“This lunch is to say thank you from all the citizens of Belfast,” said Belfast’s Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Sonia Copeland, before presenting gifts (and a gentle kiss on the cheek) to 98-year-old Second World War veteran Edward (Teddy) Dixon last Thursday.
Roamer was privileged to be amongst the small gathering of Teddy’s family and friends in the Lord Mayor’s parlour in the City Hall, hosted by Councillor Copeland in recognition of Teddy’s distinguished wartime service.
She’d previously been contacted by war historian and website compiler Andy Glenfield, who suggested to her that Teddy’s remarkable story should be marked and remembered.
It’s included in the vast range of Second World War accounts on Andy’s website at www.ww2ni.webs.com.
Councillor Copeland’s short but moving introduction to Teddy began with his birth in March 1920 in New York – his family emigrated there in the early 1900s but returned to Belfast in time for their son to begin primary school and become a baker.
He was an Air Raid Warden during the Belfast Blitz of 1941, and following the D-Day landings in June 1944 the US government issued draft notices to citizens living abroad.
When Teddy’s call-up papers arrived in the post the 24-year-old Cregagh-lad signed up and became GI Edward Dixon, ‘F’ Company, 42nd Rainbow Division.
After forming the division, its famous name and colourful crest came from Colonel Douglas MacArthur’s explanation that “the 42nd Division stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other”.
Or in Teddy’s words – from “all over the place”!
“On the 29th of April 1945 Teddy arrived at the gates of Dachau,” continued Councillor Copeland on Thursday, “where Teddy and his squad liberated 33,000 prisoners.”
Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis in 1933, in southern Germany.
More than 40,000 died there before the US troops arrived, many shot or gassed, with thousands of others dying from disease or from their relentless, enforced workload.
Councillor Copeland listed Teddy’s many war medals, including the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star for ‘Meritorious’ Achievement in Ground Combat, the Good Conduct Medal, the European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 2 Battle Stars, the Victory Medal and the Army of Occupation Medal with ‘Germany’ bar.
“You’ve really got the history,” quipped Teddy, before summarising his remarkable Second World War story in a few humble words which included a quiet and understated admission – “the concentration camp was rough, so it was.”
The 42nd Division landed in France in December 1944 and advanced through France as part of the 7th Army, entering Germany in March 1945.
It was during the Division’s rapid advance through Germany in April 1945 that Teddy’s 12-man squad of soldiers became the first to encounter horrific scenes as they liberated the emaciated survivors of Dachau, near Munich.
He remembers the smell – “a horrible, terrible smell.”
As they approached the camp along the railway line they discovered “endless boxcars full of rotting corpses”.
They found one man who had been left for dead in a carriage but was still alive and they gave him some medical attention.
“The dead were lying everywhere and the smell was indescribable. There were bodies all over the place.”
They gave their rations to as many of those who could eat but “it was too late for those who died in front of our eyes”.
The deep, silent, unimaginable memories between his words spoke loudly as Teddy recounted “the barrage of mortars at midnight” from the Germans, as the Rainbow men settled down to sleep in their tents outside Dachau.
Three of his buddies died.
Later in the day Teddy’s unit came across 40 German soldiers.
“We killed about 30 of them,” said Teddy “because we were in the mood for fighting.”
In just over a week the war in Europe ended on May 8th 1945 and Teddy’s Division went to Austria, searching for Nazis hiding in the Alps.
They were also involved in an unusual operation south of Salzburg, in a salt mine where around 2,000 priceless paintings by various masters had been hidden, stolen by the Nazis from Europe’s art galleries.
Knowing that defeat was imminent, the Germans had loaded the paintings into wooden crates and hidden them in the mine.
The hoard included works by Michelangelo, Vermeer and Van Eyck.
The crates of priceless canvases were removed by German POWs under the watchful eyes of Sergeant Teddy Dixon and his comrades.
He admitted last Thursday that he hadn’t seen a single framed masterpiece, which remained firmly enclosed in their heavy crates.
Just a few weeks after the war ended Teddy was granted leave and ended up in Paris for the first Bastille Day celebrations since France’s liberation from the Germans.
“It was some party,” he told his City Hall guests, “I didn’t get out of Paris until the next night!”
During the lunch Teddy exchanged wartime memories across the table with fellow Second World War veteran Flight Lieutenant Bill Eames, an RAF pilot from Enniskillen who saw action on D-Day and Operation Market Garden.
Also at the table was UTV’s Paul Clark, who has family connections with men who fought and died in both World Wars.
Paul ended the lunch with a moving tribute to Teddy and Bill.
“We owe you, we owe your generation, a debt of gratitude that can never be adequately repaid. We forget you, we forget what you did, at our peril.”