June 6 – The day democracy returned to Europe

American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the shield on June 6, 1944

American assault troops in a landing craft huddle behind the shield on June 6, 1944

The battle for Normandy June-August 1944, launched on D-Day exactly 75 years ago, marked, after Stalingrad, the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. It was a major battle. The Allies suffered 209,672 casualties of whom 36,796 were killed. Some 28,000 Allied airman were lost in the months preceding and during the campaign.

The German losses were catastrophic, 210,000 taken prisoner, 240,000 killed and injured, and massive equipment losses.

From early June the great natural anchorages along the south coast of England, Chichester, Portsmouth, South Hampton, Poole, Portland, Plymouth, and Falmouth were filling with warships and transports, a total of 6,483 ships including 4,000 landing craft, seven battleships, 23 cruisers, and 104 destroyers.The biggest invasion in history was preparing to cross the English Channel on June 4. A crucial weather report, however, from the late Ted Sweeney, the lighthouse keeper at Blacksod Point, Co Mayo, prompted the Allied Supreme Commander, and statesman, General Dwight D Eisenhower, to postpone operations for 24 hours.

It was lucky he did so. Ted Sweeney, who had been sending weather reports to London all during the war, as part of his duties, warned that a force 7 storm was on its way, and would hit the Channel on June 4. Had the invasion been launched as planned the storm would have created chaos among the invading armada. Low cloud would have hampered air support.

By the evening of June 5, however, Ted reported that the storm had lost its intensitity. The Allied command calculated that the invasion could proceed on the cusp of the storm. It would have the advantage of surprise, and should arrive off the French coast in calm waters.

The one and only time that London contacted Ted directly was to ask him to confirm that the storm was abating.

In before dawn

Twenty-five years ago I spoke to Ted Sweeney by phone, and interviewed a few Galwaymen who took part in those extraordinary few days.

I remember they were pleased to recall their experiences. They had shared in a unique event which has had no equal in military history.

There were not many people who approached the beaches in Normandy on June 6/7 1944 not once, or twice, or three times, but four times during the first crucial hours of D-Day. The job of Captain Michael Previté, Royal Marines, was to guide a flotilla of 12 landing craft onto the beach codenamed GOLD.

At his home at Oughterard Capt Previté had a vivid memory of that day. What struck him most was how very well organised the whole operation was. As he led the way towards the shore his first approach was in darkness, shortly before dawn. He recognised in silhouette the landscape before him. It coincided exactly with the intensive briefings he had received in the days prior to his departure.

The biggest problem was not, surprisingly, the shells from the enemy guns, it was disembarking the men from the ship HMS Glenroy, into the landcraft which had been lowered on to the sea. Although the storm of June 4/5 was calming there was at least a 12ft swell. It was not the calm waters that the planners had assumed.

“The trick was to unhook both ends of the boat at the same time. The men would scramble down the net ladders and although they had all taken their sea-sickness tablets some of them were fearfully sick.”

Once the 12 boats were filled they set off for the shore three miles away, Capt Previté leading. Previously frogmen had placed lights facing out to sea, to mark their course. Once past the last flashing light, the flotilla had to spread out to avoid a queue or a bottleneck on the beach.

Once the soldiers were safely ashore, Capt Previte backed out his boat and returned to the mothership for more troops.

D-Day plus one

On his second approach the Germans were awake and firing. “But quite honestly I was concentrating so hard on my job I really didn’t notice the fire.”

With the second load of men safely deposited the flotilla returned to the mothership, this time winched on board, and returned to Southampton to refill with men. The next day, June 7, Capt Previte repeated exactly the same procedure.

He was surprised there were not more casualties. He could see the stakes sticking out of the water with mines on top. He fully appreciated the decision to approach the beaches at low tide so that these very dangerous obstacles were visible.

Hit a mine

On the second day everything went smoothly. Completing his two journeys ashore, his flotilla was again winched on board. As it set off, however, it struck a mine, and grounded.

Every man made his way ashore as best he could. They had to hitch a life from other ships back to England.

Arriving back at base Capt Previté was delighted to learn that he had a few days' leave. He immediately set out for Dublin, and the train to Galway, hitching a lift to his home at Drimcong, Moycullen.

He had married Rosamund Hodgson, who was living at Drimcong, helping Michael’s father run the farm. Both his wife and parents had been listening to the news, on full blast, and following the invasion as best they could. They knew Michael was involved. They could not believe it when they saw him walk down the avenue.

After the war

After the D-Day landings, Michael was appointed to the Admiralty staff, and sent to Australia to train men for landings from the sea. He presumed it was probably in preparation for an invasion of Japan. However, after the atomic bomb it was all over. He returned to London and demobbed. His wife recalled seeing him walk in the door at Drimcong, but this time in a new brown suit, a gift from His Majesty’s government.

