A Rainham historian had a proud weekend displaying his dad’s war medals and memorabilia from the D-Day landings 80 years ago this week.

Richard Smith, 68, regularly holds exhibitions at the Ingrebourne Valley Visitor Centre on the site of the old wartime RAF Hornchurch airbase.

His display on Saturday and Sunday (June 1 and 2) ahead of the June 6 anniversary of the Allied Normandy landings attracted more than 500 visitors.

Richard’s dad Robert Smith was on board HMS Beagle giving cover fire to Allied landing craft on the beaches during the 1944 invasion.

Many landing crafts came under heavy fire from German torpedo boats.

The Beagle answered a distress call from one landing craft and had to navigate through German mines to rescue American soldiers. Robert helped them clamber up rope ladders on the side of his destroyer to reach safety.

“My dad recovered a US Army helmet from a GI (soldier) he rescued from the water after the landing craft sank,” Richard explained.

“The name in the GI’s helmet was O’Hara with a serial number. I took the helmet back to Normandy 10 years ago to the D-Day museum and war cemetery to see if O’Hara was on their records.

“But we couldn’t trace his name — I hope Private O’Hara survived the war.”  

His father had joined up in 1942 aged 18 and remained in the Royal Navy until 1946 when he enlisted in the Australian Royal Navy. He later joined the Met Police in the 1950s after marrying and settling in Ilford where Richard was born and raised.

Richard’s friend from his schooldays in Ilford, Peter Reynolds, turned up at his exhibition in a German wartime uniform, adding to the historic atmosphere — he has been a professional extra in many war films.

A commemoration service at RAF Hornchurch, now Hornchurch Country Park run by Essex Wildlife Trust, was held on Sunday by the 1838 RAF Elm Park Air Cadets, whose commander Jeff Skillman laid a wreath at the memorial marking the former airbase. It was followed by the sounding of the Last Post, a two-minute silence then Reveille.

Others taking part included Elm Park Royal British Legion.  

Richard's anniversary exhibition included artefacts from the town of Mere-Eglise where US parachute trooper John Steele got caught up on a clock-tower making a landing when he was blown off course, made famous in the 1962 film The Longest Day.

A raffle prize trip in a wartime Spitfire was given at the exhibition by the Blenheim Society which maintains a working wartime Blenheim bomber in Cambridgeshire.

Also on show were wire cutters used by British troops to get through German defences, spent shells, cartridges and even rusty barbed-wire itself recovered years later from the beaches.

Historian Paul Hunt displayed his collection of D-Day military firearms — as well as sand from the five invasion beaches he has scooped up on his numerous visits to the Normandy coast.

But pride of place for Richard was his dad’s wartime medals — the 1939-45 Star, Atlantic Star, Defence Medal, Victory Medal and two UN Korean war medals — as well as GI O’Hara’s helmet under fire from the D-Day landings.