Dunne’s story beats them all

An Irishman’s Diary about Ireland’s most decorated survivor of the second World War


When people began planning the “decade of centenaries”, they probably didn’t have events like Joe Dunne’s birthday in mind. Even so, as he prepares to turn 100 early next month, the Offaly man may belatedly have forced himself onto the agenda.

Dunne was born on June 8th, 1914, three weeks before a certain assassination in Sarajevo would pitch the world into war. A generation too late for that conflict, he grew up in an unaligned Free State, and so might also have avoided the sequel. Like many Irishmen, however, he chose otherwise.

It was an old-fashioned urge for adventure that led him to get involved. In fact, he had first dreamed of becoming a New York policeman until a doctor in Tullamore advised him that a spell in the British army might improve his recruitment prospects.

So in 1936, he and some friends enlisted in the Irish Guards. And they had already seen action in Palestine, during the Arab uprising, before a rather greater conflict put paid to any chances Joe had of ever patrolling the Bronx.

The theatres of his involvement in the second World War would sound, in a later, peaceful era, like opponents in a World Cup group – Norway, followed by Tunisia, then Italy. In war as in football (usually), Italy was the crunch encounter. But then again, the Irish Guards found trouble wherever they went.

In Norway, where they were part of an operation to evacuate the royal family and hold up the German invasion, they fought a fierce rearguard battle at Pothus Wood – the source of one of Joe’s several medals.

In north Africa, they were involved in a hellish confrontation at a place called The Bou – a strategically important ridge, defending which they suffered dire losses and won a Victoria Cross.

And then there was Anzio, an operation that has been called the Allies’ “greatest blunder” of the war. It achieved its aim, eventually – establishing a beachhead for the advance on Rome. But inadequate resources and the overcautious tactics of a US general combined to prolong the action, at great human cost, for months.

“I had hoped we were hurling a wildcat into the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale,” complained Churchill of the initial assault. Decades later, Anzio would also be lamented in a song by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, whose father lost his life there. Its bitterly ironic title – When the Tigers Broke Free – belied the lengthy stalemate. Waters’s father died in February. It was May before the Allies broke through.

None of which was the fault of the Irish Guards, or of their Sgt Joe Dunne. In a succession of fraught encounters in Italy, he proved himself the bravest of the brave. His single most dramatic engagement was with six enemy snipers at a village called Carroceto, on January 31st, 1944. None of them survived the gunfight, which began during the morning and continued until afternoon, when he tracked down the last of the group, who had fled to a nearby farm.

He was himself wounded in the process, a fact he didn’t mention in his official report. His commanding officer was less modest on his behalf. Recommending Dunne for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he praised his “skill, dedication, marksmanship, and personal courage”.

His battalion suffered grievously at Anzio, however, so that was to be his and their last overseas campaign. Settling in postwar London, he married a Cavan woman and, after she died, raised their children.

For years he worked as a barman in the Junior Carlton, which was frequented by Conservative Party members. As such, he was responsible for yet another act that must have required great courage.

The club’s bar was still a men-only establishment back then. So when a young Margaret Thatcher attempted entry one day, it was Joe Dunne who had to stand in the way. He survived that too, happily, but maybe another medal should have been struck.

The old soldier returned to the Irish midlands in the mid-1980s, and continues to live there today and is now this country’s highest-decorated survivor of the second World War.

A stroke deprived him of speech some years ago. But according to Ross Glennon, a member of the Western Front Association who has written an account of his career, he remains mentally “as sharp as ever”. When family and friends gather to celebrate Joe’s birthday next month, it promises to be one of the more cheerful events in a decade of solemn commemorations.

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