My interest in the Second World War began during my childhood in Cork during the 1960s and ’70s, when the war was not long over. When our neighbours needed a babysitter, I sometimes substituted for my older sister. On one such an occasion, I received a rushed ‘babysitter briefing’ from the mother while her husband rummaged around in the drawers of a sideboard. When they left, I peeked into the still-open drawer and spied the unmistakable outline of a Hitler Youth knife. Etched with the motto ‘Blut und Ehre’ (Blood and Honour), I recognised it from the popular comics of the time.
I was captivated and my imagination took full flight, transporting me to a daring night-time commando raid, a clandestine parachute drop behind enemy lines – the situations and scenarios limitless. I never got to the bottom of why it was there, but I decided that if I was ever again faced with a similar situation of encountering a Second World War veteran, I would ask them about their wartime experiences. Since then I have read, researched and reflected on the topic at length, specifically on the D-Day battlefield, and I have visited its beaches and areas of interest around the Normandy shoreline. Conscious of there being no overall associated ‘Irish narrative’ as such, but knowing of individual involvements, I have always felt that only part was known of a larger, more complete and comprehensive participation of Irish forces, and so over time I set about building up a story of the Irish contribution to the Normandy invasion.
And so, I resolved to write a book about the Irish at D-Day. I knew that it was a matter of national importance and some urgency that their stories were finally told. The process had its challenges. Seventy-five years after the fact, the number of D-Day participants still alive has dwindled dramatically. Many veterans have passed from living memory, and with them their personal first-hand reminiscences have gone forever. In addition, Irish veterans rarely spoke about their experiences. Due to Ireland’s so-called ‘neutrality’, many Irish served under assumed names in non-Irish regiments, among them many of the almost 5,000 Irish Defence Force ‘deserters’ who left a neutral Ireland and joined the British Army to fight Hitler’s tyrannical regime. In all, it is believed that some 120,000 Irish fought with the British throughout the Second World War.
I did, however, uncover a wealth of personal stories that weave together to present a picture of the wide-ranging, important involvement of the Irish in all facets of D-Day. They were amongst the planners and commanders, and among the US and British paratroopers. They were working with the French Resistance, and they were wearing US, British and Canadian uniforms on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches. Irishmen in their thousands, from every county, every walk of life, and every corner of Irish society. Among the strategists was Commander Rickard Donovan from Ferns, Co. Wexford. The command to proceed with the attack was triggered by a weather forecast from Irish Coast Guardsman and Blacksod Point Lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney, who had been telephoned from County Mayo’s most westerly point.
Irish-American Private Bob Murphy, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division on the Western flank, and Private Edward Delaney O’Sullivan, 22nd Independent (Pathfinder) Parachute Company of the British 6th Airborne Division on the Eastern flank, were among the very first into Normandy, dropping behind German lines. County Clare man Josh Honan, who was in the British Army, was part of a ‘mixed’ engineer and infantry pre-assault party on a sector of Juno Beach with the Canadian 3rd Division. Tommy Meehan from Dublin watched as the twenty-two-year-old beside him, Belfast man Sammy Glass, was struck by a German sniper’s bullet. Random chance at the sniper’s choice of target, capricious fate or fluke meant that Tommy Meehan lived and Sammy Glass did not. Such was the cruel reality of war.
Another Irish-American who contributed significantly to the war effort, through his crucial supply of the ‘Higgins boat’ landing craft, was New Orleans based Andrew Jackson Higgins. ‘He is the man who won the war for us,’ Eisenhower said in 1964. ‘If Higgins had not designed and built the LCVP, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.’ That the Allied forces were able to land an overwhelming number of troops, tanks and equipment in the first few days especially, was due in no small measure to the ingenuity of this straight-talking whiskey-drinking ‘Irish’ man.
D-Day was a singular event in world history. There was one colossal invasion but within it there were innumerable individual stories, many of which faded all-too quickly. One of the deepest-buried stories was that of the contribution of the Irish. I hope that my new book, A Bloody Dawn, provides a context and clarity in the presentation of ‘the D-Day Irish’ that further generations can claim ownership of, and a justified, meaningful pride.
(c) Dan Harvey
About A Bloody Dawn: The Irish at D-Day
The epic Allied invasion of German-occupied Normandy on D-Day, 6 June 1944, has been extensively chronicled. The largest seaborne invasion in history, it began the liberation of German-occupied France, and later Europe, from Nazi control, laying the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.
What is less well known, however, is that thousands of Irish and members of the Irish diaspora were among the Allied units that landed on the Normandy beaches. Their vital participation has been overlooked abroad, and even more so in Ireland. There were Irish among the American, British and Canadian airborne and glider-borne infantry landings; Irishmen were on the beaches from dawn, in and amongst the first and subsequent assault waves to hit the beaches; in the skies above in bombers and fighter aircraft; and on naval vessels all along the Normandy coastline. They were also prominent among the D-Day planners and commanders.
This Irish contribution to the most extraordinary military operation ever attempted in the history of warfare is at last told for the first time in A Bloody Dawn: The Irish at D-Day.
Order your copy online here.