While Ireland was officially neutral in the Second World War, thousands of Irishmen fought against fascism by serving in the British, American, and Canadian armies, including on Normandy’s beaches, says Sean O’Riordan
The extent of Irish involvement in the Second World War, and in particular from the neutral Republic, was far greater than people may realise, and it was as evident on D-Day as in many other battles.
Many would think that, considering the political landscape at the time, the majority of Irishmen and women who served in the British army were from the North. According to military historian Dan Harvey, 120,000 Irishmen fought with the British army during that conflict.
“Around 70,000 of which were from the ‘neutral’ South, meaning more from the Republic than from the ‘loyal’ North,” says Mr Harvey, a retired Irish army lieutenant colonel. The US forces on D-Day were also heavily populated by Irish-born and first generation Irish-Americans.”
Mr Harvey’s book, A Bloody Dawn, focuses on Irish involvement in the storming of the beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
“In total, 50 Irishmen in British uniform were killed on D-Day,” says Mr Harvey. “It’s estimated that 850 Irishmen in the British army were killed in the liberation of north-western Europe.”
The southern Irish in the British Army were volunteers. unlike soldiers from the North, who were conscripted.
“Their motivations and reasons for being there were like in most wars — adventure; seeking excitement; not wanting to miss out on money; family tradition — while principle was certainly the case for some.
One of them was Capt Redmond Cunningham, from Waterford, who won a Military Cross for his gallantry during the D-Day assault, having come under withering German fire on Sword Beach. Also on the same beach was 19-year-old Sean Deegan from Dublin, who joined the British army after being told he was “too young and skinny” to be accepted by the Irish army.
After nearly being killed by friendly fire from American troops at the beach landings, a US major gave him his battledress. Deegan survived the war and became a committed pacifist. On returning to Ireland, he joined the Franciscan Order, becoming known as Brother Columbanus.
Regimental Sergeant Major Sean O’Donovan from Drumcondra had an amazing war record. He was captured by the Germans, once spoke to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and made a number of escapes from prisoner of war camps.
O’Donovan ended up fighting with Italian and Russian partisan groups. He entered Berlin on horseback with a group of Cossacks during the final days of the war.
Sergeant Paddy Gillen from Galway was a commando who came ashore at Sword Beach and, along with comrades, dug in and held vital ground against German counterattacks in the area for 42 days, allowing Allied reinforcements and equipment to stream inland.
In recent years, the French government has honoured surviving D-Day troops with the Legion de Honor. One such medal was presented in 2015 to then 100-year-old Co Kerry native Jack Mahoney, who died last August. He was a tank driver.
The Irish were also present, albeit to a lesser extent, throughout the ranks of the Canadian army who also assaulted the beaches. Historian and archaeologist Damien Shiels has researched the records of hundreds of Irish who also fought their way off beaches and into Europe in Canadian uniform.
Around 15,000 men of the 3rd Canadian Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade struck Juno Beach. One of those who splashed ashore in the first wave of Canadian troops was 42-year-old Lance Sergeant William Francis Stewart from Ramelton, Co Donegal.
In different circumstances, he might have been an officer on one of the British beaches, for he was the eldest son of Harry Stewart, a baronet. However, financial difficulties led many of the family to emigrate. Stewart managed to get off the beach under immense mortar and machine-gun fire while the bodies of comrades piled up around him.
However, he was severely wounded by a sniper later in the day and died at a field dressing hospital.
“The remarkable detail we can gain into the deaths of men like William is derived from the Canadian World War Two Service Files of the War dead, which documents the nearly 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives,” says Mr Shiels.
Ralph Tupper Ferns, from Cahir, Co Tipperary, enlisted in the Royal Regiment of Canada. The private was among those engaged in the decisive engagement of the Normandy campaign, which led to the creation of the Falaise Pocket .
Ferns was reported missing in action just over a month after the landings. Then, 61 years later, a relic hunter in a quarry at Haut Mesnil, 40km south of Sword Beach, came across some artifacts which, on further inspection, revealed the remains of a Canadian soldier.
“Three years later, in May 2008, after much work by the Department of Veteran Affairs, the body was identified as Ralph,” says Mr Shiels. “It transpired that he had perished during a friendly fire incident, when RAF bombers had mistakenly targeted the regiment’s positions during the advance.”
