Most of the world first met John Spencer, the 8th Earl Spencer, when he walked his daughter Diana down the aisle to marry Prince Charles in 1981.
Spencer was still recovering from a stroke when he made the walk with Diana in front of an estimated worldwide television audience of 750 million people.
But few, including his own family, knew the story of of his service during World War II. NBC News recently traveled to France with John Spencer’s son, Charles, to uncover his father’s untold story.
A few years back I got a letter from Normandy: “Your home is called Althorp - might you know who a Lieutenant Althorp was, in 1944?”
The eldest son in my family is called Lord Althorp. I knew my father was fighting in the war then. I replied that it must have been him.
This is how I learned that, while a 20-year-old lieutenant, he’d led a small force of British troops who liberated two Norman villages, La Vieille-Lyre and La Neuve-Lyre, 80-odd miles west of Paris.
The villagers kindly invited me to their celebration of the 75th anniversary of their freedom from German tyranny. I was told not many would be able to come. (In August, the French take their vacation time seriously.)
But on the appointed day, around 300 people appeared, flags flying, bagpipes playing (my father’s regiment was the Royal Scots Greys), and with tangible joy in the air.
We gathered round a memorial thanking the “British liberators," and I felt great pride when the commanding officer that day was mentioned — my father.
Like many of his generation, he chose not to talk about his wartime experiences. I knew he’d landed on D-Day plus one. That he’d seen a great friend fall to a German sniper. That he was mentioned in dispatches. That was pretty much it.
Now I met people who remembered the day he’d freed their community.
Here was Georgette La bouche, aged 93, whose family had risked their lives to hide a shot down Canadian pilot. When my father and his men came along, her family retrieved his hidden uniform and told their Canadian guest that he was free to rejoin the Allied forces. She still had a square of his parachute in her handbag.
And 93-year-old Hubert Bertre, whose two boyhood friends were rounded up that morning by German troops, lined up against a wall, and shot for no good reason. “These memories remain hard for me," he said in a faint voice.
Several of the older villagers thanked me for my father’s actions, with tears in their eyes. I stressed that he’d not have wanted a fuss — that he’d have pointed out that he was just doing what he’d been sent to do, like tens of thousands of others.
At the end of the gathering several of us released doves of peace into the air. Then the villagers took me to a reception, where they gave me a bottle of Calvados, their local apple brandy. They had offered the same to my father, 75 years earlier.
I was proud to represent my father in Normandy, but left wondering how I would have coped if I had been 20, in wartime, with the future of the Allied cause in play.