Shakespeare’s “friends, Romans, countrymen” speech by Marc Antony in Julius Caesar is well-known worldwide but a dramatic speech delivered in Northern Ireland 75 years ago is regarded as one of history’s greatest orations.
The unnerving headline ‘Brexit D-Day’ has been splashed across more than a few front pages recently but the aforementioned speech on February 8, 1944, in Fermanagh was in preparation for the original D-Day…and there were no headlines!
General Patton, one of the Second World War’s most significant Allied military leaders, was visiting Ulster’s beautiful Lakelands, shrouded in absolute secrecy, when he made his historic speech to inspire and motivate Fermanagh-based GIs for pending combat.
The general didn’t reveal when and where the action would be – he may not have known himself – nor did he reveal the huge military significance of the forthcoming battle.
“You don’t know I’m here at all,” he told his troops. “No word of that fact is to be mentioned in any letters.”
He repeated his rousing address, peppered with profanities, in other US army bases in Northern Ireland and around the UK and it became one of the most famous speeches in history.
An abbreviated and less profane version was the main theme of the 1970 movie ‘Patton’ starring actor George C Scott in front of an enormous American flag.
Patton began delivering the speech to his troops here and in the United Kingdom in February 1944 and making occasional minor changes delivered it at least half a dozen times.
Some historians suggest he made the speech on many occasions, perhaps to most American bases in Britain.
The most famous occasion, re-enacted in the Patton movie, was on June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day.
Fermanagh might well have been his speech’s debut!
Experts and knowledgeable analysts have acclaimed it as one of the greatest motivational speeches of all time.
Described as “the beginning of the end of the Second World War”, the Allied assault on Normandy’s beaches on the June 6, 1944, was history’s biggest ever seaborne invasion.
Codenamed Operation Overlord, D-Day was the start of an 11-month advance that went all the way to Berlin, to Adolf Hitler’s bunker-headquarters, and to victory.
General Patton’s visit to Enniskillen 75 years ago today was only slightly eclipsed by Five-star Supreme Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower’s later visit on May 18.
The huge American military presence here peaked at 120,000 throughout Northern Ireland, which hosted around 300,000 GIs during the Second World War.
Their arrival at Camp Breandrum in Castlecoole on December 24, 1943, wakened Enniskillen schoolboy Brian Nethercott.
“It was 7.30 in the morning when a rumbling noise awoke me and looking out of my window I saw many big trucks with stars on them. I jumped out of bed shouting to all in the house, ‘Quick, the circus is coming to town!’”
American solders were based at 17 locations around Fermanagh, where they organised movie shows and dances and joined in local activities.
They went out with local girls and gave candy and chewing gum to local children, including Brian Nethercott’s first ever doughnut!
Little boys were in awe of their rifles and uniforms.
Sergeant Oscar Olson, billeted at Crom, recalled General Patton’s speech at Castlecoole and General Eisenhower’s troop inspection three months later.
Patton’s words were “forthright and direct”, Olson recalled, and “he did not hold back on the language he used!”
And as there were concerns that German agents may have been operating from neutral Eire, American soldiers took part in special manoeuvres along the border hoping to initiate some enemy radio traffic which could then be monitored.
On one occasion an entire US Army Regiment was moved from Fermanagh to Belfast where they boarded a ship for a short time before returning to Enniskillen -another tactic to identify any communication by cross-border German agents.
General Patton probably stayed overnight in a large country house in Fermanagh that had been requisitioned by the US Army.
The house is thought to have been near American bases at Drumcose and Ely Lodge.
The General’s Inspection Schedule on February 8 recently came to light:
8mm Mortar Gunners Test
Tactical Principles of Street Fighting (Mess Hall)
Tactics: Street Fighting. A short demonstration and running critique (.30 Cal. Range - Mortar Range)
Tactics: Street Fighting: Principles of Street Fighting with Stress Formations (Mess Hall).
The facilities that he inspected were listed as - ‘Supply Room, Orderly Room, Mine Field Gapping Layout and Mortar Sand Table of Outer Area.’
Along with ‘street fighting and stress formations’ the General’s Inspection Schedule included some ominous details - ‘reconnaissance, disposal, flight and penetration of HE (High Explosive) bombs’ and ‘the treatment of gas casualties.’
A memo from Captain James E Tillman, Adjutant of the 28th Infantry, confirmed that the inspection was a success and that “Lieutenant George Patten was interested and complimentary of the training, spirit and discipline he saw in his inspection of the Battalion. He spoke briefly to various groups of the men in the classes he witnessed.”
As D-Day approached, Fermanagh’s American soldiers departed.
“I remember the noise during the night when the Americans eventually left,” Brian Nethercott recalled.
“Local people cried and did not want them to leave. They all left during the night and nobody knew where they were going to. Of course we later learnt that they were on their way to Normandy at which many were unfortunately killed.”