Thursday 20 June 2019

Forgotten soldiers: The Irishmen who took part in an invasion that changed the course of World War II

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Kim Bielenberg reports on the Irishmen who took part in an invasion that changed the course of WWII

A son's pride: Peter Cunningham holds the Military Cross won by his father Redmond, the only Irishman to receive this award for 'acts of exemplary gallantry' during D-Day and WWII. Photo: Tony Gavin
A son's pride: Peter Cunningham holds the Military Cross won by his father Redmond, the only Irishman to receive this award for 'acts of exemplary gallantry' during D-Day and WWII. Photo: Tony Gavin
Injured Allied troops in a field hospital near Omaha Beach on D-Day
A photo of Redmond Cunningham (above) alongside a letter from King George VI and Redmond’s Military Cross medal.

Growing up in Waterford, the novelist Peter Cunningham heard little about his father's role in the D-Day landings, the greatest seaborne invasion in history.

But when he went swimming with his father in the sea in Dunmore East, young Peter could see a purple scar on the back of his dad's knee - and he was told that a German machine gun had caused the injury.

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There were signs of other old wounds from wartime battles on Major Redmond Cunningham's backside and on the back of his neck.

When Peter asked his father why all the wounds were to the rear, the army veteran remarked: "Because I was running away."

Injured Allied troops in a field hospital near Omaha Beach on D-Day
Injured Allied troops in a field hospital near Omaha Beach on D-Day

In truth, Major Redmond Cunningham's involvement in World War II was much more significant than the self-effacing Waterford architect let on.

Major Cunningham was the only Irishman to win the Military Cross for "acts of exemplary gallantry" on D-Day.

Landing on Sword Beach in Normandy in a specialist tank designed to clear obstacles on the morning of June 6, 1944, he came under sustained fire. He had to abandon his tank when it was hit, and then cleared mines by hand along the beach to clear a path through the sand-dunes for Allied troops as they rushed ashore.

While Ireland was neutral in the war, Cunningham was one of thousands of Irishmen who served with British, Canadian and US units that landed in Normandy. Between all the nationalities, it was a force of 150,000 men.

The invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been postponed for one day, based on weather reports of stormy conditions from the lighthouse at Blacksod Bay in Co Mayo.

Read more here: How history erased the Irishmen of WWII

Redmond Cunningham who was the only Irishman to win the Military Cross for his sevices during the D-Day Landings .
Photo: Tony Gavin 27/5/2019
Redmond Cunningham who was the only Irishman to win the Military Cross for his sevices during the D-Day Landings . Photo: Tony Gavin 27/5/2019
Medal belonging to Redmond Cunningham who was the only Irishman to win the Military Cross for his sevices during the D-Day Landings . Photo: Tony Gavin 27/5/2019
A letter from King George 6th to Redmond Cunningham who was the only Irishman to win the Military Cross for his sevices during the D-Day Landings . Photo: Tony Gavin 27/5/2019

Maureen Sweeney, now aged 95, helped to make those observations in Mayo back in 1944, and is one of the last living Irish links with D-Day.

Next Thursday, Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron will be among the leaders gathering in Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings.

In Britain, D-Day will be remembered with full pomp and ceremony in a tone that some might see as glorification of war.

Liberated Europe

In Ireland, we have tended to go to the other extreme, downplaying a conflict that through all its horrors liberated Europe from Nazi tyranny.

A photo of Redmond Cunningham (above) alongside a letter from King George VI and Redmond’s Military Cross medal.
A photo of Redmond Cunningham (above) alongside a letter from King George VI and Redmond’s Military Cross medal.

Redmond Cunningham and the 70,000 Irishmen from the Republic who served in World War II have hardly been commemorated at all.

Peter Cunningham says of his father's wartime service: "Ireland just didn't rate people who had done anything in the war.

"My father was part of the furniture in Waterford, and no real fuss was made about him. He didn't talk about it and he didn't go to reunions or commemorations."

Peter believes that his father joined the British Army primarily out of a yearning for adventure.

Having joined up in Northern Ireland, he prepared for the crossing on the south coast of England with his close friend Geoffrey Desanges - and just a couple of days beforehand they went on the tear in London, getting drunk on cheap Champagne.

In an interview with the journalist Kevin Myers five years before he died in 1999, Redmond described how his friend's war was over as soon as he landed.

Redmond looked back towards the shore in the hope of finding Geoffrey when he heard he had been hit.

"It was the worst thing ever I did, the only thing I really regretted in the war," he recalled. "He was lying there with a bullet through his head, intact otherwise, but dead. It had a terrible effect on me, seeing him, my best friend, lying there like that, terrible.

