Hundreds line streets for funeral of D-Day veteran Harry Billinge

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The coffin of 96-year-old Harry Billinge is carried into St Paul’s Church in Charlestown, Cornwall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
The coffin of 96-year-old Harry Billinge is carried into St Paul’s Church in Charlestown, Cornwall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Hundreds of people have flooded the streets of a Cornish town to pay their respects to the late D-Day veteran Harry Billinge.

The funeral of Mr Billinge, who died earlier this month aged 96, was held on Tuesday.

Mr Billinge was 18 when he was one of the first British soldiers to land on Gold Beach during the Normandy invasion in 1944.

Mr Billinge was one of only four survivors from his unit (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Mr Billinge was one of only four survivors from his unit (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

A sapper, also known as a combat engineer, he was attached to the 44 Royal Engineer Commandos and was one of only four survivors from his unit.

He was honoured by a funeral procession, which passed the war memorial cross outside Holy Trinity Church in his home town of St Austell, and a guard of honour, which included standard bearers, and Requiem Mass at St Paul’s Church in nearby Charlestown.

Mr Billinge was made an MBE in 2020 after raising more than £50,000 to build a national memorial honouring his fallen comrades – the 22,442 service personnel killed on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.

Mr Billinge was 18 when fought during D-Day on June 6 1944 (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)
Mr Billinge was 18 when fought during D-Day on June 6 1944 (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)

The year before, he told journalists: “I’m no hero, I’m lucky.

“All the heroes are dead and I’ll never forget them.”

Mr Billinge was also fundraising for the Poppy Appeal for 65 years, long before he set his focus on the memorial project.

He was a well-known figure outside the Travelodge in St Austell where he would collect for his causes.

During the hour-long service, led by the Rev Canon Malcolm Bowers, a eulogy was read by Nicholas Witchell, a journalist and founding trustee of the Normandy Memorial Trust.

“Harry Billinge wasn’t a large man physically but he had a huge heart, indomitable spirit and a captivating personality,” Mr Witchell said.

“He epitomised I think many of the best qualities of his remarkable generation. The generation who stepped forward to do its duty when the future of this country was at peril.”

Veterans outside St Paul’s Church, Charlestown, where D-Day veteran Harry Billinge’s funeral was held (Ben Birchall/P) (PA Wire)
Veterans outside St Paul’s Church, Charlestown, where D-Day veteran Harry Billinge’s funeral was held (Ben Birchall/P) (PA Wire)

Mr Witchell continued: “Harry came home in 1945 bearing the mental scars of war, they were with him for many years.

“And like many who have witnessed war at first hand – and how appalling we are seeing it again in Ukraine now – Harry knew there was nothing remotely romantic about it. Harry knew the reality.

“’War is a terrible thing’ said Harry. And he knew just how terrible.”

He said Mr Billinge had an unwavering dedication to preserving the memory of his friends and that is how the two met in a shared desire to have a memorial built in Normandy for the British soldiers who had fallen there.

“We, the Normandy Memorial Trust, had this most inspiring champion, a 90-something-year-old poster boy no less,” Mr Witchell said.

“He was just a natural.

Mr Billinge’s family after for the funeral service for the 96-year-old (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Mr Billinge’s family after for the funeral service for the 96-year-old (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

“People warmed to this wisp of a man with a winning smile, and his selfless commitment to honour the memory of his friends.

“For Harry it was never about him, it was always about them.”

Mr Witchell said taking Mr Billinge to Normandy to see the memorial last year was an “emotional experience”, and revealed that the first thing he did was look for the names of friends and the soldiers he fought with.

“Harry was a deeply spiritual man with an unyielding sense of what was right. Steadfast and true always. And that, I suggest, was a big part of his magic,” he said.

“He had a wicked sense of fun but at his core was a set of unshakeable beliefs. One of those was to never forget the friends he left behind in Normandy in that summer of 1944.”

The coffin of 96-year-old Mr Billinge is carried out of St Paul’s Church in Charlestown, Cornwall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
The coffin of 96-year-old Mr Billinge is carried out of St Paul’s Church in Charlestown, Cornwall (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

Let There Be Peace on Earth, a song singer and TV presenter Aled Jones recorded with Mr Billinge for his album Blessings in 2020, was played during the service.

Afterwards, bugle call The Last Post was played and a moment of silence was observed.

Items adorning Mr Billinge’s coffin included a bible, cross, poppy wreath, his picture, his Royal Engineers beret and a Union Jack pillow displaying his medals.

The Rev Canon Bowers said: “He arranged this service only a few months ago when, I think, he realised his health was failing.

Standard-bearers at the funeral service (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Standard-bearers at the funeral service (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

“He faced death with the same bravery he showed on the Normandy beaches.”

Hundreds attended to pay their respects to Mr Billinge, many gathering in St Austell and on the road outside the church in Charlestown.

There were cheers and applause when Mr Billinge’s coffin was carried out of the church, with the wake due to be held at St Austell Brewery.

The service was also livestreamed to a nearby community centre with seats for 120 people, and aired on speakers outside the church.

Mr Billinge grew up in Petts Wood in Kent but lived in Cornwall for 70 years after being advised to leave London for a better quality of life.

Harry Billinge fundraising in St Austell High Street in Cornwall (Normandy Memorial Trust/PA) (PA Media)
Harry Billinge fundraising in St Austell High Street in Cornwall (Normandy Memorial Trust/PA) (PA Media)

He set up shop as a barber and became president of the local clubs for the Royal British Legion and Royal Engineers.

The veteran is survived by his wife Sheila, daughters Sally and Margot, son Christopher and granddaughters Amy and Claire.

Mr and Mrs Billinge were married for 67 years and were due to celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary in August.

Six months ago, on October 26, he was able to visit Normandy to see a new memorial for fallen British soldiers.

Nicholas Witchell reads the Eulogy at the funeral service (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)
Nicholas Witchell reads the Eulogy at the funeral service (Ben Birchall/PA) (PA Wire)

In a tribute published on Monday, his family urged those wanting to honour Mr Billinge to become guardians of the British Normandy Memorial.

Margot Billinge said: “Harry was a very loving husband who always looked after mum. He was steadfast in his love for her.

“As a dad, he taught us great values: honesty, kindness, generosity and not to judge.

“Dad was always there to guide us. He was always a very charitable man and collected for the Poppy Appeal for over 65 years.

Mr and Mrs Billinge’s wedding day in 1954 (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)
Mr and Mrs Billinge’s wedding day in 1954 (Family handout/PA) (PA Media)

“When he got the brochure about the British Normandy Memorial in the post, he felt compelled to start collecting. In his efforts to raise money for the memorial, he found great peace.

“The original idea was to collect £1 for each of his comrades that died on the beaches – 22,442. But, of course, it amounted to much more than that. It gave him a purpose; meeting with members of the public kept him going.

“In an interview with the BBC a few years ago on Remembrance Sunday, I recall him saying he just wanted to be remembered as ‘a good old sapper who did his best’.

“He also said: ‘I hope I shall live in the hearts of people who won’t forget Harry.’

“Harry wanted future generations to never forget his comrades who fell in Normandy. If members of the public would like to pay their respects to Harry, we ask that they become guardians of the British Normandy Memorial.

“We would very much like the work towards the Memorial and the education centre to continue in Harry’s name.”

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