This suit became a fondly remembered token for both of them. “It was good quality material,” said Rosamund, “and it lasted years and years.”

NOTE: After the war, Michael and Rosamund operated a successful chicken farm, and were a familiar couple driving about Connemara selling eggsz. They ran Screebe House as a tourist and angling hotel, until their retirement.

Michael Previté was mentioned in dispatches, and awarded the Croix de Guerre from a grateful French nation.

Some amusing memories

Lord Michael Killanin, Spiddal House, Co Galway, arrived on JUNO BEACH on D-Day plus five. He pushed his new BSA motorcycle ashore. There was no fighting near the beaches by then. The battle had moved up the coast.

But he remembered his first sight of death on the old battlefield. A German shell had scored a direct hit on a British tank. There were still bits of bodies attached to the shattered metal. A piece of backbone had melted into one of the seats.

But Lord Killanin had amusing memories too. Most of his stories were hilarious.

He was in the 30th Armoured Brigade, which was attached to the 79th Armoured Division. He described himself mainly as a ‘backroom boy’, but he had experiences at the ‘sharp end’ at the battles of Dieppe and Le Havre which followed the D-Day landings. He spoke with amusement of working with Major General Sir Percy Hobarts who designed a whole range of fantastical armoured contraptions to deal with mines on the beaches. One example was ‘The Great Panjandrum’ - a giant Catherine Wheel designed to clear mine-fields, which had some calamitous failures in its experimental stage.

No secrecy

Lord Killanin was mystified that the whole Operation Overlord, the codename for D-day, was kept such a good secret. “For weeks beforehand I knew everything about it. Leading up to it I knew the exact date. Of course I didn’t know that a storm would postpone it for 24 hours. And when I was on leave I can tell you I was not a tee-total. I could easily have spilt the beans.”

His future wife, Sheila Dunlop from Galway, worked at Bletchley Park where, in great secrecy, German traffic signals were decoded. She also knew beforehand the date for the D-Day landings.

Eccentric schoolfriend

At Eton College Lord Killanin knew a William Douglas Home (whose brother Alec later became a British prime minister ), and was surprised to meet him again in the army. “He was totally unsuited for the army. He should never have been a soldier. He was a natural pacifist. He came up to me one day in France and asked me how he could make contact with the Germans as he wanted to end the war. He was a very eccentric man. I told him that I thought it would be better for all mankind if we won the war first.

“Then just before the battle of Le Havre he refused to fight because he believed that an awful lot of French people were liable to get shot."

Somehow the story got out. Some days later the Daily Mirror published the story under the lurid headline: Earl’s Son Refuses to Fight.

William was sent to jail in England and there he wrote his first play. "He was enormously sympathetic to his fellow IRA prisoners!"

Monty in trouble

Lord Killanin assured me that the following story was true, although my mouth dropped to hear how he misdirected Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, etc, etc, one of the key planners of the whole D-Day invasion.

“I was swanning around on my new BSA motorbike when I heard a siren and looked behind and saw two jeeps approach trying to make their way through the streams of soldiers, trucks, and transport vechicles. Montgomery was sitting grim-faced in the back seat of one of them.

“The jeeps stopped beside me. Monty’s ADC leaned out and asked the way to the 2nd Army HQ.

“Well, of course, I hadn’t a clue. But I had to let on that I knew my way around….

I looked behind me, I looked to the left, I looked to the right, and seeing an area with a lot of activity in the distance, I pointed in that direction and said confidently: ‘There. Over there Sir!’

The jeeps sped off. It was only later when I looked at my maps that I realised that I had sent Monty straight into the German lines.

“I laid low for a few days.”

Lord Michael Killanin MBE, Joined the British army at the beginning of the war. He was a journalist with the Sunday Dispatch and the Daily Mail. He was in Downing Street when prime minister Chamberlain returned from Germany, September 30 1938, waving an agreement over his head which he had negotiated with Hitler granting ‘peace in our time.’

“I didn’t believe it”, he said. “I was a liberal sort of man. I detested the Nazis and joined up for purely political reasons.”

Lord Killanin rose to the rank of major, and after the war continued his life as an author, film producer and journalist. He served as president of the International Olympic Committee 1972 – 1980.

We were like tourists – Fascinated by what we saw…

Paddy Devlin’s sensation as his glider swept down towards French soil just after dawn on D-Day, was one of total silence.

“ Paratroopers called us the ‘Suicide Transport’ but I never had any sense of danger in a glider. There was just silence. We heard no battle sounds as we approached our target near the Caen area."

A total of 6,000 men was landed by glider that day. Paddy’s glider was one of 190 landing inland from the beaches to secure bridges and road junctions against a German advance.

As Paddy’s platoon (28 men ) left their glider, instead of taking up defensive positions they just stared at the amazing spectacle of gliders falling from the sky, groups of infantry marching off, the sound of battle in the distance.

