Fond memories for D-Day veteran Neville

Posted: Friday 08 May 2020

“I missed all the VE Day celebrations as I was part of the Pacific fleet over in the Far East and the war in Japan was still going on. So I missed out on all the parties and all the girls kissing sailors, which was very disappointing!”

It may be 75 years ago since VE Day but Neville Lees still remembers it well. Then just 19 years old, Neville was serving in the Royal Navy as a gunnery radar engineer when the Second World War officially ended in Europe. He would remain in the Pacific for another year before returning home in the summer of 1946 after completing three and a half years’ service.

Now 94, Neville, who attends the Macular Society support group in Fleet, Hampshire, will be proudly wearing his medals to commemorate the milestone anniversary on 8 May. This year, one very special medal will be taking pride of place: the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit, which Neville was awarded for being a member of the allied forces that took part in the Normandy landings – often referred to as D-Day – on 6 June 1944, which began the liberation of German-occupied France.

Neville said: “I received the medal last autumn; I’m very proud of it and I’ll definitely be wearing it on VE Day. I had been due to have it officially presented to me by the French Ambassador, but, because of the coronavirus outbreak, we haven’t been able to have the ceremony yet.

“On D-Day, my ship formed part of the outer ring of defence that protected the armada going to Normandy. When the landings had been rehearsed in Devon, the Germans had attacked the fleet doing their practice run and several hundred American army and navy personnel were killed, so it was our job to stop that happening.”  

After leaving the navy, Neville would spend much of his working life in the aerospace industry until retiring aged 65. Some years later, while living in Cornwall, he started to notice a problem with his sight when driving at night.

Neville said: “My wife Kath and I used to drive to our friend’s house regularly for an evening meal. One night on our way home, I began to have difficulty with the glare from oncoming traffic. I’d never had this before but the lights on the other vehicles were totally dazzling me.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d developed wet macular disease in my right eye, and the central vision in that eye was gone. So we actually stopped doing that journey at night and would only visit them during the day.

Just over five years later, Neville, who by this time had moved to Lincolnshire, was trying to read a newspaper one morning and found he couldn’t read the text.

Neville said: “I’d been waiting for a new pair of glasses from my optician, so I went to the shop. The new pair hadn’t arrived so I asked if I could have some over-the-counter glasses. They gave me some to try, which didn’t help, so I said: “I’m going to need the strongest pair you’ve got,” and the optician told me that the ones I had were the strongest available.

“After that, I went straight to my GP. I was referred to hospital in Nottingham, and that’s when I was diagnosed. I had heard of macular disease before, because a friend back in Cornwall had been diagnosed a couple of years previously. I did have Lucentis injections initially, which I had to pay for as the treatment wasn’t available on the NHS at that time, but it was too late to have any effect.

Refusing to let macular disease win, Neville joined the Macular Society as a member and began attending one of the charity’s peer support groups in Lincoln.

“The biggest thing for me to begin with was not being able to drive. I’d only recently bought myself a new car, a Mercedes A Class, and I’d envisaged myself cruising through the South of France like an aged James Bond! But now I wasn’t going to be able to do that.

“Very quickly, I’d decided I wasn’t going to mope about things and whatever I needed to do to, I was going to do it. We lived just south of Lincoln so I had to rely on lifts to be able to get to the group, but I really enjoyed going, and I also managed to attend one of the Society’s annual conferences in London too.”

Now living in Fleet, Neville was one of the founder members of the Society’s support group based in the town, which launched in 2017.

Neville says: “It’s a lovely group and there’s a very nice crowd of people that go along every month. I’m looking forward to going again when we’re able to resume the meetings.

“I’ve still got enough peripheral vision to be able to see movement and contrast, and I do use a magnifier and Text to Speech on my computer, which are very useful.

And Neville believes a positive outlook and keeping a sense of humour is the best approach.

“I was in the supermarket a little while ago with my wife, and I had my Blind Veteran’s badge on. A lady saw my badge and came to speak to me. She said she would bring her husband over, as he was a Blind Veteran too.

“We started chatting and I began telling him about the Fleet Macular Society Support Group and how helpful I find it. I said to him that he should come along to the next meeting; he might find it interesting. He said: 'Yes, I’m already a member.' I said: 'Oh, I haven’t seen you?' And he said: 'No, I haven’t seen you either,' and we both started laughing! It certainly helps if you can still laugh when things like that happen.”