By Rose Lyon
Quesada’s Joseph Billet, known locally as “Joe, The Cat Man,” hasn’t always led a leisurely life of retirement in the sun, indeed quite the opposite. As a 15 year old in 1942, the teenager joined the Merchant Navy as he sought out his very first taste of ‘grown up’ adventure.
And it came to him soon enough as on Tuesday, 6 June 1944, D Day, Joe was working aboard a merchant vessel carrying troops as they embarked on the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Seventy five years later he was privileged to return to Normandy as part of the Voyage of Remembrance, organized by The Royal British Legion, for 300 D-Day Veterans, who were each accompanied by a family member or carer. Both Joe and his partner Rose say that it was a truly amazing experience that they feel much honored to have been a part of.
The Royal British Legion arranged for coaches to collect the veterans from various pick up points. They were taken to Dover where they were greeted by a welcoming party and a military band. Refreshments were served inside the cruise terminal where a duo entertained the group singing favorite wartime songs. Reception complete the pair were taken aboard The MV Boudicca and shown to their comfortable cabin.
Following the mandatory safety drill the evening was spent spent enjoying dinner and relaxing with other veterans. The Boudicca cast off for Dunkirk at about 9pm.
Bob Gamble, of The Royal British Legion, provided the Dunkirk welcome where there were plenty of RBL staff available to look after the veterans and answer their questions. Shuttle buses were available on the quayside for those who wanted to see Dunkirk but generally it was a day for relaxing, meeting other veterans and hearing their stories. The Observatory lounge at the top of the ship was a good place for this, not least of which because of the free beer!
Overnight the group then sailed on to Poole where The Royal Marines were waiting to greet them on the quayside, all very keen to talk to the veterans and show off their modern equipment and weapons. This was another “relaxing” day in between trips to the dining room for delicious meals! The veterans were aged from 90 to 101, all very smart wearing their berets and blazers, with their unit insignia, and weighted down with their medals, but many still quite fit and all happy to share their amazing stories.
The next day, the 5th of June it was on to Portsmouth to attend the big D-Day ceremony on Southsea Common. As the ship’s gangway was quite steep it was decided that every veteran would leave the ship in wheelchairs – they were told that it was for speed!
On the quayside the party were soon aboard their coaches taking them to Southsea Common where marquees had been set up and refreshments laid on.
Waiting on the veterans were service volunteers, numbers well over subscribed as so many of them wanted to hear the veterans stories and share the day with them. This time was spent walking around and chat with serving soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Soon it was off to the arena where a large stage was set up. There was a seating area for the veterans and a central are for the VIP’s, including The Queen with Prince Charles, President Trump and his wife Melania, President Macron of France and Theresa May.
Choirs and bands were on either side of the stage, then on came the Guards looking magnificent in their red tunics and Bearskins, followed by the RAF Regiment and the Royal Navy. The story of D-day was told with commentary and pictures after which President Trump took to the stage, followed by President Macron and Theresa May. The final speaker to take to the stage was a 99 year old veteran who was met with deafening applause. In her speech Queen Elizabeth said “My generation was very resilient.”
Finally, there was a fly past by the RAF along with the Red Arrows. It was back to the marquees for lunch followed by an opportunity to speak with the dignitaries, including Theresa May and President Macron, before returning to the ship.
Once back onboard The Boudicca set off for Le Havre amid a flotilla of naval ships, their crews lined up on deck to salute the veterans as they sailed out of Portsmouth.
The following morning the party was taken by coach to Bayeux War Graves Cemetery – with a police escort no less. Once again marquees had been erected with refreshments but alas no English Breakfast Tea! However the delicious pastries made up in together with coffee or any kind of herbal tea. After the refreshments it was time to gather around the memorial for the service followed by the laying of wreaths, which was all very moving.
This ceremony was attended by Prince Charles with Camilla, Theresa May and President Macron. Afterwards it was back to the marquee for lunch where the British military had once again saved the day by obtaining a supply of English Tea bags! Then it was back to the ship which was staying overnight in Le Havre.
The following day, despite the pouring with rain, several vets boarded coaches once more to visit the Beaches. The coaches first went to Arromanches on Gold beach where the D-Day museum presented all the veterans with a booklet containing a hundred euros worth of vouchers to be spent in the town, together with a backpack containing various presents. By this time it had stopped raining and the sun did try to make an appearance. On the way back there was a short stopover at Sword Beach for a photo opportunity around the memorial.
French people of all ages were very welcoming throughout the trip and came out specially to thank the veterans for “liberating our country”. The RBL guide on Joe’s coach throughout was Eugenie Brooks and she looked after the goup particularly well, helping Joe to lay a wreath at Bayeux cemetery.
The Boudicca stayed in Le Havre overnight, as a storm was on its way, eventually setting sail on Saturday morning for Portsmouth. Later in the morning the Captain decided it was too rough to proceed to Portsmouth as originally planned so it was back to Dover where a lot of the townspeople came out to greet them.
On the Sunday morning the coached returned the veterans to their drop off points full of emotion after the busy, but wonderful time, that had been enjoyed all had. The President of RBL boarded each coach to say a few words of thanks and wish us Godspeed.
After the war Joe joined the Army, first the artillery, then the Paratroop Regiment and from there he became a Malay Scout, serving in the Malayan jungles during the Malay Emergency. The Malay Scouts then became 22 SAS. The Special Air Service had previously been formed by the former Scots Guards officer, David Stirling in 1941, but was then disbanded after the war only to be reformed in 1947.