Cornwall D-Day hero Harry Billinge has train named in his honour

  • Report by Kathy Wardle

A D-Day veteran who was one of the first British soldiers to land on Gold Beach in 1944 has said he is "moved beyond measure" to have a train named in his honour.

Former Royal Engineer Horace "Harry" Billinge was just 18 when he stormed the beach in German-occupied Normandy during the landings on June 6 1944.

The sapper from St Austell, Cornwall, was made an MBE in 2019 for charitable fundraising after collecting more than £50,000 for veterans.

The 95-year-old says, "This is the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me. I appreciate the Great Western Railway. I didn't expect any of this. I did it for the boys that never came back. I told the Queen that when I received the MBE.

"I didn't accept the MBE for myself but only for the memorial and the fellas that never came back."

Harry's name has been placed on Great Western Railway Intercity Express train number 802006. It was unveiled in a ceremony at Penzance Station on Wednesday 7 October, involving family and friends, onlookers and military representatives.

The train went on to form the 10.15am service from Penzance to London Paddington.

Harry Billinge waves as he leaves Penzance station on the train named after him. Credit: ITV West Country

Harry Billinge adds, "I've been deeply moved today. Having a train named after me is a great honour. It will remind people of the fine men who fought that day, lots of whom never went back home again. It's important that their memory is remembered, and I hope this train will carry that message to thousands of people every day."

British troops landing on the Normandy Beaches on 6 June, 1944 Credit: PA

GWR is marking 75 years since the end of the Second World War by naming seven of its Intercity Express trains after people involved in the conflict. Alongside Harry Billinge, they are:

  • Sir Winston Churchill

  • Odette Hallowes - the most highly-decorated spy of the war. She lived on the Somerset-Devon border

  • Wing Commander Ken Rees - a pilot and Prisoner of War who played a vital part in the Great Escape

  • Alan Turing - responsible for the breaking of German ciphers

  • Cpl George Sheard - from Plymouth, one of the Cockleshell Heroes who planted mines on enemy ships

  • Tul Bahadur Pun VC - one of only 13 Gurkhas to receive the Victoria Cross.

Simon Green, engineering director at GWR, says the company is "honoured" to name one of its trains after Harry. "We at Great Western have a long history of naming trains after Great Westerners, the past and present heroes from across our network.

"It is right that we honour some of those heroes of the war effort, remembering the sacrifice, bravery and tenacity that later generations owe so much to," he said.

General Lord Dannatt, trustee of the Normandy Memorial Trust, says: "Everyone at the trust warmly congratulates Harry on the naming of a train in his honour.

"We are so proud of Harry and grateful for all his remarkable fundraising efforts for the memorial and everything he has done to raise the profile of the trust."

Harry Billinge collecting for a memorial to his fallen comrades. Credit: Normandy Memorial Trust

Who is Harry Billinge?

Harry was one of the first soldiers to land on Gold Beach in German-occupied Normandy at 6.30am on 6 June 1944 as part of the D-Day landings.

He was a sapper attached to the 44 Royal Engineer Commandos and was one of only four to survive from his unit. The horrifying scenes he witnessed have stayed with him all his life.

Harry Billinge (centre) in 1944 with the Deville family he befriended. Credit: Billinge family

Harry later fought in Caen and the Falaise Pocket in Normandy.

He collected for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal for more than 60 years and then dedicated his efforts to raise money for the Normandy Memorial Trust - promising to do everything in his power to create a memorial to his fallen comrades in Normandy.

In June 2019 Harry travelled to Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He saw the unveiling of the first foundation stones of a memorial to those who served.

Harry Billinge being made MBE by the Queen in March 2020. Credit: PA

Harry was awarded an MBE in the 2020 New Year Honours List for his fundraising efforts in St Austell for the Normandy Memorial Trust. He says he would accept it in honour of the 22,442 British service personnel killed on D-Day and during the battle for Normandy.

He is also the recipient of France's highest order of merit, the Legion d'Honneur, for his service during the war.

Harry and his wife Sheila celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary in August 2020.

It's a thumbs up from Harry. Credit: ITV West Country