Burlington resident made a Knight of th French Legion of Honour at ceremony aboard HMCS Haida.

News 100 blueBy Pepper Parr

August 7th, 2016



It was a small, dignified ceremony on a lovely sunny summer afternoon at HMCS Star aboard the retired Tribal Class destroyer HMCS Haida.

There Colonel Roger Vandomm, of the French Consulate pinned a medal on the chest of Bill McConnell. The media release had Bill down as William (Bill) Basil McConnell RN (retd)


HMS Ramillies firing all four 16 inch guns

While aboard the British Battleship HMS Ramillies, Bill, as what we would call an electrician today, climbed up into the Aloft Directory of the ship to fix an electrical fitting when the four 16 inch guns of the battleship roared.

Bill was not able to put his hands over his ears because, as he put it, “you can’t cover both ears, hold the ladder and your tool kit at the same time”. He was instantly deafened, completely in on ear and seriously in the other.

Battleships were huge ships and carried four 16 inch guns that sometimes were fired so often that the paint burned off the barrels. We rattle off that phrase “16 inch guns” quickly when we are talking about a big bullet that measures more than a foot wide.

The roar of the shell coming out of a barrel, four of them at the same time, pushes that battle ship sideways.

The guns had huge range and required a crew of gunners, fitters and electrical types to maintain it. Bill was one of the electrical type, known then as an electrical artificers,

Bill joined the navy at the age of 11. He was at the Royal Hospital School, which was part of the British Navy at the time. It was basically a boarding school where the students wore uniforms. The students got seven weeks of vacation each year.  Bill’s father was a Gunnery Chief Petty Officer, these were tough men.

Bill served on a number of ships – the one that he served on the longest was HMS Ramillies, a First World War battleship that was deemed to be good enough to put to sea.

The electrical types were seen as better educated than other ratings – thus when it was clear there was going to be a war in 1938, Bill found himself doing paperwork related to reserve naval types being called up. It was a situation where 15 year old boys were doing the paper work that brought men, some 60 years of age, back into the service.

Battle map D day

HMS Ramillies was part of the naval support on DDay. She was tasked with taking out German guns at Benneville shown on the far right. They needed just 80 minutes to destroy most of the German guns

Ramillies was part of the D Day landing in June of 1944. She was to use her big guns to take out a German battery with six 6” guns at Beneville, France to the east end of Sword Beach. The Ramillies took out four of those gun batteries in 80 minutes. The British shells coming in meant the Germans had to do their best to return fire and were not able to train their guns on the troops landing on the beaches.

It was during this battle that Bill had to go aloft to the Aloft Director to repair some electrical equipment. The Aloft Director is the station high up on the ship that was used for observation.

The Allied landings on the Beaches of Normandy France were ferocious battles; thousands of men were lost. It was however the battle that turned the tide and the beginning of the Liberation of France.


Legion d’Honneur awarded by the President of the republic of France.

On the 70th Anniversary of the war ending the French government decided to make anyone who was involved in the landings a member of the Legion d’Honneur – the Legion of Honour.

During the ceremony on Sunday Colonel Vandomm read a document that said: “By order of the President of the Republic of France, you have been awarded the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.

McConnell + Vandomm

Chief Petty Officer William Basil McConnell being awarded the French Legion of Honour by Colonel Roger Vandomm. The smile of appreciation on the Colonel’s face told the story.

“This distinction, the highest national order of France, illustrates the profound gratitude France would like to express to you in recognition of your personal involvement of the liberation of our country during World War II.”

Bill kept his eyes closed for much of the presentation – no doubt recalling the roar of those guns and the huge risk he was under.

While the guns were blazing three torpedoes sped past the battleship – two on one side, one on the other.
Bill stayed in the Navy after the war and left in 1953 after fifteen years of service.

His skills were quickly put to use as he worked for the next sixteen years in the development, installation and acceptance testing of guns and missile controls.

While on a vacation to Canada he found a job working on the “Sea Sparrow” missile control systems for the Canadian DDH280 destroyers.

Bill moved from working on ships to becoming part of the team that established sites, did equipment installation, commissioning and acceptance trials for the Anik geostationary satellite TV receive and telephone transreceiver stations in the far north and the Maritimes.

In 1977Bill joined the Canadian Department of Communications doing sub contract work for the Hermes satellite operations group,

In 1986 he was part of the Canadian Astronautics organization that designed and assembled high gain extendable array antennas.

After overseeing the construction of three satellite receiving stations in Goose Bay, Labrador, Churchill and Edmonton Bill returned to retirement.

He spent several years travelling and then spent eight years in a French Canadian farming village.

He moved to Burlington in 2008 to be nearer his only Canadian relative.

McConn aborad Haida

Bill McConnell, speaking to an audience after being made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour. He was aboard HMCS Haida in Hamilton. Burlington MP Karina Gould and Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring took part in th ceremony.

As a 93 year old Royal Navy retired Chief Petty Officer, William Basil McConnell climbed the steps of the gangway to board HMCS Haida where he was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour.

A long way from his experience as an 11 years old Electrical Artificer.

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3 comments to Burlington resident made a Knight of th French Legion of Honour at ceremony aboard HMCS Haida.

  • John McConnell

    This is my Father’s brother, my Uncle Bill. This is a great article and I thank you for it.
    Sadly the family is rather sparse. Both my father (2004) and mother (2015) have passed and my personal circumstances have made me lose touch with most of the other relatives.

  • Marie Gogarty

    Thank you for a great article that put the boy and man in the story. It was a wonderful day and was fully supported by our MP Karina Gould, Mayor Goldring and Parliamentary Undersecretary for Veterans Affairs Ottawa – Ms. McCrimmon as well as the Represetnative from the French Consulate Colonel Vandomme. He was also graciously hosted by HMCS Star and Parks Canada in the use of HMCS Haida as the official medal ceremony site.