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One of Ireland's last surviving WW2 veterans given France's highest honour

Honour: Ninety-eight year old Sir John Leslie
Honour: Ninety-eight year old Sir John Leslie

One of Ireland's last surviving Second World War veterans has been awarded France's highest honour for his role in liberating the country.

Ninety-eight year old Sir John Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill, toasted the Legion d'Honneur with a glass of Champagne during a ceremony at the French embassy in Dublin.

"I wish to accept this award on behalf of all soldiers from the island of Ireland who fought and died between the two great wars," he said.

Known for hosting Paul McCartney's wedding to Heather Mills at his family seat Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, Sir Jack enlisted in the Second Battalion of the Irish Guards in August 1937, at the age of 21.

Three years later he was part of the British Expeditionary Corp that landed in France in May 1940.

Commanding a section that battled for two hours to defend Boulogne Sur Mer against advancing Germans, he was captured and spent the next five years as a prisoner of war (POW).

It was believed for a time that he had been killed in action.

During his captivity, he risked his life to spirit out a postcard to his cousin Mr Churchill pleading for a POW exchange to allow some of his comrades in the camp who had taken ill to be freed. The missive hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Awarding him the Legion d'Honneur, France's Minister of State for Veterans and Commemoration Jean-Marc Todeschini said Sir Jack's courage, sense of duty and spirit of solidarity are exemplary.

"You said you were only doing you duty," said Mr Todeschini.

"But it was far more than your duty that you accomplished because you committed your life for the survival of your country, of France, of Europe and of your comrades.

"For me it is honour to convey to you today, such a special day for Ireland, the eternal recognition of France.

"It is a honour I feel myself, having read your trajectory but also faced with your humility.

"You epitomise the friendship and the memory of the Irish soldier."

Sir Jack, who will celebrate his 99th birthday next month, said he felt "humbled" by the award, France's premier military decoration founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.

After being released from German captivity in 1945, he travelled the world before settling for some time in Rome, where he bought a 1,500 year old monastery.

Returning to Castle Leslie in 1994, he became well-known for his love of rave music at local nightclubs and he travelled to Ibiza to celebrate his 85th birthday at Privilege, the world's biggest nightclub.