‘Hell on Earth’: Story of Irish veterans on the 80th anniversary of D-Day

From rugby stars to future priests and economic migrants to Troubles negotiators, these are their stories

The D-Day landings was the largest seaborne invasion in the history of warfare.

Éire as it was then known was neutral in the second World War, but tens of thousands of Irishmen, north and south, joined the Allied war effort, mostly in the British armed services.

Their Finest Hour is an Oxford University project that has digitised more than 25,000 previously hidden artefacts from the war and placed them online. These have been submitted by the families involved and include the testimony of dozens of Irishmen who fought in the second World War many of whom landed on D-Day.

Michael Murphy

Michael “Mick” Murphy was from Kenmare, Co Kerry. He emigrated to Britain in the 1930s in search of work. When war broke out he joined the Pioneer Corps and was promoted to Sergeant.

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He participated not only in the D-Day landings, but also in the evacuation from Dunkirk. During the war he met a young Englishwoman, Margaret Fitchett, living in Southam in Warwickshire. She drove an ambulance and also worked as a voluntary aid detachment (VAD) nurse in addition to an office job in which she was covering the roles of two men who had been called up.

When she and a friend went to buy tickets for a dance at the Sergeant’s Mess, Murphy said that he would only sell her a ticket if she promised to dance with him. She kept her promise, and it was the start of a true romance. They were married in 1942.

Margaret was very anxious as he was only allowed to send pre-printed postcards after they had landed to let her know he was alive. Her husband was with the Second Army in Northern Europe until the end of the war.

Patrick Joseph Hughes

The Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) was the only British regiment to have its full strength of two battalions deployed on D-Day. The 1st (Airborne) battalion landed by glider; the second battalion landed at Sword beach on the morning of June 6th.

Among those who came ashore on D-Day was Patrick Joseph Hughes, a Catholic from the Markets area of Belfast.

He had been a career British soldier who signed up to fight in the first World War at the age of 14. The carnage of that war did not deter him from staying on in the army afterwards.

Among the items photographed for the archive was his rosary beads and pouch and a shaving razor bought in Baghdad during military service.

CG Irwin

Dr Charles G (CG) Irwin was a rugby player for Ulster before the war and his captain was Blair Paddy Mayne one of the most decorated and celebrated soldiers of the second World War.

Irwin served as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was part of the 6th Guards Armoured Brigade. He was seconded to 2nd (Armoured) Battalion, Welsh Guards and was singled out (Mentioned in Dispatches) for dealing with over 60 casualties in three hours in Normandy.

Robert (Bert) Robinson

Though born in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, Bert Robinson would play a significant role as an intermediary between the British army and the nationalist community in the Stranmillis area of Belfast during the Troubles.

His unit was involved in several violent and casualty-heavy engagements with German forces during the Battle of Normandy where Sgt. Robertson’s company suffered heavy shell fire, and as a result of which all of the officers in his company were killed.

For his bravery and leadership, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) with the personal approval of Field Marshal Montgomery.

He moved to Northern Ireland after the war and was a respected go-between between the leadership of the IRA in the area and the office of the British Army’s General Officer Commanding, Northern Ireland District, during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Robert Marsden

Canon Robert Marsden was one of the last Irish survivors of the second World War and died in 2019 at the age of 95.

He was awarded France’s highest honour, the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, in January 2016 for his wartime contribution to the liberation of that country.

On D-Day he landed at Mulberry Harbour as part of the 1st battalion, Hampshire Regiment and joined the 50th Northumbrian Division with which he took part in the liberation of Brussels.

He was then sent on to Nijmegen in the Netherlands, on the road to the battle of Arnhem. Due to severe losses, the 50th Northumbrian Division, was then sent to reinforce the 7th Armoured Division, more famously known as the “Desert Rats”.

Francis McGuinness

Pte Francis (Frank) McGuinness, from Drogheda, Co Louth, was one of those to survive the D-Day landings. Just 21, he landed on Gold Beach with the 1st Hampshire Regiment, the first British regiment ashore.

He had spent a short time in the Irish Army but travelled to Northern Ireland to join up with British forces in Newry along with a trainload of similarly-minded Irish men. Frank recalled another Irish potential recruit being turned down because of his teeth. The disappointed candidate responded to the examining doctor: “I intend to shoot Germans, not to eat them.” He got in.

Like the majority of those who landed on D-Day, McGuinness had never been in combat, but he was serving alongside Dunkirk veterans. Gold Beach was the middle of the five D-Day landing beaches. It was solely a British objective.

“My father said of D-Day, if ever there was a hell on Earth, that was it,” his son Peter said for the 75th anniversary in 2019. “It was like taking a boat ride into hell. He thought he was going to be killed on the beach. It was sheer luck whether the machine gun dispersed left or right.

“My father reckoned more guys drowned than got shot. He was a good swimmer. He dragged many of them out of the water, but to no avail. They got killed before they got off the beach.”

Frank McGuinness sent back field postcards a few days after the Normandy landings. His son still has them.

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