Friday 23 August 2019

Irish war hero who led deadly assault on Hitler's D-Day defences

Official neutrality did not stop the thousands of Irish involved in D-Day, 75 years ago this week

Captain Redmond Cunningham hit the beaches at 7.10am
Captain Redmond Cunningham hit the beaches at 7.10am

Dan Harvey

History was made on June 6, 1944, when an irresistible force collided against an immovable object. More than 150,000 Allied troops - among them thousands of courageous Irishmen - hurled themselves headlong into a deadly onslaught against the huge concrete German defence fortifications of Hitler's Atlantic Wall.

The future of Europe was at stake, the terrible tyranny of the Nazi regime must be ended, and this would come at an unfathomable human cost. This was D-Day.

US forces advance towards the beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944.
US forces advance towards the beaches on the morning of June 6, 1944.

In the vanguard was Captain Redmond Cunningham from Waterford. He was among the first on the beaches to breach those defences and clear the way for the assaulting infantry and armour. The Germans had prepared well but did not expect the assault when it came. Rommel's strategy for any invasion was to halt the Allies as they got off the landing craft; to bring the invasion to a sudden standstill on the blood-soaked beaches and end it before it began. Rommel intended to conduct the defence of Nazi-occupied Europe at the water's edge.

The organisational ability of the Allies to marshal this military might undetected had taken the Germans completely by surprise. The British landings on Sword Beach went smoother than on Juno Beach. The aerial bombardment and withering naval salvos of suppressing fire on to German shore strong points curtailed the damage the defenders could inflict on the assault. However, it was not without its difficulties. Losses were inflicted from indirect artillery fire hitting landing craft and causing casualties on the beach.

The pouring of heavy small-arms fire by a determined German defence of their strong point at La Broche took three hours to overcome. However, on Sword, the specialised assault armour carried out their tasks to good effect. The first five or six waves arrived as programmed, before confused intermixing occurred. The British 3rd Infantry Division got off to a good start.

At its forefront, clanking down the Land Craft Ramp at 0710 hours, was Cunningham, who was to become one of the most highly-decorated Irish officers in the British Army during World War II.

A Duplex Drive Sherman tank
A Duplex Drive Sherman tank

Five minutes before this specialised armour of the 79th Assault Squadron of the Royal Engineers deployed, their "swimming tanks" were released. These were called Duplex Drive ('DD') tanks. The canvas sides of a DD tank protruded a foot above water level and wrapped completely around it. This canvas wraparound contained tubes that when inflated with compressed air allowed the tank to float. The Sherman tank's engine was connected to two propellers, allowing it to then ''swim''. Nothing had been seen like it before, and they gave very welcome close-in support to landing infantry.

These armoured vehicles (AVREs) were the brainchild of General Sir Percy Hobart, whose father was from Dublin and mother from Co Tyrone. His widowed sister Betty married General Bernard Law ''Monty'' Montgomery, who had himself deep Irish family connections in Co Donegal.

''Hobart's Funnies,'' as the American GIs called them, were custom-designed on mostly Sherman tank chassis to clear minefields, burst open concrete bunkers, fill in large dug-out tank traps, transverse soft terrain, act as terrifyingly effective mobile flame-throwers, and otherwise tackle obstacles to advancing infantry and armour.

Disembarking close to where they had planned, Captain Cunningham's armoured vehicles went ashore and fought their way forward. This was not without difficulty, damage and death, but Cunningham marshalled matters well. Cpt Cunningham's Number 1 Troop Leader's summary of Breaching Operations for his sector of Sword Beach gives his account of the struggle to successfully clear lanes through the obstacles for the later arriving waves of tanks and infantry. These waves included members of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles - so it was an Irishman clearing German obstacles on French beaches for fellow Irishmen in a war where Ireland itself was neutral.

Of course, Ireland's neutrality did not stop thousands of Irishmen from being centrally involved in the conflict. Around noon on D-Day, having successfully cleared gaps in the beach obstacles and cleared safe lanes in the minefields, Cpt Cunningham, with 10 armoured vehicles from 79th Assault Squadron, was ordered to advance on, seize, and hold the bridge and canal lock gates at Ouistreham.

They caught the Germans on the near side of the lock gates by surprise but were met with far stiffer resistance from Germans on the far side. Using the firepower of the 10 armoured vehicles, they had an intense exchange, and the bridge and lock gates were at last wrestled from the Germans. They held them successfully overnight.

Captain Redmond Cunningham fought out the rest of World War II, earning a bar to the Military Cross award for his actions on D-Day. Back home in Waterford he became a successful architect and businessman. He died in 1999.

'A Bloody Dawn: The Irish At D-Day' by Dan Harvey, published by Merrion Press. Retired Lt Colonel Harvey has 37 years' service with the Irish Defence Forces

Sunday Independent

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