Ferns was buried with full military honours at Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery on November 14, 2008. Among the Canadian Regina Rifle Regiment that landed on Juno Beach on D-Day was Arthur Price, a lumberjack from Drumshambo, Co Leitrim.
His unit took on the infamous 12th SS Hitlerjugend in the struggle for the strategic town of Caen. On July 8, they drove the SS from the Abbaye d’Ardenne, which lay on its outskirts. There they discovered the remains of a number of Canadian servicemen who had been summarily executed by the SS after their capture immediately following D-Day.
Their commander, SS Standardenfuhrer Kurt Meyer, was tried for this following the war. He was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life in prison. Meyer was released from prison on September 7, 1954.
However, Ireland’s fraught shared history with Britain has meant that these heroes have not always received the acknowledgement they deserved. Indeed, several serving Irish army soldiers who joined the British army had been labelled by the Irish State as deserters.
It was only in June 2012 that they were granted an official pardon by then Minister for Defence, Alan Shatter. Mr Harvey says the Government had rightly commemorated the country’s involvement in World War One.
“I believe it appropriate and right, and there would be a welcome throughout Ireland for such to do likewise to historically commemorate the D-Day Irish,” he added.
The Allied nations landed more than 130,000 troops on five beaches on D-Day in the biggest seaborne invasion in military history. Spread across an 80km stretch of coastline in Normandy, the five beaches were known by their codenames.
The easternmost of the five beaches targeted on D-Day, Sword was assaulted by the 3rd British Infantry Division. The British were to advance inland as far as the strategically-important town of Caen and line up with the British airborne forces east of the Orne River/Caen Canal.
The 3rd Division established a solid bridgehead and almost reached Caen, but the town was not to fall to the Allies until mid-July. By the end of the day, some 29,000 men had landed at Sword and there were around 630 casualties.
Nearly 25,000 men from the British 50th Division landed on Gold beach — at the centre of the landing zones — on D-Day. The aim was to capture the inland town of Bayeux and the Caen-Bayeux road, and to link up with the Americans at Omaha. But there were difficult obstacles to overcome, including German resistance and high winds causing the tide to rise more quickly than expected.
Although they did not link with the US soldiers in the west, the British troops did join soldiers from the Canadian 3rd Division who had landed on Juno beach in the east. By the end of the day, 413 men were killed or wounded on the beach, and 89 landing crafts were destroyed.
The assault landings on Juno between Gray-sur-Mer and Bernieres-sur-Mer were made by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. The aim was for Canadian troops to secure the beach and join up with British forces on Gold to the west and Sword to the east.
Choppy seas hampered the landings but the troops were able to forge a bridgehead and liaise with the British 50th Division. Despite making the deepest penetration of any land forces on June 6, the Canadians eventually had to withdraw from their position 5km from Caen.
Juno was heavily defended and casualty figures were high among the total of 21,400 men who landed there on D-Day.
Casualty figures on Omaha were higher than on any other beach, with more than 2,000 Americans killed or wounded. The first wave of landings by the 1st and 29th American Infantry Divisions was at 6.30am.
Initial Allied air and naval bombardments failed to knock out the Germans, whose heavy guns had survived the attacks by being withdrawn and sited further to the rear.
Amid difficult terrain and with the whole beach overlooked by cliffs, some doubted whether Omaha should have been chosen. The Allies also did not know that the experienced German 352nd Infantry Division was taking part in an anti-invasion training mission in the area and was able to reinforce coastal defence units.
German machine gun fire tore into the American troops, and at one point Colonel George A. Taylor reportedly said there were two kinds of people staying on the beach — “the dead and those who are about to die”.
Despite the challenges, the Americans showed incredible bravery to rally and drive the Germans inland, and they were able to gain a small foothold on the beach by the end of the day. The Steven Spielberg-directed war film Saving Private Ryan brought the horrors of war on Omaha beach to a new generation when it was released in 1998.
The American 4th Infantry Division did not suffer the same grievous losses at Utah as their colleagues had endured at Omaha.
Luck played some part in that as strong currents swept the first wave of troops into a more lightly-resisted area, 2,000 yards south of their original target. The US troops ensured that later assault waves also landed in this less-defended area, and within hours the bridgehead was secured.
Of more than 23,000 men from the 4th Infantry Division who landed at Utah, some 200 were killed, wounded, or missing as they advanced around 7km.