Jean Coron

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French war veteran, coal miner and engineer

Born: 8 June, 1920, in Villebaudon, Normandy, France.

Died: 19 January 2010, Lochore, Fife, aged 89.

JEAN Henri Leon Coron spent the war years as a torpedo man in a Free French submarine patrolling the North Sea and on the hazardous Murmansk run. He also served in the Med with a British-built sub, the Curie, and his war service earned him the highest French honour, the Legion d'Honneur.

Recruited to the French navy aged 17 in 1937, Jean was initially stationed at Cherbourg before the outbreak of hostilities, but after the invasion of Nazi troops and the fall of France in 1940, he was forced to leave his native country. He was waiting to embark on the submarine Minerve, which was under repair, when German troops were spotted and he and his crewmates had to flee the invasion on board a trawler to Southampton.

On arrival in Britain, they were imprisoned, but Jean and others made it clear that they wanted to fight with the Allies and were sent to London. Once there, Jean joined up with General Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces in the struggle to free occupied France.

By coincidence, he also met the captain of the Minerve, which had limped across the Channel on one engine. Jean rejoined the crew of the newly repaired sub, which operated out of Dundee.

For the remainder of the war, he fought alongside men of six other nationalities at the HMS Ambrose submarine base in Dundee, from which the 2nd and 9th flotillas operated. He served on patrols in the North Sea, most escorting convoys in case they were intercepted by German battleships, and saw action around the Norwegian coast.

In April 1941, on a mission to sink a cargo ship in Norway's fjords, Jean and his crewmates almost met with disaster. A 7,000-tonne tanker carrying aviation fuel appeared in front of the forward tubes. He fired on command, sending torpedoes smashing into its hull, sinking the vessel.

Unfortunately, the resulting explosion exposed the sub's conning tower, which displayed the tri- colore. The tanker had an escort of three German gunboats and the submarine immediately came under heavy fire. Shells hit the hull, but they managed to dive again beneath the ship they had sent down. The Minerve landed on the bottom and lay trapped on the seabed at 120ft for 22 hours, unable to resurface.

Conditions were terrible and the air in the submarine almost ran out, with even the rats in the bilge deserting their stations. Jean suggested connecting the compressed air from the torpedo tanks to the main tanks might be enough to raise them from the sea bed. It worked. This shot the submarine to the surface like a cork out of a bottle and by luck it was at night so they managed to limp home to Dundee on the remaining damaged engine.

Jean then switched to a British-built U-class submarine, the Curie, and resumed patrols in the Mediterranean and the Aegean, sinking a great deal of German shipping, until the war ended. He completed 25 missions, roughly the limit for any submariner.

After the war, Jean's bravery and exemplary war record was recognised by the French government, which awarded him the Croix de Guerre with three citations and the Military Medal. He was also mentioned in a despatch for distinguished service by the British Admiralty on 9 July, 1945.

Jean married a Scots girl, Helen, whom he met in Dundee's Locarno Ballroom in 1941. They moved to France after the war and Jean worked as an interpreter in the French civil service. However, in 1947, they returned to make Scotland their home for good.

Jean initially found work as a travel agent but, due to employment restrictions, he was told that as a foreigner he could only work on farms, in a foundry or down a pit. This brought the couple to Fife, where they settled in Ballingry, and Jean worked as a coal miner in the Mary, Aitken and Glencraig pits.

Jean became a fireman and a member of management staff at the Randolph coal mine. After leaving the pits in 1967, he worked as an engineer at a farm near Monikie before joining the Balbirnie Estate, Markinch, until his retirement in 1982.

In August 1997, Jean was awarded the highest military honour France can bestow, becoming a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, receiving his medal from the French ambassador to Britain at a special investiture in the French Consulate in Edinburgh.

Jean was a modest man who spoke humbly of his war experiences, claiming he only did what most would have done in his position. He was grateful for this great honour, but was somewhat embarrassed by the attention given to him, and was always quick to praise the often-overlooked contribution of other submariners who endured appalling conditions and hardships in the service of their countries.

Jean was an active member of the North-east branch of the Submariners' Association and in autumn last year he spoke of his great pride when a memorial to the 296 submariners of HMS Ambrose, who died during the war, was unveiled at City Quay in Dundee. Jean loved his adopted homeland and was a well-loved local figure for many years in Ballingry, Monikie and Markinch, moving recently to Lochore, Fife. He embraced Scottish life with vigour, developing a keen interest in local history and a passion for golf and bowls.

Jean was a family man first and foremost whose life and example will continue to have a huge influence on those who knew him. He will be greatly missed by his wife, Helen, daughters Jacqueline and Franoise and son Paul, ten grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren and the extended family.

His death also symbolises the end of another chapter of Dundee's maritime history and of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. In the words of local naval historian Dr Andrew Jeffrey: "Jean was one of the heroes who operated out of Dundee. He was a remarkable character and an absolute gentleman."