“Unlike the poor infantry scrambling ashore on the beaches we were all dry, and smartly dressed. We were like tourists, fascinated by all we saw.”

They did, however, soon march away towards Ranville. They passed one paratrooper who remarked, "You don’t know how lucky you were to survive that landing...if you saw all the shit the Germans fired at you."

No one on Paddy’s glider was aware they were under attack.

After the paratrooper, the next man they met was a very drunk Frenchman. He was waving a bottle of wine over his head shouting, ‘DeValera Irlandaise!’

Their target was a small town, St Honorine about 10 kilometres from Ouistreham.

They dug in and waited events. Suddenly overhead they saw a German bomber being chased by two Spitfires. The bomber crashed and burst into a ball of flame. “We all cheered,” said Paddy, “We had no idea how the invasion was going, but when I saw that plane crash I knew we were winning.”

A Galway visitor

That is how Paddy Devlin spent his first day in France. The next day everything went wrong. Paddy’s platoon got separated from the main party, advancing German tanks scattered them back the way they came. They eventually met up with the Ulsters and during the weeks that followed saw action along the coast as town after town fell to the Allied armies.

One morning while Paddy was shaving there was a knock on the door. “Where do I find Paddy Devlin?” asked a recognisable Galway voice. It was Pat Gillan from Market Street. He had joined the LDF, and from there at 19 years he joined the Commandos 1st Commander brigade. He had landed on SWORD beach at 8.20 on D-Day, going ashore in 22 landing craft, five of which were hit. They successfully held the bridges at Amfreville which was their objective.

By early September the Battle for Normandy was over. Paddy, in army issued civvies, smelling strongly of camphor, came home on leave to Galway.

Added three years

Three years previously Paddy had left Galway with his pal Jimmy Jordan to join the British army. Paddy lived at No 5 Frenchville, Claddagh, Jimmy lived next door at No 4. They were both 17 years of age. They had followed the events of the war in comic books they swopped with other boys at the Mon school. They made up their minds to find adventure, and see the war for themselves.

In Belfast they added three years to their age, and were accepted into the Ulster Rifles Gliderborne 1st battalion. It later formed part of the 6th Airborne division, and was largely known as an Irish regiment.

There was soldiering in Paddy’s blood. His father Michael James was a blacksmith with the British army during World War I.

Mother’s prayers

When Paddy came home that September 1944 his father was ‘pleased as punch’with him. He had Paddy tell his story of landing in France and the battles along the coast to his cronies from World War I who called to the house.

His mother, however, constantly worried. She was Bridget Agnes Forde, and a very strong character. As Paddy’s leave progressed she tried to persuade him to remain at home. On one occasion she even had the prior at the Dominican church to argue on her behalf. But it was to no avail. At the end of his leave, Paddy said goodbye and rejoined his regiment.

Some months later the 6th Airborne division landed by glider across the Rhine near Hamminkeln.

Across the Rhine

There was fighting immediately the glider landed. They all got out safely. Paddy and others were firing. They moved out. Paddy was carrying a heavy Bren gun, and fell a little behind the main party.

Near some trees he suddenly noticed two German soldiers raising their weapons. He was hit on the arm and in his side. He remembers perfectly clearly falling on his face with his arms in front of him. He had a clear thought that the day was Saturday and his mother would be at the market as usual. Who would tell her what happened to her son?

By coincidence Mrs Devlin was at the market. A neighbour came up to her and told her that she had heard on the BBC that morning that the 6th Airborne had gone in over the Rhine.

On her way home Paddy’s mother called in to the Dominicans and had a Mass said for her son’s safety.

‘ He’s alright’

Exactly one week later a Mr Hughes was sorting the post at Eglinton Street post office. He saw a letter addressed to the Devlins with a Red Cross emblem. He asked permission to deliver the letter that evening. He knew it was important.

When Mr Hughes arrived at Frenchville the Devlins were sitting down to tea. He handed the letter to Michael James. There was complete silence. Paddy’s father read the letter to himself, before saying, “He’s alright. He is wounded but he’s alright.”

Recalling that incident Paddy’s eyes filled with tears. “And you would be surprised at how many people called to the house and congratulated my family that I was safe.”

NOTE: Paddy’s friend Jimmy Jordan was captured in Sicily and spent the remaining months of the war as a POW. He then went to live in Australia to be near his children and grandchildren.

Pat Gillen, brother of the legendary Chick, lived in Cork where he worked as a press officer with Fords.

After the war, Paddy transferred to the RAF, and progressed to become a warrant officer. When he retired he lived with his wife Kathleen near Moycullen. When I met him he was a widower, tending to his garden and home which he kept immaculately neat and tidy.

He had a avid interest in all aspects of the World War II story.

It is difficult to estimate how many Southern Irish men and women fought for the Allies in World War II. Historian Roy Foster estimated that the number was about 47,000.

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