D-Day was a singular event in world history. There was one D-Day but many versions; one Allied army but many nationalities; one battle but many individual stories. One outcome – but many unknowns.
There are countless books about D-Day, but until now there have been none specifically about the roles played by the Irish – from Northern Ireland, south of the border, and the worldwide diaspora of Irish migrants.
They were amongst the planners and commanders, among the US and British paratroopers, they were working with the French Resistance, and they wearing US, British and Canadian uniforms on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.
Irishmen in their thousands, from every county, every walk of life, and every corner of society in Ireland were present and active on D-Day. One of whom, George Thompson (Belfast), a number of years ago when interviewed in the media, explained: “We were all trained for it; we were trained all the time. It was just like an exercise in its own way. Only the ones who went down didn’t get up again.”
It only took a split second to end the life of fellow Belfast man, Sammy Glass, 22. A member of the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles (‘The Rifles’), Glass was struck by a German sniper’s bullet, never to realise his youthful ambition to play in goal for Northern Ireland.
How easily the bullet could have struck the man beside him, Dubliner Tommy Meehan. Capricious fate or fluke meant Tommy Meehan lived and Sammy Glass did not. This was war.
Jack Allshire from Crosshaven, Co Cork was a member of D Company 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles – a company commanded by Captain John Richard St Leger Aldworth, also from Co Cork (Newmarket). When the ship which brought them across the English Channel arrived off Sword Beach, the German defences were being pounded by the Royal Navy battleships and Jack Allshire watched in awe as shell after shell exploded on enemy positions.
Some German artillery units remained intact however, and as the battalion prepared to go ashore shells continued to fall into the sea around them. As the men stumbled onto the beach, mortar bombs and artillery shells exploded around them.
When he moved forward, Jack caught his first sight of the enemy when he spotted some German prisoners being marched to a holding area with their hands raised above their heads. After they left the beach, the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles under Lt Col Ian Harris (Tipperary) made their way half-a-mile inland to the small village of Lion-sur-Mer.
From there, they moved to the high ground near the village of Periérs-sur-le-Dan, where they dug in for the night.
Throughout the day, overhead transport troop carrier planes were ferrying reinforcements inland, among them the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, those Allied glider-borne invaders who had gone in pre-H-Hour with the 6th Airborne Division.
The Royal Ulster Rifles were the only British Regiment to have two battalions actively involved on D-Day.
While offence is the most decisive type of military operation, defence is stronger, and the Germans had prepared well. Rommel and his defenders were going to halt the allies as they came off the landing craft, to bring the invasion to a sudden standstill on the beaches. He was firmly convinced that the first 24 hours would be vital.
The assembly of such an enormous Allied force was remarkable, its vast extent was unknown to the Germans, who could have conceived of so huge an air and sea armada opposing them. The D-Day planners, including Commander Rickard Donovan from Ferns, Co Wexford, had devised a daring plan that involved the necessary application of both direct force and deception.
It was then revised by Lieutenant General Bernard Law ‘Monty’ Montgomery, from a family with deep roots in Derry and Donegal, who was the overall Land Component Commander for D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.
On Monday June 5, 1944, ‘imminence of invasion is not recognisable’ was the terminology of the ‘estimate of Allied intentions’ sent to Hitler’s HQ.
Nonetheless, the greatest airborne and amphibious force ever assembled was in motion. More than 150,000 troops were landed on the beaches of Normandy from about 6.40am.
Shortly before, between midnight and 2am on June 6, dropping behind German lines with the elite paratrooper pathfinders, were Irish-American Pvt Bob Murphy, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on the Western flank, and Pvt Edward Delaney O’Sullivan, 22nd Independent (Pathfinder) Parachute Company of the British 6th Airborne Division on the Eastern flank.
Their task, to mark the drop and landing zones for the later-arriving paratroopers and glider-borne infantry who had vital ‘seize and hold’ tasks ahead of the main invasion.
Men like Jack Agnew, born in Belfast, of the US 1st Demolition Section of HQ Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, colloquially called the ‘Filthy 13’, their real-life wartime antics prompting the idea for the film ‘The Dirty Dozen’. Also among these were the men of the Royal Ulster Rifles, the only regiment in the British Army to supply two battalions on D-Day.
In all, it has been recently estimated some 70,000 of the 120,000 people from the island of Ireland who joined the British Army during World War Two were from south of the border, from the ‘neutral’ Republic of Ireland. All of them were volunteers, joining for a variety of reasons – for adventure, to soldier, for money, even because of family tradition, and finally because many felt the state’s neutral stance was not enough, and joining up to fight was the only best way to defend Ireland and halt Hitler.
Others had strong Irish connections, such as Lieutenant Preston Niland from the 22nd Infantry Regiment, who fought on Utah beach. Niland was one of four Irish-American brothers involved in the war, only two of whom survived. Theirs was the story on which the film Saving Private Ryan was based.
The story of D-Day is enormous, and soldiers from Ireland have a rightful and proud place in its many chapters.
~ Dan Harvey is a retired Lieutenant-Colonel who spent decades years in the Irish Defence Forces and has served in the Balkans, Middle East, Africa, and Caucuses, and the Irish border. He launched his book ‘A Bloody Dawn: The Irish at D-Day’ in the UK on HMS Caroline in Belfast last night. It retails for £12.99, and is published by Merrion Press.