A salute to Irish heroes of D-Day

Irish solders who took part in the defining battle of World War II are finally recognised in a new book, says John Dolan
A salute to Irish heroes of D-Day
6th June 1944: American assault troops debark from their landing craft at a beachhead on D-Day. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

“WE hit Sword Beach just after 9.00 hrs. Actually, we landed in about 4 feet of water. I remember my big concern was not to get my rifle wet. The landing area was heavily defended and we met mortar and heavy gun fire. Of course, there were some soldiers who did not manage to get as far as the beach...”

This witness account of D-day — which took place 75 years ago next month — told through the eyes of a man who was there, is typical of its time: Dry, matter-of-fact, understated, descriptive... but not too descriptive.

There is something else about it that may bring the words a little closer to home: The words were uttered by a Corkman — John Shanahan of the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles.

It is just one of many Irish accounts in the latest brilliant military tome from Cork author Dan Harvey, a retired Lieutenant Colonel with the Irish Army.

A Bloody Dawn: The Irish At D-Day (Merrion Press) tells the thrilling story of the greatest seaborne invasion in history on June 6, 1944, which marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. And it tells it through the eyes of the many Irish who were involved.

This country may have been neutral in World War II, but as Harvey points out, many of its men were willing combatants. “The story of D-Day is enormous, and the Irish have a rightful place among its many chapters,” he writes.

But his task of documenting their experiences was not easy. “Veterans rarely spoke about it, and many served under assumed names in non-Irish regiments.”

An estimated 120,000 Irish fought with Britain during World War II, among them 4,983 who ‘deserted’ the Irish Defence Forces to do so — they were finally pardoned in the Dáil in 2012. Sadly, there were only around 100 left alive by then to hear the apology proffered. In the month of D-day alone, at least 301 Irishmen were killed with British and Canadian forces — a further 550 would die before the war ended over a year later.

A Bloody Dawn: The Irish At D-Day by Dan Harvey
A Bloody Dawn: The Irish At D-Day by Dan Harvey

At least two fought for the other side! Harvey tells the remarkable tale of Royal Irish Fusiliers James Brady and Frank Stinger, who were serving a prison sentence for drunkenness on Guernsey when Germany invaded, and ended up serving in their army!

Harvey begins his account by recalling the critical role of Irish Coast guardman and Blacksod Point lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney and his wife Maureen in Co.Mayo. They delivered a weather forecast suggesting a brief interlude in the poor weather, which prompted General Eisenhower to utter the words: “Ok, we’ll go.” D-Day was on. At the time, the married ‘Ike’ was very close to an attractive Cork divorcee, Kay Summersby, and among the generals who planned the detailed invasion of France was Royal Navy Commander Rickard Donovan, of Wexford.

It is in the accounts of D-day itself that Harvey’s prose and eye for detail comes into its own — and Cork troops feature prominently.

Jack Allshire, of Crosshaven, was also in the Ulster Rifles, in a Company commanded by a fellow Corkonian, Captain John Richard St Leger Aldworth, of Newmarket. As Allshire and his comrades prepared to disembark their ship, it was hit by a German shell, which miraculously failed to explode.

“Noticing that the first among them had a difficult time getting ashore, because they were weighed down with their backpacks and bicycles — and some almost drowned — Jack and other members of the unit hurled their bicycles over the side and waded ashore without them.”

It wasn’t just men taking part, and dying. Among eight Irish military nurses who drowned after their ship was bombed just before D-day was Catherine Fitzgerald, of Douglas, Cork,

In the days after the invasion, Dubliner Michael D’Alton, who had been involved in the clear-up, saw a boy kicking a football along a beach. “Well, the ball went into a pool of water, and so did he. And the next thing there was a damn great explosion. And the football came out in bits and he came out in bits. and that was that, rather sobered me up.”

Other Irish who were involved in the follow-up waves of Allied reinforcements were not so lucky as survivor D’Alton. John Hyland, of Waterford, Joseph Mulcahy, of Westmeath, and John Keating, of Wexford, are among the 4,000 troops buried in Bayeux War Cemetery.

Harvey also recalls the amazing tale of Cork Merchant Navy seaman Sean Walsh, told in the 2015 Holly Bough, who had a grandstand view of D-day after he was left alone, stranded out at sea, on a scuppered vessel for ten days! “I did not want to bother them; there was a war going on,” he explained in the dry, stoic, decidedly unheroic way of people of that era.

Perhaps he glimpsed the vessel carrying James Downey, a member of the Royal Navy off Normandy, who was from the Old Head of Kinsale.

Harvey has an eye for the offbeat anecdote, such as his section on the Irish captured in the invasion. “For some reason, the Germans placed all the ‘Irish by birth, Irish by extraction, Irish by choice and Irish by chance’ in one prisoner of war camp — Luckenwalde. When one inmate sent a letter to Ireland ending with the words ‘Give my love to Moryha’, it was clearly a hidden message in Irish, ‘mar dheadh’, roughly translating as the sarcastic ‘Yeah right!’

The ruse worked, as the International Red Cross sent a delegation to Luckenwalde to investigate and conditions there markedly improved afterwards!

Dan Harvey will be giving a talk to launch his book at Waterstones in Patrick Street, Cork, on Friday, June 7, at 7pm.

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