On June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Seventy years later Irishmen, veterans of World War II, remember their fallen comrades and that historic chaotic day.
D-Day was the biggest seaborne invasion and military campaign the world has seen. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. By the day’s end on June 6, the Allies gained a foothold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high – more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded – but more than 100,000 soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.
Pat Gillen, an 89-year-old veteran from Galway, is unable to attend the memorial ceremonies in France, but sent a moving note, along with a laurel wreath decorated with poppies and Irish tricolors. His note reads: “In memory of all commandos from the emerald island who lie in sleep in Normandy fields. Pat Gillen. Friends and Families 6 Commando.”
He was among the first wave of soldiers to land at Sword Beach.
Gillen told the Belfast Telegraph, “The whole thing was to move fast. Not to be an object for the snipers.”
Now a grandfather of 12, Gillen ran away from his home in Galway at the age of 18 and enlisted in Enniskillen on Easter Monday 1943.
He became a rifleman in the 6 Commando, a unit tasked with securing the strategically important Pegasus Bridge near Caen.
"We came up to the bridge and you could hear the bullets pinging off the ironworks, steelworks, and we had a few casualties there. They were all over us. The Germans had been there for four years, so they had good sniping positions," he said.
Another Irish witness to D-Day was Sub-Lieutenant Michael d’Alton. Born and raised in Dalkey, south County Dublin, he joined the Royal Navy in 1942. Now aged 93 he spoke to the Irish Times about his experience.
D’Alton’s family had a history of service in the British armed forces. He father was shot at Gallipoli in WWI, his brother was also in the Navy and his sister was in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAF).
He told the Irish Times why he joined the Navy, just after he had graduated with a qualification as a quantity surveyor.
“I thought it was absolutely intolerable that Hitler was going to conquer Europe. I wanted to try and stop that awful German monster,” he said.
He served as second-in-command of a landing craft tank (LCT), the workhorse of the Royal Navy. It traveled to Omaha Beach on D-Day with a cargo of six Sherman tanks. He found himself at the center of the greatest invasion in history when half way across the English Channel his ship was called back, postponing D-Day for 24 hours.
They set sail again the next day.
He described the fleet of ships and aircraft as “absolutely unbelievable.”
The scene was much like that depicted in the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan,” which D’Alton told his son was quite accurate.
When it came time for d’Alton and his crew to land they were left waiting for hours offshore. When they eventually got ashore, having almost anchored atop a mine, d’Alton said Omaha Beach was chaos. Tanks, jeeps and lorries all fought for space, all while under heavy fire.
D’Alton said, “My first thoughts were what a bloody shambles. Once the first shot is fired, the best of plans is gone to bits. And that’s what it is. The ones who win the war make the least mistakes.”
He spent the following weeks traveling back and forth to Normandy with various vehicles. After the invasion he returned to the United Kingdom and eventually returned to Ireland and worked as a quantity surveyor.
Gillen was to serve in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) after Normandy. However after his time in northern France he was sent to Antwerp. He joined the forces crossing the Weser and Aller and advancing on Berlin.
Following the war he retired from the army after having been promoted to sergeant.
He marks Remembrance Day every year at Cork’s cenotaph and has traveled to Normandy four times. Sadly, this year he will not make the trip.
He added, “I feel a certain sense of sadness about it because most of my friends will not be there and I don't know of anyone else from 6 Commando in Ireland going.”
His wreath and note will be laid by ex-soldiers at the the Saulnier farm, where he was holed up for 42 days.
Up to 600 British vets and 350 United States vets are to join in the commemorations in Normandy alongside 17 world leaders, including US president Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and British head of state, the Queen.
Celebratory fireworks illuminate Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches where so many gave so much.