Written on: 8. 5. 2021 in the category: Uncategorized

Seventy-Six Years After VE-Day, We Remember Them…

Share this now:

Each June, a pot of shamrock mysteriously appears in the cemetery in the little Normandy churchyard of Toufreville. It is placed beside the grave of Private Edward Delaney O’Sullivan of the 22nd Independent (Pathfinder) Company of the British Parachute Regiment. When this Irish volunteer touched down outside the village after midnight on June 6th, 1945, he was part of the human vanguard of one of the greatest political and cultural advances in world history.

At that moment, almost the entire Eurasian landmass, from the Arctic circle to the Mediterranean, from the South China Seas to the North West Pacific, was governed by various forms of brutal totalitarianism – Nazi, communist, fascist and Bushido. The exceptions were the quasi-fascism of Iberia, an Italian shin and foot, and the Alpine ambiguities of Switzerland.

This young Irishman, who went into action with a tricolour on his sleeve, was thus the personal representative of an entire democratic culture, now arriving under arms to displace the genocidal murderousness of The Third Reich. He was soon killed in a brief and mutually-fatal firefight with a German sentry, thus becoming one of the first allied soldiers to die in the battle for Normandy.

In 1944 alone, from north and south, some 1,900 Irish-born soldiers, sailors, airmen and servicewomen were killed with UK forces: more than five a day. Demographically,  the American equivalent today would be an annual death toll of some 700,000 people or 14 times the US losses in Vietnam. From the first landings in continental Europe in July 1943, some 800 soldiers from independent, neutral Ireland – many of them veterans of the Irish Army – gave their lives in the freeing of Europe, from the shores of Sicily to the gates of Belsen and beyond.

That terrible name alone gives us some sense of the rival moralities at work. As do the following. From independent Ireland: Royal Marine Commando Sergeant Samuel Wallace,  Army Sapper Peter Farrell, Special Air Service privates Christopher Ashe and Michael Joseph Brophy,  SAS NCOs Corporal John Kinnevane and Sergeant Michael Fitzpatrick MM. From Northern Ireland: SAS privates Thomas Barker, Howard Lutton, George Robinson, Joseph Walker and William Pearson, Croix de Guerre.

These Irishmen were all captured in uniform, tortured and then murdered in the field, with two exceptions. Private Ashe was held for two unimaginable months in Germany before being shot on November 25, 1944. Private Hutton, having been badly wounded before capture, was brutally interrogated before being finished off with a lethal injection.

Other Irish SAS men to die that summer included Dominic McBride from Donegal and James O’Reilly from Dublin

In all, ten percent of the SAS war-dead were Irish, as were one in thirty of ALL British army warrant officers. For example, Company Sergeant Major James Dunphy from Kilkenny, with the Devonshires, and Company Sergeant Major John Murphy of the South Lancashires, were both killed in the Normandy landings. However, Company Sergeant Major, Daniel O’Connell, from Ballineen, Cork, with the Surreys, survived them. Alongside him was Lieutenant Patrick Toolan a working-class Catholic from the slums of North Belfast who had won a Military Medal with the Gordon Highlanders before being commissioned into the Surreys. These two gallant Irish officers, both of extremely humble origin, were killed within a day of one another in mid-June 1944.

And, like them, most Irish volunteers actually served in non-Irish regiments. Amongst the Irish dead of Normandy were Private Michael O’Connor of the Somerset Light Infantry, Private Bill Liston of the South Lancashires, and Trooper Thomas McClelland of the London Sharpshooters.

Many Irish volunteers fell with the RAF during the Normandy campaign. Flight Lieutenant Michael Aidan McGilligan from Grestones Co. Wicklow, had flown unarmed photoreconnaissance Spitfires over Germany, but in June 1944 was returning from operations over Normandy when he was shot down. His parents, Michael and Mary, inscribed on his headstone these words: “It is well with you. Among the chosen few, Among the very brave, The Very True.”

These words could certainly be said of Flight Lieutenant Granville Wilson from Belfast. Although aged just 23, at the time of his death over Germany in September 1944, he was the holder of the DSO, DFC and DFM. One of his crewmen, the Irish air-gunner Sgt Joseph Anthony Fagan, survived the crash and the war, but as a POW.

In revenge for the landings, Hitler unleashed his V1 flying bombs on London, where thousands of Irishwomen had gone over to help the British war effort.

 Violet Cunningham from Sligo was a Fire Guard, attending the aftermath of enemy bombings, and Ellen Moore of Cork was a member of the Women’s Volunteer Service.  Nurse Nora Field from Mallow was working in the Jewish home of Rest, Nurse Bridget Quinn of Tourmakeady was at the West End Hospital, and Nurse Mary Coughlan from Moate, county Westmeath was at Mary Abbott’s Hospital. Nurse Bridget Baker, from Mayo, had recently been bereaved, her husband Charles having been killed in action in Italy.

And that June, all these Irishwomen serving the cause of freedom were killed in V1 attacks. So too was Bridget Baker’s four-year-old son Michael, while her other son, Stephen, now an orphan, duly vanishes from history.

Third Battalion, Irish Guards were deploying to Normandy that July when a V1 missile hit the London home of Sergeant Frederick Collins of that regiment, killing all three of his children Thelma, seven, Marjorie, nine and Trevor ten. Thereafter, he too vanishes from history.

