Thursday 20 June 2019

John Daly: 'Dignified silence of old soldiers'

Notebook

Soldiers landing on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.
Soldiers landing on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.

John Daly

In a modern world where just about everyone will tumble over themselves to tell you every fact and facet of their lives, the old soldiers who survived D-Day remained resolutely silent when it came to recalling the conflict where so many of their comrades fell.

At least this was my experience as a youngster obsessed with everything and anything around World War II, and who would bother and badger any elderly gent who had even a passing connection to that great conflagration.

Heavy tomes about Nazi brutality or the Nippon terror were my secret bedtime reading as a 10-year old, but never managing any encounter with a real-life soldier who was there in the thick of bomb and bayonet against Hitler's dreaded Reich.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

Such youthful fixations were almost forgotten in my 20s when I finally met a white-haired gent strolling in the grounds of Blarney Castle, who had been in the worst possible place on June 6, 1944.

We hit it off, as total strangers often will, and chatted about the different worlds the cards of life had dealt us.

Turns out he had been part of the second wave to hit Omaha Beach, where casualties were 90pc.

Knowing it was out of order, the kid still inside me just couldn't resist the forbidden question: "What was it really like?"

The bony fingers of his octogenarian hand gripped my wrist: "It's the smell I remember, the stench of a hundred men who soiled themselves from fright in the landing craft, and the reek of death across every bloody yard of that sand. Pray you never have to fight, son, it is the worst thing in the world."

He has no doubt long gone to join those comrades by now, but his words echo with clarity on this date every year.

My obsession with World War II has continued into maturity, such as the story of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway of the 9th Battalion Parachute Regiment, whose top secret mission it was to attack and destroy the Merville Gun battery on the dawn of D-Day.

Needing to be certain of the mission's secrecy, Otway enlisted 30 of the prettiest members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, dressed in alluring attire, into the village pubs his soldiers frequented.

Their task? To use all of their womanly charms, plus a healthy alcohol allowance, to get covert information from the romance-hungry paras. Nobody talked.

The Irish on D-Day

Top of my book pile this month is 'A Bloody Dawn: The Irish At D-Day' by retired Irish Army Lieutenant Colonel Dan Harvey.

It is the relatively unknown story of the thousands of Irish who served not just in the hellish thick of it along the Normandy beaches, but who were also prominent among the Operation Overlord planners and commanders.

An estimated 120,000 Irish fought with the Allied forces. 17-year old Paddy Gillen from Galway joined the British army in 1943, and less than a year later was fighting for his life across Sword Beach on June 6.

"We were moving as fast as our pack-laden bodies would carry us, and I saw many bodies floating in the sea and lying on the beach," he recalled. "The whole thing was to move fast. They used to say, if you want to see your grandchildren, then get off the landing craft faster than Olympic sprinter Jessie Owens."

It's another chapter in a story that goes back to Waterloo, Rorke's Drift and the Somme, where heroic Irish blood flowed on a thousand deadly battlefields.

"Two kinds of people are staying on this beach - the dead and those who are going to die," said Colonel George A Taylor, 16th Infantry Regiment, Omaha Beach, third generation Irish American.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice