Veteran was a man of many talents
INTEGRITY, sincerity and honesty read the cards of condolence just days after Maurice Hillebrandt MBE, of Stoneyford Park, died at the age of 85, the tributes just poured in.
INTEGRITY, sincerity and honesty read the cards of condolence - just days after Maurice Hillebrandt MBE, of Stoneyford Park, died at the age of 85, the tributes just poured in.But it wasn't just a few; at his Budleigh Salterton home there were more than 150 covering the mantelpiece - penned by politicians like the British defence attache in Paris, commodores, old school friends and colleagues, all espousing Maurice's virtues, a testament to the many lives he touched: "He was the sort of man who kept in contact with everyone, no matter how long ago," said his wife Valerie."He still wrote to people he knew at school when he was just six. He never forgot people; he always made time and kept in touch with friends. The cards sum him up."Maurice Hillebrandt, who died during an operation to repair a ruptured aorta, was born in Paddington, North London, in 1923 and educated in Willesden.The son of a Belgian soldier, wounded in the Great War, and an English nurse who tended his injuries, to say he had his fingers in lots of pies was something of an understatement.Although best known for single-handedly establishing a war memorial in Normandy to honour his fallen Royal Navy comrades in D Day - for which he was awarded the MBE in 2003 - his array of interests, campaigns and hobbies was truly dizzying.In his youth he was something of an action man; turning his hand to kite-surfing, water skiing, skiing, paragliding, and flying in microlights as easily as football, snooker, tennis, cycling, and boating.In his artistic endeavours he was equally as versatile and enthusiastic - despite being unable to read music he played the violin and piano accordion in numerous genres including swing, jazz and big band. He also dabbled with sculpture and photography.He even tried for a pilots licence: "He was very disappointed when he didn't get it," said his wife Valerie. "He always had problems with his blood pressure, something he battled with and the doctors wouldn't sign the certificate (to fly)."As if that wasn't enough, his links with charities were as varied, including Imperial Cancer Research, founding the Old Scholars Association (a hangover from his time at Willesden School) and John Groom's Association for the Disabled.Described by his wife as an 'ardent Thatcherite', as a former servicemen, military charities, including Combat Stress, and the welfare of veterans after they left the services, was particularly close to his heart: "He used to fundraise in the street - you would see him regularly in Exeter. He raised �15,000 over the years," she added.He joined the Royal Navy in 1942 at the age of 18, serving under Lord Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations, which were involved with planning, equipping and training for offensive amphibious assaults.In 1946 he was discharged and moved into local Government, and worked in education and eventually started up a youth club.A deeply religious man after his first marriage failed in the early 1960s, he moved to New Zealand for a couple of years: "He was working long hours in a full-time job, studying for a degree and running a youth club. I think he took on too much and that all contributed to the breakup," said his second wife Valerie.But it was while chairing the North London Divorce and Separation Club he met Valerie and they married in 1976.In 1995 they moved from London to Budleigh Salterton, which was something of an accident: "We came here by mistake," she admitted. "We were driving through Budleigh on the way to see another house."We saw the estate being built, the house was only about two-foot high at the time and we liked it."That same year Maurice was reading a booklet, a Visitor's Guide to the Normandy Landing Beaches and it dawned on him that, while there were more than a hundred memorials of the allied forces involved in the invasion of Normandy, there was not a single one to commemorate the Royal Navy and Royal Marine crews of the landing vessels.As Devon chairman of the Landing Craft Association and member of the Royal British Legion, he was already heavily involved with honouring the veterans of the two world wars.In honour of his Belgian father, he joined the Amicale des Anciens Combatants Belges, travelling to The Cenotaph in Whitehall every year on their National Day in July, laying a wreath - Belgians are the only non-British or Commonwealth soldiers allowed to do this - and now he wanted to do more.He lobbied the mayor of the French fishing town of Ouistreham at the western end of Sword Beach for a piece of land, and quickly organised a popular campaign of fundraising, and for a time used Symes Robinson and Lee solicitors shop window in Budleigh Salterton to publicise his campaign."He had no problem raising the money," she said. "People were pleased to give, and he was a great administrator."Finally, on the morning of Tuesday, June 6 2000, after more than four years hard work "the original vision of Maurice Hillebrandt, with the support of Lt Cdr Jim Brend MBE RN (Ret), became a reality" said the Chaplain of the fleet. Deservedly, the ceremony received all the pomp and ceremony the French and British could muster - the memorial was unveiled by HRH Prince Phillip, complete with the British and French Guards of Honour - the British Guard from HMS Exeter - the French Military Band, high ranking British and French personnel, the Veterans Guard of Honour and the HM Band of the Royal Marines.Maurice said at the time: "Words cannot adequately describe the wonderful pageantry of the Service of Unveiling and Dedication of the Memorial to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines crews, especially those who gave their lives or were wounded, of over 4,000 landing vessels, which transported the allied soldiers and their equipment to the Normandy beaches."Maurice returned every year and even joined in the 60th Anniversary of D Day in 2004, where he planted a tree and was tasked with introducing landing craft veterans to HRH Prince Charles.Valerie added: "Every year since 2000 he organised the Remembrance Service on June 6 and now the Royal Marines will look after the memorial in perpetuity for him. The memorial was his pice de resistance."Maurice's body was cremated yesterday (Wednesday) after a ceremony at St Peters Church, attended by a contingent including Commodore Jamie Millar and a Plymouth RM Band bugler.He leaves a wife, Valerie, a son Paul and a daughter Avril.