Légion d’honneur for 91-year-old Barbara from Plungar

Barbara Kemp wears her Legion d'honneur medal.
Barbara Kemp wears her Legion d'honneur medal.
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A 91-year-old from Plungar has received France’s highest award, the Légion d’honneur, for her role in the country’s liberation during the Second World War.

Thanks to the efforts of her daughter, Vicky, just before her 91st birthday this month, Barbara Kemp received a very special package in the post, containing the most prized medal in France.

Barbara aged 20.

Barbara aged 20.

Barbara was one of just eight women in a company of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, sent over to France following the D-Day landings.

In December 1942, 18-year-old Barbara was walking past the recruitment office when she decided to sign up on the spur of the moment. Within a week she was sent to Pontefract for training.

After the D-Day landings in June 1944, a small group of women were assigned to join a men’s unit in Roubaix, France. However, it was a treacherous journey over.

“We had the E-Boats chasing us,” Barbara remembers. “We were on a troop ship, and it took us four days to get across the Channel because the E-Boats could hear the engine. We had to keep stopping and listening. But that was great fun!”

Barbara says her signing of the Official Secrets Act prevents her from detailing her duties, but she describes it as clerical and admin work which the women took over from the men so that they could go to the front. “I didn’t think I’d get the Légion d’honneur, being a woman, because the women were’t allowed to be on the front line like the men on D-Day,” she says.

Yet, although not fighting at the front, they were still very much in the midst of an ongoing battle. “Some of the time the Germans pushed us back,” she said. “And we could hear the guns at Dunkirk.”

Later, she was posted to Malines, Belgium, and was still far from safe.

“This Messerschmitt used to come over, we used to see it coming, and we all dived for cover. I used to think he was getting rid of his ammunition,” she said.

“But it only happened for about a week. And it didn’t worry me, actually. The strange thing is, because you had other people there, you weren’t scared. I was young then, and I wasn’t scared. Now I’d be terrified.”

Vicky has no doubt of the risk her mother took, which prompted her to call the Ministry of Defence about the award.

“She takes it all for granted,” Vicky says, “but they checked the dates when she was over there, and they know that at that time it was very much about putting your life on the line.”

Barbara says she would like to share the honour with her late husband, Bill. He, too, saw service in France, with the Royal Navy minesweepers. “He was there the night before D-Day, so if he was here today he would have got the medal, too,” she said.

Vicky agrees, adding: “Both Mum and Dad had a role to play in the war and in some respects I see it as a recognition of both of them.”

Their eventful military carreers saw Bill returning home with an injured knee after his ship hit a mine, and Barbara suddenly struck by illness.

“I spent two months in Antwerp and then they brought me home on a hospital ship. They never diagnosed me but they did think it was polio because I couldn’t move anything except my head,” she said.

Back in England, the couple recovered and were soon married. While Bill qualified as an architect, Barbara continued clerical work in the much calmer surroundings of an insurance company, and later Rushcliffe Borough Council.

They enjoyed 60 years of marriage, and have another daughter, Tina, a son, Travis, two grandchildren and one step-great-grandson.

For many years Barbara has read the homage at Plungar’s war memorial on Remembrance Day, proudly wearing her France and Germany star and war medal. Now she looks forward to adding this rare decoration of the Légion d’honneur. “I’m so pleased with it,” she said: “It made my day when it arrived.”