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Brussels Branch

Remembering Eric Johnson BEM

Setting the standard for over half a century
by Dennis Abbott

Eric Johnson BEM held a unique place in the story of the Brussels branch after serving as its Standard Bearer for a remarkable 56 years, from 1956 to 2012. He passed away on 10 August 2021, aged 96. 

Eric was one of the last links between the illustrious wartime generation and today’s membership. He sought not only to ensure that the traditions and achievements of the branch he served so well were remembered but that future members continued to aspire to the same high standards and values.

Eric at Hotton in 2004

Eric was born in Leicester on 2 April 1925. He lived in the city throughout his childhood, leaving the family home at 19 when he was called up on 3 June 1943 and joined the Royal Army Service Corps. He knew what to expect from Army life because his older brother Dennis was a driver in the RASC and his eldest brother Albert had served in the Royal Artillery.

Eric joined 62 Company and, after basic training, also found himself at the wheel, driving trucks and ambulances.

He arrived in France in July 1944 on a Liberty ship from Southampton with 21st Army Group. It was the time of the Normandy “breakout” as the Allies sought to make gains after the fall of Cherbourg and Caen. Eric’s company was initially held in reserve on the Cotentin Peninsula.

On 26 August, the unit moved up to Rouen, taking 2,000 tons of supplies across the Seine.

Just over a week later, Eric arrived in Brussels during the liberation.

‘She is for me’

So far, his war had gone without a hitch. But he was lucky to avert disaster when the truck he was driving, packed full of ammunition, had a bad accident. Eric stayed with the vehicle until he was rescued by a Royal Engineers unit and taken back to Brussels for treatment at Brugmann hospital.

By chance, his brother Dennis happened to visit the hospital and was surprised to see him. Their unexpected reunion made the local newspaper in Leicester.

After recovering, Eric rejoined his unit on the Rhine crossing and advance into Germany. His war ended at Lüneburger Damm on the outskirts of Hanover.

He returned to Brussels and met his wife-to-be Monette at her parents’ laundry near Schaerbeek station. “He went in with a friend and when he saw Mam he said ‘She is for me’,” recalls daughter Kathleen. Eric and Monette were married in Schaerbeek on 8 October 1947.

Eric and Monette on their wedding day

Hello Harry

He joined the Brussels branch of the Legion in the same year after another chance encounter – again outside Schaerbeek’s neo-renaissance station. For it was here that he re-connected with Harry Moffatt, who would become his best friend (they met in the Army but neither could remember exactly where or when).

Schaerbeek station, a location holding dear memories for Eric

Harry’s son-in-law Jean-Pierre Pede, the branch’s current Vice-Chair, takes up the story:

Harry arrives at the station in an old van and gets out.
Eric: What are you doing here?
Harry: What about you?
Eric: I’m working with my father-in-law in his laundry.
Harry: I have a laundry too!

The pair joined the Brussels branch at the same time as another British pal, Burma veteran Harry Harris, whose brother Bert was a long-serving President and Chairman of the branch.

Eric became a committee member in December 1955, in the same team as Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC of the Special Operations Executive, Norman Dewhurst MC, a globe-trotting spy, and Princess Margaret’s “ex”, Battle of Britain ace Group Captain Peter Townsend CVO DSO DFC.

Starr role

Colonel Starr invited Eric to take up the reins as Standard Bearer in 1956 – and he agreed without hesitation, probably not realising for one minute that he would continue in the role for more than half a century.

Far from the dour image that is often associated with the 1950s, this was a glamorous period in the branch’s history, packed with dances, parties and film premieres, as people sought to put the privations of the war years and occupation behind them.

Not that the war would ever be forgotten by Eric’s generation. For them, commemorations weren’t just about honouring those who had lost their lives but remembering some of their best mates.

In August 1967, Eric was recruited as a driver by the British Embassy Brussels, a job he stayed in for nearly 23 years until his retirement in April 1990.

He has happy memories of his time there, even if the job was not without stressful moments. He recalled how he once had to take a Minister from the Embassy to the airport. Unfortunately, his Austin car broke down but quick-thinking Eric managed to restart it with a metal coat-hanger and they made it to the plane in the nick of time.

Eric and his Austin Princess

Meanwhile, the Legion also kept him on the go, with a busy calendar of ceremonies in Brussels, Evere, Molenbeek, Hotton, La Roche-en-Ardenne and Antwerp.

By Royal command

Among the highpoints of his service was being in the detachment of honour at Brussels’ Grand Place on 9 May 1966 during Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s state visit to Belgium.

Eric’s Legion role was also recognised when he won the trophy for Best Standard Bearer at the annual rally of the Combined Branches in Belgium held in Antwerp on 3 September 1972.

He was awarded his Gold Badge on 15 January 1982 and the British Empire Medal (BEM) in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s 1990 Honours List, in recognition of his services to the Embassy and RBL. The medal was presented to him on 9 March 1990 by Ambassador Robin O’Neill during a special investiture at the Ambassador’s Residence in Brussels.

Eric was bestowed with life membership of the Legion by National Chairman Graham Downing on 7 July 1997 and, in November 2008, British Ambassador Dr Rachel Aron presented him with the Voluntary Service Medal in recognition of his service the branch.

The citation read: “Eric sets an example to us all with his enthusiasm, immaculate turn-out, and charming spirit. He always makes time to chat to everyone. In fact he makes it his job to get to know them, whether a new member, an old member, or even children who turn up to events from time to time. A better representative we couldn’t and indeed do not have.”

Eric and Kathleen at Hotton in 2006

Final flourish

After 56 years of making the job his own, Eric Johnson turned out for what would be his final appearance as Standard Bearer during the annual commemoration at the CWGC cemetery in Evere on 23 June 2012, although he would return there to lay a wreath with daughter Kathleen on 25 June 2016.

Sadly, Eric lost his best friend Harry in May 1983 and suffered an even greater blow in May 2013 when he lost his much-loved wife Monette, who had always supported branch events at his side.

The close Johnson-Moffatt family ties continue to flourish, however.

Eric’s daughter Kathleen married Harry’s nephew Bob Vanderbiest in 2002. And Harry’s eldest daughter Ethel, who is married to Jean-Pierre Pede, was very close to Eric until the end. "It’s a small world for us – and that’s how best friends keep their families together," says Kathleen. 

Life-long friends: Kathleen, Ethel and 
Robert at Westende on the Belgian coast

Eric and Ethel at Hotton in 2006

Légion d’honneur

Eric looked back with immense pride on his years of service in the Brussels branch. After “training” a few would-be successors, more than a decade after announcing he planned to retire, he was happy to finally hand over the gauntlets to current Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux.

On 10 February 2023, Eric was awarded a posthumous Légion d’honneur in recognition of his service during the liberation of France in 1944. The French Ambassador to Belgium, François Sénémaud, presented the insignia to Kathleen during a moving ceremony at the French Residence. Family, friends from the Legion and dignitaries including the British Ambassador to Belgium, Martin Shearman, attended the event.

After receiving the decoration on Eric’s behalf, Kathleen, who was accompanied by husband Robert Vanderbiest and cousin Claudine Pardon, told the guests: “He would have liked to be here today and proud to have had this privilege. As he always said: ‘KEEP THE FLAG FLYING’.”

French Ambassador presents the Légion d’honneur to Kathleen

Eric’s decorations

1939-1945 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal 1939-1945, War Medal 1939- 1945, British Empire Medal, Voluntary Service Medal, Commemorative Medal of Interallied Merit (France), Légion d’honneur (France).