Ireland was neutral in the second World War, but neutrality did not extend to the tens of thousands of Irish people who joined the Allied cause.
One of them was Sub-Lieutenant Michael d'Alton who joined the Royal Navy in 1942. Now 93, he is an Irish veteran of the D-Day landings - a participant and eyewitness to that momentous day, June 6th, 1944, when the fate of Europe hung in the balance.
D’Alton was second-in-command of a landing craft tank (LCT), the workhorse of the Royal Navy. It was bound for Omaha Beach on D-Day with a cargo of six Sherman tanks.
He still lives near where he was brought up in Dalkey. He was born in April 1921, making him older than the State.
His family had a history of service in the British armed forces. His father was shot in the leg during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the first World War, a campaign which provided an object lesson in how not to run an amphibious operation. His brother was also in the Royal Navy and his sister was in the Women's Auxillary Air Force (WAF).
His reasons for joining the Royal Navy shortly after he graduated as a quantity surveyor, were clear.
“I thought it was absolutely intolerable that Hitler was going to conquer Europe. I wanted to try and stop that awful German monster.”
He was commissioned as a sub-lieutenant in the navy. Two years after he began his training, d’Alton found himself part of the greatest armada in history. His LCT was half way across the English Channel when it was called back following the postponement of D-Day for 24 hours.
They then set sail again for the Normandy coast. The number of craft, he remembered, was “absolutely unbelievable”. The slightest lapse in concentration could lead to a collision.
The landings at Omaha Beach inspired the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It was based on the experience of the first companies of American soldiers who tried to take the heavily-fortified Dog Green sector of the beach.
They were subjected to murderous machine gun fire. Hundreds died before they even reached the beach at 6.30am during the first invasion wave.
Mr d’Alton remembers they landed around “11ish”. Five hours in the context of a bloody battle is an eternity. His LCT had been waiting, impatiently in the case of its commanding officer, offshore for hours to land.
“After some hours there, he suddenly declared,‘we’re going in’,” Mr d’Alton said. “The commander of the tank said ‘I can’t go ashore if no one else is going’. He (the commanding officer) showed a flash of his true form. ‘You’ll bloody well go ashore or I’ll shoot you’ and the tank commander looked disconcerted and went back to the tanks.”
Mr d’Alton eventually got off the landing craft to find a gap to come ashore. After he did, they dropped anchor and he attempted to open the bow door of the landing craft. His D-Day was nearly over before it began. He struggled to open the door until he realised it was sitting on top of a highly-explosive Teller mine. They backed off and found a safer place to anchor. He confessed to being “too preoccupied” to be scared.
His first impressions of Omaha Beach were of chaos. All manner of tanks, jeeps and lorries sought to find a space to land amidst the debris of the early carnage.
“My first thoughts were what a bloody shambles. Once the first shot is fired, the best of plans is gone to bits. And that’s what it is. The ones who win the war make the least mistakes.”
His abiding memory of that fateful day was not the German counter-attack but the tragic demise of a tank crew who had disembarked from a landing craft only to sink to the bottom of the sea.
The landing craft had come to rest on the edge of a large underwater hole which had been inadvertently dug up by other vessels . “It was so simple and so quiet,” he recalled with a vividness which belies the 70 years between then and now. “It has never left me, the awfulness of their quiet demise.”
Mr d’Alton and his crew spent the following weeks after D-Day travelling back and forward to Normandy with various vehicles including field laundries.
Two weeks after D-Day, he arrived back on Omaha Beach. The danger from the Germans had been cleared, but they left a deadly legacy. Some British soldiers decided to play football and the ball went into a rock pool. When the soldier went to retrieve it, he was blown to bits by an mine.
“It rather sobered me up,” Mr d’Alton remembers.
After D-Day, he returned to the UK. He was supposed to command a LCT in the Far East, but the war there ended too quickly. He was demobbed afterwards and returned to Ireland where he took up a job as a quantity surveyor.
Being an Irishman in the British armed forces was no big deal at the time, he said, as so many of his contemporaries had joined. Matter of factly, he also believes Irish neutrality was the right course of action.
“We’d be more of a liability than an asset. Far more forces would have had to be devoted to our protection that were needed elsewhere.”
Some years ago he went to see Saving Private Ryan with his son Mark. Mark recalls that his father emerged from the cinema and over a pint confessed "that's exactly what it was like".
Mark says: “He’s very good on the logistics, but he doesn’t remember much of the horror now. My grandfather was in the first World War and my father in the second. We’re a very lucky generation.”