“I will always remember it, the 17th September 1944. We took off from Beacon Hill in Lincolnshire, I can even tell you the time we took off – it was 11 o’clock. It was a lovely day and the sun was shining and when you looked down, you could see people going to church.”
Ted Shea is sitting in the front room of his home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, flicking through an album of old photographs when he pauses at the picture of himself and his unit crouched in the back of a Dakota as they were preparing to parachute into Arnhem and one of the bloodiest battles of second World War.
On the eve of celebrating his 100th birthday, Ted is in reflective mood as he looks back on a life less ordinary which brought him from Glengarriff, West Cork, to London and through the horrors of war in North Africa, Italy and Holland before setting up home in the northeast of England.
Flanked by his daughters, Susan and Bridget, Ted recalls how he was one of a family of six that grew up on small hill farm at Coomerkane on the Healy Pass road outside Glengarriff. He and his siblings were orphaned when his parents, James and Bridget, died within eight years of each other.
He then spent three years in the industrial school in Upton with his younger brother, Paddy before he returned to Glengarriff. In the early 1930s, they followed their older sister Molly to London.
“London was a big change from Glengarriff, there were no youngsters around Glengariff at that time – they had all left, gone to America and Canada.
In London, “you would see factories with signs up ‘No Irish need apply’ – it was a tough life.”
Ted started working laying electric cables for Prices before joining Nash Builders, building a new estate in Romford. In 1939, he joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment based in Surrey. War broke out soon after and he volunteered to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment where his training took him all over England and he remembers singing ‘Kevin Barry’ in the troop convoys.
“I had never been in plane before but we had to do seven jumps to qualify as a paratrooper – five from a barrage balloon with a basket beneath — there was a hole in the bottom and you just dropped through it and then two jumps from a plane and you were qualified,” he recalls.
Ted’s first taste of action came in Tunisia when he parachuted into Souk El Arba in November 1942 before going to fight beside the French Foreign Legion at Djabel Mansour.
“Before you go into action, you are all tensed up – people used to ask me was I nervous but once the fighting started and shells and everything are flying about it, you just don’t think about it and you just get stuck in,” he says Ted.
He was wounded in the leg at Djabel Mansour in February 1943 but soon rejoined his unit to be with them when they parachuted into Sicily in July 1943 where he helped secure the Catania Bridge. They were then withdrawn to take part in the invasion of Italy, landing by sea at Taranto and fighting his way up to Brindisi before they were again withdrawn.
“We had no idea at all what life was like under German occupation – we wouldn’t have known about the concentration camps at all, for example, until after the war but landing in Italy and climbing over the rubble we saw what war was like for civilians and it was the most shocking thing.”
Back in Britain, Ted and the paratroopers were held in reserve during the D-Day landings but three months later, the British 1st Airborne Division were to play a central role in Operation Market Garden when they were assigned to capture the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in eastern Holland.
“The Arnhem job came up and they gave us three or four days to take the bridge – it was quiet when we landed, not like for the Polish who were shot before they even hit the ground, but it got hot and heavy then because of course the bridge was very well defended.
“We didn’t have a chance up against the German Panzers – we didn’t have any artillery – all we had were mortars and Bren guns and of course the main army never made it up and the Germans cut us off and we were stuck there on our own.”
Wounded when “a burst of machine gun bullets” ripped up his arm, Ted was captured and ended up having his arm amputated by a German doctor before he was transferred to Stalag VII A POW camp at Moosburg near Munich from where he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange in January 1945.
Back in Britain when war ended, Ted spent two years attending Roehampton Hospital where surgeons worked to correct the botched amputation before he was discharged from the army. By this time he had met his future wife Sheila Hoare from Old Parish near Dungarvan.
“I met her through a friend of mine – I was smitten straight away. She had been in London during the war. We got married in Overton Road in Enflield, she was working as a nanny for a fashion designer so her wedding outfit was very classy,” he recalls with a smile.
They moved to Newcastle later in 1947 where he worked in security for Bainsbridge and later John Lewis. Sheila died in 1993 - "I miss her everyday," he says. A year later, Susan and Bridget brought him back Arnhem for the 50th anniversary of the battle. "It was so much nicer being able to walk off the plane this time," he says with understated humour.
Proud of his Irish roots, he has a copy of the 1916 Proclamation on the wall of his livingroom. He carries an Irish passport and he recalls how he met President Mary Robinson in Newcastle. Like many second World War veterans, he is modest about the part he played in the defeat of Hitler and fascism. Ask him if he sees himself as a hero, he shuffles uncomfortably for a moment and then replies in a low voice: "It was just a day's work to you really, I wasn't a hero. The heroes are all those chaps we left behind – we lost a lot of good men in Arnhem, I lost a lot of pals – they are the real heroes."