Irish D-Day veterans return to Normandy

 

FRANCE: They tell Lara Marlowe in Ranville, Normandy of their difficulties when they went home after the war.

Thomas Meehan stooped over the tombstone and stuck a small wooden cross decorated with a red poppy into the earth. The 80 year-old veteran of the Royal Ulster Rifles, 1st battalion, used his cane to push the cross into the ground.

His son Paul stood behind him, ready to catch his wheel chair-bound father should he lose his balance.

"That was my gunner. He was killed beside me," Meehan said plaintively. Sammy Glass's tombstone records that the young man from Belfast died 60 years ago yesterday, age 22. "He was hit by a German sniper," Meehan continued. "It could have been me. I think about him as I knew him, and the times we had together. He was a great goalkeeper; he would have been goalkeeper for Northern Ireland." Meehan would later be wounded himself, crossing the Rhine River into Germany. After the war, he tried to live in London "but I just couldn't get used to it". He returned to Dublin where he married, raised children and worked for 36 years in the Guinness brewery.

Nothing in Meehan's life would ever equal the sheer terror of sailing into France before dawn on a glider towed by a Dakota aircraft.

"We lost 50 per cent of our men," he says, his eyes scouring the rows of headstones in the British war cemetery for other markers engraved with harps, more comrades to be remembered.

Painful as it is, though his sleep is troubled by nightmares each time he returns to France, Meehan does not want to forget. That is why he and three other Irish veterans are spending this week of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Yesterday, they attended a memorial ceremony in a village liberated by the Royal Ulster Rifles on June 7th 1944.

For all the talk about victory and liberation, the brief ceremony was a sombre moment. An ageing veteran read Siegfried Sassoon's First World War poem, "They shall not grow old as we grow old..." and his colleagues replied in unison, "We will remember them." Two buglers played "The Last Post." A few minutes later, Mr Meehan was asked to smile for a picture. "This is not a day for smiling," his son said.

The Irishmen in Ranville yesterday are but a tiny fraction of the 160,000 from the Irish Free State who fought under British orders in the Second World War, including 8,000 Irish army deserters. "The vast majority of them were Catholic," says (retired) Irish army Captain Donal Buckley, a director of Military Heritage Tours Ltd.

In 1998, Ireland honoured the 230,000 Irishmen who participated in the first World War by building a round tower at Messines. There has been no comparable gesture towards those who fought Nazi Germany.

"They came home and they were told to just keep quiet," Buckley continues. "They were regarded by extreme republicans as traitors, and the country didn't want to know about it. They've kept silent ever since." The British group "Heroes Return" has financed the four Irish veterans' stay, through the Royal British Legion in Dublin, with proceeds from the British lottery. They are accompanied by family members and several dozen Irish men and women who have paid €750 each to make the journey.

One of the veterans, Leo Caffrey (86) keeps his memories bottled up. "I won't talk about it," Caffrey says. "In the south, they didn't get recognised at all," Caffrey's grandson, Jason Murphy, explains. "He's been going mad about it for 60 years. When they came back, they weren't given pensions or jobs. They were blacklisted."

One can imagine what it felt like, after all they had lived through. Think of Thomas Meehan, towed by a Dakota plane above the Orne River, turning north just before Pegasus Bridge, behind German lines. If the bridges were not secured from the outset, Allied commanders feared, the Germans would blow them up as they escaped, slowing the advance into France.

"Of course I was afraid," Meehan says. "The gliders were only made of wood. A sharp breeze could crash you; a German machine gun could blow you out of the sky." Why did he join the British army? "There was no work for us," Meehan explains. "So we went up to Belfast and signed on." Was it worth it? "I often ask myself that question, and I can't answer it," he says, glancing back at Sammy Glass's grave.

Major Cyril Rand (84) formerly of the Royal Ulster Rifles, 2nd battalion, led a platoon in a seaborne landing, "their heads bobbing like mushrooms in the water." Fifteen of his 36 men died in the battle for Normandy. Of the Irish soldiers in his unit, Rand says, "They were good chaps; I had no problems with them." Then he quotes the Duke of Wellington: "The Irish are the finest soldiers in the world, provided they are led by British officers."

Cork-born Jack Allshire (78) was also in 2nd battalion, though he and Major Rand didn't know each other. "I wouldn't like to say...." Allshire mumbles when I tell him of the Wellington quotation. "Look at [Field Marshal Bernard\] Montgomery [who led the Allied armies in the battle of Normandy\]. He was Irish," Allshire adds.

Allshire was only 15 when he lied about his age to join up. "There was nothing to do in Crosshaven," he shrugs now. "We had to jump into the water," he says, recalling the landing. "Most of us had fold-up bicycles and rifles. You had to hold your rifle over your head, and a lot of the men drowned. Most of us threw the bicycles away." His worst encounter, Allshire continues, was at Cambes Wood, a few days later. "We were supposed to go in and clear out German snipers. It was an orchard with a high wall, and we had to cut our way in through barbed wire, under German shellfire."

Bill Fitzmaurice (81) from Bruree in County Limerick, says he joined the Parachute Regiment, 12th battalion, and later the Special Operations Executive, because there were two generals in his family and his father and uncle fought in the Somme.

"I've done all kinds of silly things in my life," is his only comment on the parachute drop into Ranville on the night of June 5th-6th 1944.

In Ranville cemetery, Fitzmaurice finds the grave of his commanding officer, one A.P. Johnson of the Suffolk Regiment. "That was my colonel," Fitzmaurice says. "He came from Newtownards. He was reading a map when the bomb came down." Tony Martin is an advertising executive from Dundalk, a captain in the Irish army reserves and co-director of Military Heritage Tours, with Donal Buckley.

"We share an abiding passion in recognising the contribution of Irish soldiers," he explains. Both men insist that Ireland's neutrality in the second World War was less than total.

The second World War chief of staff, Lt Gen Dan McKenna, a former IRA man, was in contact with Northern Ireland and the US, Martin notes. A weather forecast from the Irish meteorological station at Belmullet gave the all clear for the D-Day landings. The cement used to construct 'Mulberry harbours' on the Normandy coast was manufactured in Drogheda. "An Irish wag told a German spy who plied him with drink, 'We're building concrete submarines'," Martin recounts.

Father John McCallion from Dungannon is participating in this week's Normandy tour. The Anglican Church, he says, asked the Catholic hierarchy how Irish priests were smuggled out for training in France and Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, then back to Ireland after ordination. The information helped the 'Rat Line' which guided British pilots back to England.

European integration and the Belfast agreement have lessened ill feeling towards Irishmen who serve with the British army. After Lance Corporal Ian Malone from Dublin was killed with the Irish Guards in Basra last year, the Guards received a flood of applications from the Republic. "Irish people serving with the British army can come home now without getting shot," says Donal Buckley.

Father John says that in his experience, Irishmen joined the British army "because there was no work, and they got two square meals a day and the chance of adventure." But the priest believes morality was stronger than economic necessity. "If they didn't volunteer, it would have been swastikas hanging outside Belfast City Hall; the jack-boot," he says. Hitler's was a regime of pure evil. That's why these boys gave their lives. It wasn't for King and country; it was because if they didn't, Hitler would triumph."