'Top secret' surprise for D-Day veteran celebrating 100th birthday in Somerset

D-Day veteran Lieutenant Richard Willis RN, an acclaimed artist, with a self-portrait. Credit: Family handout

A veteran of the D-Day landings has celebrated his 100th birthday with a "top secret" surprise at his care home in Somerset.

Lieutenant Richard Willis RN was the second in command on a landing craft tasked with taking US tanks and troops to Utah beach in Normandy as part of Operation Overlord in June 1944.

He was wounded in the leg by shrapnel during the attack and many years later was awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French government.

Lieutenant Richard Willis RN was presented with a D-Day chart of the Utah beach landings to mark his 100th birthday. Credit: Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset/PA

His centenary was celebrated at Nynehead Court Care Home, near Wellington.

The Vice-Lieutenant of Somerset, Ted Allen, was there to thank Lt Willis on behalf of the King for his war service.

“It’s an honour for me to be here today to celebrate the milestone birthday of a remarkable man,” Mr Allen said.

“The country owes all our veterans an enormous debt of gratitude and it was a joy for me to be able to express that gratitude on behalf of His Majesty.”

Lieutenant Richard Willis RN was second in command of his landing craft on D-Day. Credit: Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset/PA

The Lieutenancy organised for the veteran to be presented with a D-Day chart of the Utah beach landings, prepared by the UK Hydrographic Office and held in its archives in Taunton.

The chart – once labelled Top Secret – was inscribed: “Presented to Lt Richard Willis… on the occasion of his 100th birthday. With the thanks and admiration of the Lord-Lieutenant and the people of Somerset.”

It was presented by Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, chief executive of the UK Hydrographic Office, who said: “Landings on to opposed beaches are amongst the most dangerous combat experiences in any conflict.

“The fact that D-Day landings were successful changed the course of the Second World War.

“The sacrifices made in those days should never be forgotten. To honour one of our local veterans in this way is really the least we could do.”

Lt Willis, who was joined by his family for the surprise, said: “I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve this.

“I was just there. But D-Day was an experience I will never forget.”

Two other former senior military officers – Rear Admiral Ian Moncrieff and Brigadier Richard Toomey, both Deputy Lieutenants in Somerset – were also present at the birthday celebrations.

Lieutenant Richard Willis RN was wounded on D-Day. Credit: Lord-Lieutenant of Somerset/PA

After leaving the Royal Navy, Lt Willis became a professional artist and his work – particularly in maritime art – achieved high acclaim.

Much of his work was influenced by his wartime experiences and he was the youngest ever exhibitor at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1942.