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Inspirational alumnus receives French Legion d’Honneur for WWII service

Dr Tony Atcherley awarded French decoration for involvement in emancipation of France

A Birkbeck alumnus has been awarded the Légion d'Honneur for his involvement in the emancipation of France during World War II.

Dr Tony Atcherley, MA Dip Soc, 90, who in 1957 completed a Certificate of Philosophy at the College’s then Faculty of Continuing Education, received the accolade – the highest decoration in France – in recognition of his service as a wireless operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, attached to HQ 2nd Battalion of the Gloucester Regiment.

Dr Atcherley joined the war effort in 1943. The Leeds-born soldier saw action throughout France, Holland and Belgium, including the D-Day Landings on June 6 1944 in which he came ashore in Havre Heurtault on Gold Beach.

The following day, on his 19th birthday, he narrowly escaped sniper fire from a church tower in Magny, and consequently went on to participate in a ferocious battle against units of the Panzer Lehr Division around the village of Tilly-sur-Seulles.

Fear was something which didn’t really enter the mind, Dr Atcherley reflected of his time on the battlefield.

“One was stupefied almost, rather than frightened. And of course, if we were frightened, we didn’t dare show it because it would be more disgraceful to us and our friends. You would have felt ashamed,” he explained.

“The terror came later on, when you were in slit trenches with mortars and shells coming down. As you were crouched in a trench, there was nothing you could do about it but pray. That’s when you really are frightened.”

Immediately after the surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945, Dr Atcherley served as an interpreter, stationed throughout Germany. He was demobilised in 1947.

In the 1950s, he studied philosophy at Birkbeck.

He said: “Back then, it was difficult to go to university if you didn’t have the normal background of completing a grammar school education and so on. Getting on to the ladder was difficult. The only chance anyone had was Birkbeck. It had a fine reputation, and some famous historians were there. It was full of very distinguished scholars.”

During his career, Dr Atcherley worked as a secondary school teacher of English and Religious Studies, and then moved on to higher education, latterly becoming a principal lecturer at the University of Brighton. He took early retirement in 1980, and has since travelled throughout Europe, while keeping in with his academic interests - in 2007 co-writing the book Hitler’s Gay Traitor: The Story of Ernst Roehm, Chief of Staff of the S.A, with his colleague Mark Carey.

Remarking on receiving the Légion d'Honneur, Dr Atcherley said the French Government’s announcement to honour British war veterans had come as a surprise.

He said: “You might expect something military, but not this top honour for everyone. As far as I can see, it’s usually given to people that have done 40 years of service. So I was absolutely delighted. It’s one of the most remarkable things I’ve had in my life.”

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