"I saw many dead after that, but I never ever went to see anybody who was killed."

Hazardous task

Redmond Cunningham's task was hazardous - his squadron had to land on the shore on specialist vehicles designed to cut through minefields and other defences so that tanks and infantry could pass.

Five of the six tanks in his squadron were destroyed - and eventually he had to clear mines on the beach by hand under heavy gunfire.

During the next night, Cunningham and his troops held a canal lock at the village of Ouistreham against German counter-attacks, and also located and removed the explosive charges that the Germans had planted to immobilise the canal.

As well as the Military Cross, the Waterford soldier was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Peter Cunningham's novel Consequences of the Heart was inspired by his father's story.

Peter remembers his father being enraged after British troops killed innocent civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972. "He had to be persuaded from sending all his medals back."

Not long after he came ashore, Redmond Cunningham was followed by a young Dubliner Sean Deegan, who later went on to become a Franciscan friar, Brother Columbanus.

When I interviewed him 15 years ago, Brother Columbanus was a youthful 80-year-old pacifist, keen not to glamorise his role on D-Day.

"I don't want to be portrayed as some kind of war hero," insisted the friar. "I don't want to glorify war."

The Dubliner remembered vividly the scenes of carnage on Sword Beach as his landing craft came ashore after a harrowing trip.

"We came ashore in small tanks. There were bodies everywhere and the remains of vehicles and boats that had been destroyed before us. It was chaotic."

Having been rejected by the Irish army (because he was too skinny), Deegan enlisted for the British Army by crossing the Border.

He was assigned to one of the Royal Air Force salvage-and-rescue teams that were sent in to rescue crashed planes and their crews. Once the invasion had started, the 20-year-old rushed to the scene of air crashes on a Harley Davidson motorbike.

Having landed on the beach, Deegan's unit forced its way through the dunes. He saw soldiers being parachuted in front of him from gliders. Many did not survive the landing.

In the fighting that followed, two of his close friends in the salvage crew were killed. "At times I was dead scared. On a motorbike, I was heavily exposed. People were being killed all around me, but when you are involved, you never think it is going to happen to you."

On his bike, Deegan followed the invading Allied army through France and up into Belgium, through the Netherlands and into Germany. "When we crossed the Rhine, I was horrified by the desolation and the sheer extent of the slaughter - cities that had been completely destroyed."

Smell of death

He saw the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, and struggled to shake off the smell of death all around him.

Brother Columbanus, who died in 2007, told me that when he returned home, Irish veterans of the war were at best ignored or at worst treated as traitors.

"We certainly weren't seen as the liberators of Europe. In the early part of the war, at least, many Irish people had more sympathy for the Germans than for the British. I didn't talk about D-Day to anybody other than old comrades.

"When I later visited the graves in Normandy, there were rows and rows of Irishmen. The Irishmen who died were forgotten people."

Pat Gillen, another D-Day veteran who died in 2014, recalled in an interview in the Irish Independent how there was consternation back home in Galway when he joined the British Army after travelling over the Border to Enniskillen.

"There was hell to pay," he said. "My father said to my mother I'll get on my bike and I'll bring him back, I'll drag him back."

Gillen was to be among the first troops landing in France, as part of a commando unit charged with securing the strategically important Pegasus Bridge.

He recalled the treacherous landing, the thunderous noise of planes and battleships and the devastating German artillery and sniper fire.

He managed to avoid injury despite embarking on a hazardous six-mile trek from Sword beach to the bridge through marshland, under fire from snipers.

"I suppose you could say I was lucky, or it was in the book or not in the book," he said in an interview.

Just weeks before he died, Gillen was given the Légion d'honneur by the French government in recognition of his role in the landings.

It was an award also bestowed on Michael D'Alton, a Dalkey man who joined the Royal Navy in the hope that he would help to stop Hitler, a man he described as "that awful German monster".

D'Alton was involved in directing landing craft between the English coast and France, and like all participants in D-Day, witnessed horrific scenes.

Narrow escape

He had a narrow escape when his boat landed on Omaha beach on top of a mine, but fortunately there was no explosion. He saw a tank full of soldiers sink to the bottom of the sea as they failed to make it on to land - and a child playing on the beach being ripped apart in an explosion.

In the year before he died in 2016, he said he had grown to understand that he was traumatised by his experiences. "War," he said ruefully, "is an appalling waste."

The D-Day landings and the Battle for Normandy that followed resulted in a casualty rate that now seems unimaginable - with 425,000 killed, wounded or missing in action.

But it proved to be a turning point in the war. Within a year, Adolf Hitler was dead, and Germany had surrendered. The Irish soldiers of D-Day had played their part.

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