Royal Ulster Rifleman who showed outstanding courage in Normandy

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Hugh Maguire, who died at his home in Scotland, was one of Northern Ireland’s few surviving veterans of the Normandy Landings in 1944 and had the distinction of serving in two armies during his lifetime.

Mr Maguire, who was born in Harthill in Scotland to Irish parents in 1920, was 98-years-old and spent his formative years in Co Fermanagh following the death of his mother at the age of 32.

Brought up at Drumboughlin three miles outside Maguiresbridge, from the age of four, he developed an interest in soccer and hurling as a young boy and following school joined the Irish army.

He was later to leave when he was refused leave to visit his father in Scotland and continued a military career in the British army.

He was with the Royal Ulster Rifles and took part in the landings at Sword Beach.

While pushing inland, near Caen, he was wounded when a shell exploded near him, resulting in shrapnel wounds to his back, shoulders and neck and blowing him into the air. A colleague, Corporal Tommy Baker, who had been beside him was killed. When he was 95-years-old Hugh visited Baker’s grave in Normandy and laid a small cross of tribute.

When his commanding officer wanted to send him for first aid, Maguire asked to be allowed to try and capture the machine gun post which had proved such an obstacle to the unit. Maguire went on to single-handedly capture the German machine gun post which was firing at the unit, shooting two of the soldiers who turned their guns on him when he called on them to surrender.

The Fermanagh man had crawled through a hayfield and across a stream to the rear of the post.

“I shot two of them as they turned their guns towards me - everything happened very quickly,” he said in an interview some years later.

“The other two surrendered, one of them an SS officer, whom I marched back to headquarters.”

He had indeed captured two men, one of them an SS Officer named Anton Gecas, who was accused of the murder of tens of thousands of Jews, partisans and members of the Communist Party inLithuania and Belarus in 1941.

By an amazing circumstance, 20 years after the war, Gecas and Maguire ended up living in Bilston Glen in Midlothian and working in the Bilston Colliery.

Maguire confronted Gecas and reported him to the police but said that at the time he was told the former SS officer had immunity from prosecution.

In the 1980s Gecas was outed as an alleged war criminal, but died in 2001, denying his involvement in war crimes.

Hugh Maguire had been treated for his shrapnel wounds following the capture of the machine gun post, and later took part in the British advance through Belgium and Germany.

After the war he and his wife Bridget, who was from Letterkenny in Co Donegal, went to Scotland to live, and Hugh worked for the National Coal Board at Bilston Glen Colliery.

He retired as manager of Roslin colliery and following his retirement he drove long-distance lorries and was involved with several sports bodies and charities including the Scottish War Blinded.

He was trainer for Loanhead Mayflower soccer team, and it was a tribute to his efforts that during his term several players were selected to play for teams including Hibernian and Hearts.

He also enjoyed competition bowls and played for Loanhead and Blackburn bowling clubs as well as being a keen golfer. Hugh was also a Grand Knight of the Knights of St Columba, organising financial and practical help for the vulnerable.

His military service saw the award of the UK Gallantry Medal and also France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur, for his actions on July 8, 1944, when he crawled through the hayfield to disable the German machine gun post which had claimed many casualties.

A member of Blind Veterans UK, he suffered visual impairment in his later years. He met HRH the Countess of Wessex during a centenary commemoration of Blind Veterans UK at Buckingham Palace and they discussed the bravery of his fellow Royal Ulster Rifle soldiers. He also visited Normandy for the 71st commemorations of D Day, during which he had manned one of the boats that landed on Sword Beach.

Hugh said of his memories of that morning: “I remember coming out of the water and you were up to your oxters in water and a folding bicycle above your head and a sten gun above that, and trying to keep it dry.

“When I got to the shore I threw the bicycle away – never used it again!

“The rest of the time it was marching – marching and creeping...” he said.

Hugh Maguire was believed to be one of the last survivors of the RUR soldiers who landed at Sword Beach and had served in C Company of the 2 nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles.

Hugh, who was a bugle major with the Royal Ulster Rifles, had a great love of music as well as a great wit and wicked sense of humour.

His daughter Maria Martin said he had a ‘zest for life’ adding: “His repartee made him a welcome invitee to any social gathering and he will be sorely missed by his beloved family and numerous friends who delighted in his witty, wicked sense of humour.”

A piper and a bugler from the Royal Irish Regiment paid a final tribute at his funeral.

He died peacefully at his home in Armadale in Scotland and is survived by six of his seven children with his late wife Bridie, 16 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren, including family members inScotland, Northern Ireland and Australia.