Armentières still remembered by D-Day hero
Chelsea Pensioner and former bomb disposal corporal Frank Mouqué, 94, is one of the few surviving British D-Day veterans who will honour their fallen comrades in Normandy on this month’s 75th anniversary.
The invasion helped end the World War Two and on June 6 he will join fellow veterans, royalty and heads of state at ceremonies to mark the anniversary.
Special events in Bénouville, Ouistreham and Arromanches will include a march-past and wreath-laying at the famous Pegasus Bridge.
Sadly, they will be the last to be attended by many of the troops who fought to free Europe. Like Frank, the veterans have reached an age where travelling is difficult.
But Frank is determined to be there. “I couldn’t miss it,” he told Connexion.
“It will be an honour to represent my comrades.”
His war experiences are typical of so many. After joining up in 1943, he served as a corporal in a bomb disposal unit in No 263 Field Company, Royal Engineers. He was with the first group to land on Sword Beach on D-Day.
“Our company sailed over the Channel at 23.30 on the night of June 5, disembarking at 5.30 next morning on to small square platforms. There were huge waves and I slipped, but was held up by two mates,” he said.
“I dropped my 1m wooden probe, needed to find soft spots on the beach.
“My CO was not pleased.”
With his fellow sappers, Frank cleared mines to make pathways for incoming troops and prepared landing sites for gliders.
His unit then relieved an airborne division at the canal bridge at Bénouville, removing German explosives and fitting their own charges.
His company eventually made it across northern France through Belgium and, many months later, Germany. “It was a long, awful business.”
Since those dark days, he has built many lasting friendships.
French heritage has definitely helped him establish a special rapport with the country.
Descended from Huguenot refugees who arrived in England in the 1600s, he was brought up in London and worked in a brewery bottling plant until called up for war service in 1943.
“So, I am a French cockney – we are very rare,” he joked.
One close friend, Brigitte Corbin, from Ouistreham, who has hosted Frank and his family, said: “Frank’s exploits are extraordinary but he is also someone with no pretensions, is very gallant and a great raconteur. He has definitely inherited Gallic charm.”
This month he will be guest of honour at a reception for veterans and families at Le Grand Bunker, the old German command post covering the entrance to the river Orne. It is now a D-Day museum, run by Brigitte and husband Fabrice.
A new mural in honour of the fallen will be dedicated at the event.
Last year, Frank was decorated with France’s highest accolade, the Légion d’Honneur.
Two years previously, he received another personal tribute when presented with an official medallion by the mayor of Armentières, Bernard Haesebroeck, in recognition of his group’s actions after troops helped liberate the Nord town during the 1944 Allied advance across northern France.
A film was made about the presentation and the troops’ exploits – although some romantic details were omitted.
Frank said: “A canal bridge, Le Pont de l’Attargette, near the town had been destroyed by the Nazis and a group of us helped construct a decent repair.
“A couple of local ladies invited us home for a drink.
“When we arrived, there was another lovely girl, Paulette, in the house. Well, we hit it off and went out a few times.
“Our company was moved on to Belgium and Germany but later, when I got a week’s leave, I went back to see her.
“She looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘Tell me honestly, Frank – have you been going around with German girls? If you have, I cannot have anything more to do with you. I am a patriotic Frenchwoman’.”
Being a truthful fellow, Frank confessed that he had been out with some lovely fräuleins to help establish post-war entente – as their own sweethearts were still away on active service. That was the end of the relationship.
“I often wonder what happened to Paulette and I always think of her when I hear the strains of the very saucy World War One version of the song Mademoiselle from Armentières,” he says with a twinkle. “I was a charismatic young lad in those days.
“A Swiss girl named Heidi became a lifelong pal and my wife Margery and I visited her mountain home. Wow, what a place – jaw-dropping.”
“As for Armentières, I couldn’t get over to France for the medallion presentation so the mayor arranged for me to participate in a virtual reality ceremony. [Watch a video of the presentation with Frank wearing VR goggles to take part at tinyurl.com/yyo4vmkb]
“A school choir sang the original nursery rhyme version of the old army song.”
After the war, in 1949, Frank was posted to No 10 Bomb Disposal Squadron in Horsham, Sussex, where he continued to carry out dangerous missions.
His wife Margery died a few years ago but Frank now lives, comfortably, as a Chelsea Pensioner in the Royal Hospital, escorting special visitors around the historic buildings, leading the way in his speedy motorised chair.
He is a keen campaigner for the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal and said that the hospital’s work is still important today.
“In a few years’ time, many of today’s hospital residents will have passed on,” he said, with a just-detectable tear in his eye, “but former service personnel who have fought in more recent conflicts and are having a tough time will need the Royal Hospital.
“It is a wonderful place.”
Frank’s daughter Julie, son Bryan and grandsons Christopher and Kevin have also built up lasting friendships with other veterans, their relatives, and Normandy residents.
This month Bryan, with his wife Deborah, will accompany his formidable, charismatic dad on the historic pilgrimage back to the beaches.
It promises to be a moving trip to mark Frank’s last visit.
Cheek and charm of a war veteran
Frank Mouqué is a born story-teller... on his French ancestry, he said: “The first relative I’ve traced arrived in London in the late 1600s and was a plumber by trade. Those Huguenots were a clever lot.
“My great, great grandfather was a chemist and became a photographer in Fleet Street.
“One brother was an artist and another family member married music hall star Champagne Charlie. I inherited my cheek and charm from him.”
“We landed on Sword Beach, then jumped into the water with our gear on our backs and a rubber ring round our stomachs. I was detailed to offer a tot of rum to anyone who felt sick. There were few takers, so another soldier and I finished the bottle and remained sober!
“The landing was very gory. You didn’t have time to think and the survival instinct kicked in. We searched for mines then went on to clear glider landing sites. After 12 hours, we were exhausted but had to dig a 6ft by 2ft ‘foxhole’ to sleep in.
“Over the next two weeks we were constantly repairing and maintaining two bridges over the Bénouville canal and River Orne as they were damaged by shellfire. We built the first Bailey Bridge in France and our commander said ‘We will bridge every river and canal to Berlin’. I believe we did, plus a few puddles.
“We slept outside for the next year or so, rarely lying down, with just an oversized gas cape to go over clothes and gear. One night, we thought we were in luxury because we bunked down on straw in a barn but we were ravaged by fleas.”
On post-war Britain:
“It was still a dangerous place. I was posted to bomb disposal at Horsham. One Sunday, I went to Brighton beach to deal with a ‘paravane’ anti-floating mine. A copper tried to clear the promenade but people were curious.
“I told him to tell the crowd to cover their ears, went back to the paravane, waited until I had complete silence, then lit the fuse, counting the seconds. [It burnt at 1ft per minute.]
“After two minutes, I dropped to my knees, hands over my own ears.
“The bang was impressive but luckily no shingle hit the spectators. They all applauded, I made a deep bow, then realised my quick-thinking driver was walking around shaking his beret for donations, saying ‘That man is putting his life on the line for you, nobody will insure him and his widow will only get a small pension – come on, dig deep’.
“He raised quite a few bob.”
“I wasn’t brave, I wasn’t a hero. I was a little cog in a big wheel. When you add all those little cogs together, then we became important. We all worked together towards peace.”
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