On July 12, a Dubliner and former Connaught Ranger, Louis O’Loughlin, a widower, had welcomed to his London home some Irish visitors who had joined the British war effort. At Christmastime 1940, an earlier home of his had been hit by a Luftwaffe bomb, and his wife, originally Mary Leonard, from Gort, County Galway, had been killed. Just two years later, at Christmastime 1942, their son, Able Seaman Louis O’Loughlin junior, Royal Navy, had been killed in an attack on his ship, HMS Firedrake.

Now, on this July day in 1944, a V1 missile fell on the crowded O’Loughlin home, killing Able Seaman O’Loughlin’s young widow, formerly Margaret Carroll, from County Clare.

It also killed both of Louis O’Loughlin’s daughters, Mary Rosalie O’Loughlin, and Agnes O’Loughlin, another nurse.

It killed their Irish friends, Nurse Madeline Brown from Cavan, and Nurse Mary Kavanagh whose husband was at the front.

But it did not kill poor Louis O’Loughlin senior, a veteran of the Boer war and the Great War. Of his entire family, just he and his son, Flight Lieutenant Michael O’Loughlin DFC, who logically should have been the most vulnerable, survived the war.

No words in any language yet devised by mortal man could ever convey the immensity of such a personal catastrophe, delivered as it was in such evil, measured instalments.

And ahead lay the bitter harvest for those who would lose their loved ones in the very last days of the war. In south county Dublin, the dead included RAF Pilot Officer William MacKay of Glenageary, Lt Martin FitzGerald MC, Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, of Dundrum, and Irish Guardsman PJ McKee of Blackrock, who died of wounds the day after the war ended. Private Danny Quinlan from Cork was with the 1st Worcestershire Rifles in Germany when he was killed in the spring of 1945. JJ Leavy came from a Westmeath family and was serving with the Tower Hamlets Rifles shortly before VE day when he was killed. His family marked on his grave; “He died to save others. May he rest in peace.”

Even as peace finally settled on the charnel house that was Europe, in Kinsale County Cork Ethel Barry was to receive two of those much-dreaded telegrams from the War Office. The first announced that her son Denis, a Captain in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, had died as a prisoner of war shortly before release and the second that her husband, Brigadier Francis Barry, had perished in Germany.

William Sheil from Clonee Co Meath enlisted in 1940. In 1945, he was one of the youngest Brigadiers in the British army, and a holder of a DSO & Bar and a CBE. On April 29, 1945, deep in the heart of Germany, he offered to take over behind the wheel of his jeep to give his driver a rest. The vehicle went over a landmine killing him, but the driver in the seat where he would normally have been was unhurt.

From these few words, you will have gathered something of the utter vileness of war. But a far greater vileness was meanwhile being spelt out in the alphabet of National Socialism’s pathological anti-Semitism: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Chelmno, Dachau, Endlosung, Flossenberg, Genocide and Holocaust.

The Irish people were denied knowledge of this lexicon of extinction until after the war, though much of it was known to de Valera when he offered his infamous condolences upon Hitler’s death on May 2nd, 1945.

But from May 8, 1945, Irish newspapers were finally able to report on the monstrous fate of most of Europe’s Jews, and also to carry death notices for the Irish fallen, previously forbidden. These, now informed by the revelations over the death camps and the utter foulness of the enemy that their loved ones had died fighting, were often steeped in the contradictory emotions of excruciating grief and immeasurable pride.

For example: “Williams, in memory of a dear friend, a noble character, a loyal companion, and former student. Lieutenant Sean Williams, Royal Artillery & Trinity College Dublin, who gave his life so that I and others might live to pursue our ideals in freedom. Signed E.G.S, a friend.”

Seventy-six years on, what is the appropriate emotional response to the war-service of that generation of Irishmen and women? Is pride still the right word? Can that even be proper, amidst so much unspeakable suffering?

But why not? For the plain people of Ireland to have done nothing and to have declared that this war was none of their business, would have been a betrayal of that deep human obligation to take sides against tyranny. It also would not have accorded what we all know to be the better side of the Irish character. This is not a criticism of our neutrality, which was the only prudent response for a virtually defenceless island when confronted by a homicidal lunatic like Hitler. Moreover, were the landings themselves not made possible by weather intelligence to the allies from the Irish Government?

And now consider the outcome. Today, most of the Eurasian landmass, from the north cape of Norway to the straits of Hercules, from the straits of Malacca to the Kamchatka Peninsula, which lay helpless beneath various tyrannies 75 years ago, is either free or vastly freer than it was then.

Young O’Sullivan’s lonely death at Touffreville long before sunrise that June morning in 1944 was not in vain but the prelude to a new dawn. So we may acclaim him, along with all the many thousands of Irish volunteers, those who survived and those who did not, for doing their duty, on behalf of European civilisation and for the honour of their homeland.

They have given us the answer to those who ask of Ireland what did Ireland do? To which we can say, this is what the Irish did. Their service and their sacrifice for our freedom, today, and for the good name of Ireland forever, deserve our eternal gratitude.

(This is revised version of a talk I gave in St Georges Church, Monkstown in 2017)

Share this now:
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial