Mel Wallace receives his Legion d’Honeur from Mayor Councillor Jan Taylor at River View care home in Darlington, pictured with his also called Mel and standard bearers. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

AGE UK Darlington recently discovered an ex-Royal Corps of Signals soldier in a Care Home in Darlington.

2582883 Sig Ronald Melville Wallace (known affectionately as Mel).

During discussions, they discovered that Mel had served right through WW2 and had recently been awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government but had not been officially presented with it.    They contacted the Mayor of Darlington’s Support Officer to ask if the Mayor would be prepared to officially present the medal and the Mayor responded with – “it would be an honour”.

At the same time, the Darlington Branch of the RSA were advised of this situation and our Branch Visiting Officer made contact with Mel with a view to helping make the presentation a memorable occasion.

On Thursday 25th January, the Worshipful, the Mayor of Darlington, Councillor Jan Taylor presented Mel with his medal in the Care Home.   The room was packed with residents, the Chairman and Standard of the Darlington Branch of the Royal British Legion and the Vice President, Chairman, Branch Visiting Officer and Standard of the Darlington Branch of the RSA provided the backdrop.   On receiving the medal from the Mayor, he responded with, “I accept this award on behalf of all the men who didn’t come home”.

Having listened to a brief overview of his history during the presentation, a meeting was arranged to get a more in-depth picture of his military history.   Mel’s son, also called Mel was present and able to fill in the gaps and provide prompts for his father.   The meeting was full of laughter as Mel recalled his story, but it was noted that there were also sad moments as his memories recalled the loss of his friends and comrades.   So, what follows is Mel’s story:

Mel was born on 27th September 1920 and in 1938 had been disturbed by the stories coming out about what was happening in Germany.   He had always wanted to go to sea, so obtained enlistment papers to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.   The papers needed signing by his father, but his father, who had served in WW1 and been wounded twice, tore them up and threw them on the fire, with the firm words of advice – “Never volunteer for anything”.

Despite that, or indeed in spite of that, Mel went down to the local TA Centre in Darlington in 1939 and enlisted as a TA soldier on 1st May 1939 in 50th Divisional Signals, part of 50 (Northumbrian) Division as a driver.   He discovered that he didn’t need parental consent to enlist, only his signature.   He was paid £4 a year bounty, less boot polish, for two nights a week, Tuesday and Thursday, for two hours and some weekends.

On Friday 1st September 1939, a despatch rider brought a note to his front door.  It was a typed letter stating – “report to the Drill Hall no later than …….” and written in was “Immediately!”.

On 22nd October he was off to Bampton, Oxfordshire and then to France in January 1940, finally stationed at Loos near Lille.   This didn’t last long as it was back to Dunkirk for evacuation and landing at Ramsgate on 1st June 1940.   A brief stay at Blandford from July 1940 until November 1940 followed and then on to Bridgewater until 20th May 1941.

On 22nd May 1941 Mel left from Greenock, Scotland for the Middle East, stopping at Freetown, Sierra Leone in June, Durban, South Africa for 1-day shore leave on 20th June, Aden on 4th July, ending up in Egypt from 10th July to 29th July.   On 30th July he was transferred to Cyprus, where he stayed until November 1941, when he was off to Haifa, then Palestine, travelling on through Iraq to spend Christmas 1941 in Kirkuk protecting the oilfields.

Mel left Kirkuk on 12th January 1942, moving back through Iraq to Baalbeck, Syria, then through Egypt and into Libya to the Battle of Gazala in June 1942.   This battle was a major defeat for the allies and on  27th June he was withdrawn back into Egypt for re-group, re-enforce and re-fit.   Mel was in reserve for the Battle of Alamein in November 1942 and following the allies’ victory, moved back into Libya again.   On Boxing Day 1942 Mel was evacuated back to Egypt to recover from jaundice.

In February 1943, Mel hitched a lift with a South African convoy with the aim of rejoining his Regiment in Libya and spent some time with 2nd Cheshire Machine Gun unit and a South African artillery unit, before a permanent posting to ‘H’ Section Signals attached to the Royal Artillery.

By April 1943 Mel was in Tunisia before the Regiment was withdrawn back to Egypt to prepare for the invasion of Sicily.

Mel saw the back of Africa on 10th July as he headed for Sicily, moving right through Sicily, crossing to mainland Italy briefly and then returning to Sicily.    On the 23rd October 1943 Mel left Sicily, sailing back to the UK, docking in Liverpool and travelling down to Long Melford, Suffolk in November 1943.

H Section was based at Chadacre Park near Hartest, Suffolk where more training took place.   Mel was given a M14 half-track to drive on the 11th March 1944, before moving to Brockenhurst, Hampshire in April.   On 2nd June 1944 he was loaded on to an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) for the D-Day invasion, only for it to be put on hold, so they circled the Isle of Wight.

On 6th June 1944 (H+90mins), Mel landed on Gold Beach, near le Hamel, moving through Normandy and into Belgium by mid-September.   Mel was involved in part of Operation Market Garden, crossing the Nijmegen Bridge, stopping just short of Arnhem.

Mel was then withdrawn back into Belgium in December 1944, returning to the UK for leave, before being back in Bruges, Belgium for Christmas 1944.

A posting to GHQ Liaison Regiment (Phantom) then followed in March 1945, based first at Waterloo, Belgium and then Baddenhausen, Germany.

Early 1946 Mel was detailed to draw DR (Despatch Rider) kit, consisting of a waterproof coat and round helmet, and take a motor cycle down to Brussels, so that an officer could get about and fix up football pitches for matches between Phantom units and local teams.   When that had finished Mel went back to Baddenhausen in preparation for demob.

Mel then took a train to Calais, a boat to Dover and a train to York Station where he was de-mobbed on 15th March 1946.  Mel says that you had to hand everything in except what you were dressed in and the greatcoat, if you gave up the greatcoat you received 30 shillings (£1.50p) extra.   He managed to keep the DR Coat, which was waterproof, hidden in his kit bag.

Apparently, it was like being in “Burtons”, blokes going around with tape measures around their necks.   Mel was given a grey pinstripe suit, shirt, tie, trilby and a pair of brown shoes.   The thing that most impressed Mel was that they kept calling him “Mister”, quite a change from what he had been called during the last 7 years.   Mel then went on 111 days paid leave, which had risen from 8 shillings (40p) a week at the start of his regular service, to 35 shillings (£1.75p) at then end, less the inevitable stoppages of course.

The treasured waterproof DR coat was eventually sold in 1953, along with a Royal Enfield motor bike that he had bought with part of his de-mob money.

So in summary, Mel’s war consisted of him travelling through 16 countries – France, Belgium, South Africa, Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Germany and The Netherlands – I think he deserved to keep his DR coat !!!

Footnote – Mel, and his son, returned to Normandy for his 90th birthday, actually standing on the very spot where he came ashore on D-Day.  Mel Jr says that his father was making jokes all the time, until they visited the grave of one his friends and that cracked him up.    A local Belgium family came up to him at one point to thank him for saving their country.