard across France, Belgium and Germany to the surrender at Luneberg Heath.”

Eric served in the 153rd Regiment Royal Armoured Corps during the second world war.

During a live firing exercise in Stanmer Park in November 1943, Eric badly injured his finger while inspecting the breach of a gun.

He was admitted to Brighton Hospital, where they wanted to amputate his finger but it was on his dominant hand, the left hand, so he asked for it to be saved. Consequently, only the upper half was removed.

He was moved to hospital in Leatherhead, due to the threat of a German invasion, but returned to his regiment after convalescing.

On D-Day, Eric went into action when tanks supported the assault at Esquay-Évrecy, west of Caen, followed by an attack at Gavrus and Bougy. The crews were in their tanks for 30 hours without relief and 16 officers and 70 other ranks were killed, wounded, or missing during the two-day operation.

Geoff said: “Once the beach head had been established and the Germans had begun to retreat, Eric moved forward and was extremely fortunate for his tank and two others to be reassigned as protection to General Montgomery.”

Eric married his Worthing-born wife, Pat, in 1943 and the couple have lived in the town ever since. They met while Eric was stationed in the area prior to the D-Day landings.

The troops became rather bored in the build up as they were not made aware of the plans being made along the south coast. Eric slipped away one evening to see Pat and was reported missing. When he returned, his punishment was to ‘dig a hole until he could not be seen’.

Eric remembers going back to his home in East London while he was on leave and witnessing the bombing first hand. He said it was part of everyday life and people appeared to carry on regardless.

Pat, 93, was the only daughter of nine children in the Hurd family. She worked as a pastry cook at Mitchells before moving to Southern Railway in Lancing to works on gliders and pontoons as part of the war effort.

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