Monday 23 October 2017

Irish 'deserter' and WWII hero who liberated Belsen dies at 94

Deportees suffering from typhus, starvation and dysentery, top, pictured in 1945 at Bergen Belsen
Deportees suffering from typhus, starvation and dysentery, top, pictured in 1945 at Bergen Belsen
IMPRISONED: Phil Farrington was the last surviving Irish veteran of WWII
Allison Bray

Allison Bray

He witnessed the unspeakable horrors of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp when he and his British army comrades freed more than 60,000 starving inmates from the German hellhole during WWII.

Yet for more than 70 years, Phil Farrington never spoke of the atrocities he witnessed and carried his horrific memories of thousands of living skeletons and piles of naked, emaciated bodies to the grave, when he passed away last week at the age of 94.

But instead of being hailed a hero along with other members of the Royal Pioneer Corps, Mr Farrington was jailed and subjected to similar cruelties as the Nazi's wretched POWs by his own countrymen.

Fortunately, the North Wall native lived to see his name cleared two years ago when he and more than 4,500 other former Irish soldiers were granted an amnesty by the Irish State for so-called "desertion" to join the Allied forces during the Second World War.

Mr Farrington was the last surviving member of the group of soldiers pardoned in 2013.

But the fear of being persecuted by his own people never left him. His grandson, Dubliner Patrick Martin (28) told the Sunday Independent: "The treatment terrified these men. He'd still hide from strangers."

Yet his own family, including his former childhood sweetheart Patricia - who went on to become his wife - his seven children and 20 grandchildren, never realised how much he had in common with the tortured souls that were beaten, starved and murdered by the Nazis until a book on the shameful treatment of the Irish veterans of WW2 was published in 2011.

In Robert Widders' Spitting on a Soldier's Grave, Mr Farrington described the brutal conditions he and hundreds of other "deserters" faced when they were jailed in a military prison in Cork for being AWOL from the Irish army after serving in the Allied troops.

Like the victims of the concentration camps that he would go on to free, Mr Farrington was also herded on to a train after being told by a guard "I'll have yer thrashed to death" when he was captured after returning to Ireland on leave after joining the Royal Sussex Regiment as a 24-year-old "looking for adventure".

When he arrived, he found the Irish prisoners there were also beaten and starved much like the tragic concentration camp inmates he would later encounter crawling on their hands and knees at Bergen Belsen due to hunger.

"We were never allowed to speak to each other and we got no food," he told Mr Widders. "Sometime you might get a little bit of fish. But it was more bones than fish. Though I was so hungry, I'd chew the bones and eat them. Sometimes they used to throw the food at us, just like we were animals.

"We were in jail through the winter. It was freezing cold without any bedding or heating. And once a week we'd all be hosed down with cold water. Sometimes we'd have to stand to attention for hours in the freezing cold, in a pair of thin fatigues. It was bad, all right."

He also recalled how the authorities not only beat and humiliated prisoners on a whim, they did so with sadistic cruelty, leading to numerous suicides and inmates who simply vanished.

"Some days, we had to run around a yard for hours, carrying bricks on our backs in a haversack. One little man I knew took it really hard. He came from near me and he missed his wife and little kids.

"The jailers made him run up and down whilst they threw lumps of turf at him until he collapsed."

The ordeal left him so traumatised that he was sent to a civilian hospital to recover before he was sent back to his Irish Army battalion.

But he absconded again and joined the Pioneer Corps, witnessing the bombing of London and D-Day before liberating Bergen Belsen, which he never discussed except to say: "My pal said, 'My God, look at that.' We were trying to give (survivors) water and talk to them, God love them."

Ironically, it was Mr Farrington's own deep faith and the love of his family that his grandson believes helped him survive not only the horrors he witnessed in the war, but those he endured himself.

Mr Farrington was buried at the Fingal Cemetery as ex-Irish Defence Force piper Christy O'Brien played the lament for the fallen, Flowers of the Forest, following a moving service attended by family, friends and officials from the Irish branch of the Royal British Legion.

Sunday Independent

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