Pat Gillen, 89, who was among the first wave of troops to invade Sword beach on June 6, 1944, has asked former soldiers to lay a homemade wreath at a memorial to commando units on the Saulnier farm near Amfreville where they were holed up for weeks.
On the laurel — decorated with poppies and an Irish Tricolour ribbon — he has written a simple tribute: “In memory of all commandos from the emerald island who lie in sleep in Normandy fields. Pat Gillen. Friends and Families 6 Commando.”
Sitting in an armchair in his living room in Cork City, the spirited pensioner clasped his green beret and recalled the treacherous landing, the thunderous noise of planes and ships and the devastating German artillery and sniper fire.
“The whole thing was to move fast. Not to be an object for the snipers,” he said. “They used to say ‘if you want to see your grandchildren then get off faster than Jesse Owens’. Seemingly I was fast.”
The rifleman, who was in 6 Commando, a unit tasked with securing the strategically important Pegasus Bridge near Caen, should have been among the 650 ex-servicemen in Normandy this week to mark the invasion.
“We came up to the bridge and you could hear the bullets pinging off the ironworks, steelworks, and we had a few casualties there. They were all over us. The Germans had been there for four years, so they had good sniping positions,” he said.
With ill-health stopping his return, Mr Gillen asked a group of Irish army veterans to lay the laurel wreath made by his daughter Mary in his place.
The father of four and grandfather of 12 had planned to visit the military cemetery in Bayeux and Sword beach and the Saulnier farm where he was holed up for 42 days.
“I feel a certain sense of sadness about it because most of my friends willnot be there and I don’t know of anyone else from 6 Commando in Ireland going,” he said.
Mr Gillen had been invited to Normandy as part of the Heroes Return 2 scheme promoted by the UK’s Big Lottery Fund.
Proudly wearing his green Commando Veterans Association jumper, the ex-officer recalled more than half of his brigade were casualties in vicious assaults by German forces.
He was never injured despite, like all commandos, wearing his green beret in asix-mile trek from Sword beach to Pegasus through marshland, sniper positions, a bogus minefield, and several weeks in the trenches at Saulnier — as long and as wide as a grave but mercifully not as deep.
“I suppose you could say I was lucky, or it was in the book or not in the book,” he said.
“We had to dig in. But what we didn’t know was that the Germans were only 500 yards ahead of us in a green wheat field.
“We had one very bad day, a counter-attack. In the morning about 8am, I think it was June 10 or 12 — the Germans put in a very heavy counter-attack.
“It went on from about8 to 11 o’clock. It was very ferocious. We lost a lot, but they lost more. The Germans moved on to 3 Commando or 4 [Commando]. They got a bit of a belting and they repulsed their attack but it was one of the bloodiest days ever.”
Mr Gillen’s family has a strong war service record with his father Bill injured three times in the First World War serving with the mounted signals of the Royal Engineers. He completed three tours at the Somme.
The veteran recalled his reaction when he ran away from his Galway home aged 18 to enlist in Enniskillen on Easter Monday 1943.
“There was hell to pay back home, I believe,” he said.
“My father said to my mother I’ll get on my bike and I’ll bring him back, I’lldrag him back and I’ll bring his cousin back as well. My mother said ‘he’s made his bed, let him lie in it’.”
The cousin he enlisted with, Tommy Cotter, a gunner in the RAF, died in one of the last bombing raids over Berlin, and is buried in Potsdam. Another cousin Eamon Gillen, from Dublin, is buried in Appledorn, Holland.
Mr Gillen was due to serve in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after Normandy but due to the time spent in northern France he was sent to Antwerp and joined forces crossing the Weser and Aller advancing on Berlin.
He retired from the army following the war after being promoted to sergeant and marks remembrance day at the cenotaph in Cork and has returned to Normandy four times.