Forces for Good - An interview with Harry Billinge

Sunday, 06 June 2021

In March 2020, two men of different generations but similar experiences were awarded the MBE. Both were military veterans who had suffered unbelievable trauma during warfare – Harry Billinge on D-Day in 1944, Mark Ormrod in Helmand in 2007. They spent the following years devoting time and energy to other people and taking part in charitable endeavours. Both are also Freemasons. We talked to Harry and Mark about their military careers, their charity work and the importance of Freemasonry to their lives

Harry Billinge, MBE

It’s almost 77 years since Harry Billinge landed on Gold Beach at dawn on 6 June 1944. But even with the distance of seven decades, he’s liable to break down in tears when he thinks about what he witnessed on D-Day.

Harry had followed his father and brothers into the army in 1939, turning down the chance to be an enlisted officer and instead serving as a sapper in the Royal Engineers. He was just 18 on D-Day, when he became one of four in his unit to survive the landing and subsequent battles in France. He waves away any attempt to describe him as a hero, offering only stark thoughts on the horror of battle.

‘There are no words to describe that terrible day,’ he says. ‘22,442 British men died in Normandy, and it made a terrible impression on me. The sea on D-Day was red with human blood. It still brings tears to my eyes.’

Although Harry is now 95, he still spends every day striving to ensure the fallen will never be forgotten. His energy is focused on raising funds for the British Normandy Memorial that will be located in a field overlooking Gold Beach. Etched on the stone will be the name of every individual who died serving in a British unit during the Battle Of Normandy.

Since 2018, he has been a regular presence on his local high street in St Austell, Cornwall, collecting funds and creating awareness for the memorial. He has raised more than £25,000 and displayed a dedication that has inspired other fundraisers – dubbed Harry’s Army in honour of their relentless figurehead.

Harry arrived in Cornwall having struggled in London following his discharge from the army. He couldn’t sleep at night, and instead, would walk the streets of Petts Wood and Chislehurst. ‘It was still haunting me,’ he says. ‘They call it battle fatigue. My country taught me how to kill people and when you’ve done that, you have to live with it.’

He found some peace in Cornwall. There he opened a hairdressers, working with his scissors until he retired at 83. He also performed as a licensed reader in the Anglican Church, preaching in 44 different churches, including up to five each Sunday.

Harry has been an active Freemason for decades, having followed his father into the Craft. His father was initiated into a lodge in Pune, India, where he was posted after World War I, but later became a member of St John’s of Penge, No. 5537. Harry joined the same lodge in 1964. He served as Master and is also a Past Master of Lodge of Fortitude, No. 131 and Plym Lodge, No. 3821 in the south west. ‘Freemasonry and the army both need discipline,’ says Harry. ‘ I always do what I can with all my might, I don’t take anything out – I put a lot in. That’s what a Freemason should do.’

His charitable work has included raising money for the Royal British Legion, selling poppies for more than 60 years. In 2020, his efforts were recognised by Great Western Railway, which named a train after him, an honour to go alongside his MBE, Légion d’honneur and dozens of other medals. ‘I went to Penzance to see the train named after me. That was another lark. I’ve met Prince Charles at St Austell, we spent a long time at the rugby club having a cup of tea and chatting. When I got my MBE it was lovely to meet the Queen.’

COVID-19 might have slowed Harry’s activities, but he’s continued to raise funds for the British Normandy Memorial whenever possible. Those unthinkable experiences on the beach at D-Day have defined his life. ‘What I remember is the lovely men, all loving one another,’ he reflects. ‘Normandy veterans loved one another beyond the love of women. If you laid in a hole with a bloke being bombed and shelled and shot at, you became part of him and he became part of you. You know that bloke, you know his soul, and if you know that bloke, you have to love him.

‘When I was in the church, I conducted many funerals for Normandy veterans and Freemasons. I have done my best at everything I do and I still collect money for these people whenever I can.’ Donate to the Memorial Trust here: www.normandymemorialtrust.org/harrys-army/

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