Irish veterans remember fallen comrades

IRISH war veterans stood to remember fallen comrades yesterday as they marked the 60th anniversary of their sacrifice.

The Islandbridge Memorial Gardens in Dublin fell silent as the courage of D-Day servicemen was commemorated and Irish, young and old, paid tribute to their bravery.

Former soldiers were joined by the Royal British Legion and European diplomats to honour the heroes.

At a moving service wreaths were placed by the Merchant Navy, Irish Guards, Irish UN Veterans' Association and the Royal British Legion representing the Republic, Northern Ireland and the Women's Division.

Rows of medals glittered in the sun as some of those who fought stood solemnly, remembering friends who died.

Jack Johnstone, 81, wiped tears from his eyes as he remembered his part in the Normandy landings with the Irish Guards.

As he laid a wreath at the War Memorial and saluted former comrades he was hailed with warm applause.

"It means everything to be here," he said. "I shall never forget this day 60 years ago."

Around 200 people stood lost in thought, flags fluttering in the breeze as abugle sounded. President of the Royal British Legion Major General David Ó Murchú began the service with a reading and epitaph.

As the military standards were lowered, heads bowed, a sea of poppies were held still in the hands of former soldiers.

Laying them one by one at the foot of the National War Memorial, some stood for a moment, others saluted before joining fellow servicemen.

Father Des Campion of the Irish Naval Service led the commemoration. "We will remember the Longest Day's battle for all involved.

"We remember their bravery, their dedication, their commitment. We give thanks for their courage."

John Wetherall took part in the Allied invasion with the Glider Pilots, dropping down in to Arnhem for a bridge too far on September 17, 1944.

"It was a long time ago but the memories are all still there," he said, paying tribute to former friends.

Major General Ó Murchú joined the Irish Fusiliers in 1946 and has dedicated his time to ex-servicemen living in Ireland.

"The peace process has had a tremendous influence. People are now not ashamed to admit they had men in the British forces and people want to know about them. The relationship between British and Irish ex-servicemen is very close," he said.

The service was closed with prayers from Canon Bob Jennings. "These words of mine are totally inadequate to describe the events of D-Day," he said.

Major Sean Murphy, who is organising the Heroes Return programme which helps Irish ex-servicemen return to the battlefield, stressed the importance of remembering the fallen.

"The 1st and 2nd battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles were there 60 years ago, one airborne and one wading ashore. They are never forgotten," he said.

Bill Fitzmaurice

THERE were not many young men in wartime Ireland who had a private education, spoke two continental languages and practically had a welcome mat from Trinity rolled out to meet them.

But Bill Fitzmaurice, 81, from Patrickswell, Limerick, believed the basic rights of life and liberty, never mind the privileges of his own upbringing, would be lost forever if Hitler's advance on Europe was not stopped.

Following the example of his father who had been an army major, Bill went to Belfast and joined the Royal Ulster Rifles. But he loved horses and if there wasn't a cavalry unit he could join he wanted the next best thing to get a birds' eye view of the world from a parachute.

It was a decision that almost cost him his life. Parachuted into rural Normandy in the hours of darkness before the main seaborne invasion began, he was among the most isolated and vulnerable Allied troops. He was soon among the casualties, caught in a barrage of enemy fire, and was evacuated to spend a long, painful time in recovery in England. The army found him a switchboard job, but it wasn't for him and as soon as he had his strength back, he enrolled in catering school and went off to Canada to work in hotels and long-distance trains.

Back in Ireland since the early 1950s and now retired and living in Maam Cross, Co Galway, he has finally been persuaded to put his memories on paper and is slowly, bashfully recording his experiences.

"I don't like to talk about it much, but I think my family must have heard me thinking about it because my daughter told me about this trip and said to me: dad, you are going," he recalled.

"I did what I did during the war," he said. "I followed orders."

Jack Allshire

JACK ALLSHIRE had one distinct advantage going into D-Day and one disadvantage he was tall.

At six feet two, the young Corkman towered over his mainly teenage comrades and his long, straight figure stands out prominently in the old battalion photographs he keeps in an album.

It should also have been plain to his senior officers that the youngster, who grew before their eyes, was not 17 as he claimed when he signed up but a mere boy of 15 who wanted more excitement than life as a butcher boy and telegram messenger in Crosshaven could offer.

But they turned a blind eye and Jack's height was to prove a blessing when D Company, 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles, was dropped into water five feet deep from landing craft approaching the Normandy coast, each man carrying 60lbs of kit on their back.

But it also made keeping out of enemy sight difficult and though somehow Jack managed to keep his head down, a German bullet finally found him a few days after his landing and lodged in his left shin. Pinned down under bombardment outside the strategic town of Cambes, evacuation of the wounded was not easy so Jack was patched up and restored to duty.

Now 79 and living in Lombardstown, Co Cork, after careers in truck driving and painting and decorating in England, he recalled how he scoured every tank corps in the hopes of finding his older brother, Tom, a member of the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers.

"I finally saw him in Germany but we couldn't stop to talk. It was just a wave on a battlefield but it meant a lot."

Leo Caffrey

ALREADY a veteran of three long years of warfare by the time the D-Day landings took place Leo remembers vividly the relief with which the news of the operation's commencement was greeted.

By then he had been through France in the deadly days after the evacuation of the bulk of the British Army from Dunkirk, had travelled in North Africa and served in Egypt and Libya.

He had fought at El Amin, the first victory of the British campaign, but that was long before, and by now the troops holding the Eastern Front were fearful that their spirits and strength would break before their comrades advanced from the West.

Leo, 82, from Dundrum in Dublin, was just 18 when he went to Belfast to join the army in 1939, determined to do his bit to keep Hitler at bay.

"He would have turned Ireland into a giant cabbage patch to feed his armies in Britain and Europe," he recalls of the Fuhrer's plans to use the Irish as labour on collective farms.

But he never considered himself part of the liberation of Europe and only first took part in war commemorations last year, when he honoured the memory of his father, who served in the First World War, at the site of the Battle of the Somme.

His family convinced him his own efforts were worth remembering and that the 60th anniversary of D-Day would be a good time to start.

He had no problem wearing his Dublin GAA cap with pride to the ceremonies in Normandy but getting the now retired coach-builder to pin his medals to his chest was a battle in itself.

"I don't want a fuss made. I can look at my medals when I want but there's more medals buried with men that'll never be seen. It's them the fuss should be made about."

Tommy Meehan

Gliding might be classed an adventure sport now but it wasn't thrill-seeking that had the glider pilots of D-Day taking to the air.

Their silent, swift approach was vital for getting behind enemy lines, where if detected before reinforcements could reach them, they had only their feet and a rifle to save them.

Tommy Meehan, 80, from Beaumount in Dublin, was just 16 when he travelled to Belfast to join the Royal Ulster Rifles. He thought he better do his bit but never realised how big a part he would play.

Tommy landed as planned near the beach at Ouistreham where most of his comrades from the 1st Battalion, 6th Airborne would follow. In the moonlight, members of the French resistance crept out from hiding to guide the troops but they were also leading the young soldiers into a battle that would be bloody and brutal.

In the following days, Tommy lost many friends and watched in helpless anguish as his closest buddy fell at his feet.

He has never forgotten the men who fought with him and those who did not make it home. "I come here to remember fallen comrades," he said as he made plans to visit their graves. "There will be a tear from my eye."

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