Omagh District Orange Cultural Association recently conducted a battlefield tour of the Normandy landings of ‘Operation Overlord’ of June 1944, synonymously known since as ‘D Day.’ The small party of ten were joined by Normandy veterans John Leishman and George Thompson.
John, a sprightly 93-year-old fought in north Africa and Sicily with the 153 Infantry Brigade of the 51st Highland Division that came ashore at Sword Beach, while George, aged 88, was among the first wave of the Royal Navy to land at Sword Beach on June 6, 1944 as a Naval Commando with Combined Operations. He went on to serve with the Navy in the Pacific before the end of the conflict in the Far East on VJ Day, August 8, 1945.
The group of 12 travelled to Paris and onto Caen which was extensively destroyed in the weeks following D Day as the German forces tried to hold British and Canadian invading troops from breaking out of the bridgehead gained on the landing beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword.
Here the members were able to reconnoitre the vast Norman castle of William the Conqueror that is close by.
The following morning the party made its way to the British airborne landing zones east of the River Orne. The first stop was the Merville battery, an emplacement of four 100mm guns heavily defended by 15 machine gun positions which in the early hours of June 6, 1944 were rendered inactive by 150 men of the 9th Battalion Parachute Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway.
David Marshall, from the Omagh District Orange Cultural Association, said, “This feat of bravery ensured many lives were saved on the nearby landing beaches later on the morning of D Day.
“We took a few minutes here to place a poppy cross in Amfreville where Guardsman Ronald ‘Dixie’ Dean who was featured in a recent documentary on BBC by Peter Snow. We later visited his grave at Ranville Cemetery.
“A most interesting time was then spent at Pegasus Bridge at Benouville where D Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry led by Major john Howard landed by Horsa Glider just minutes into June 6, taking possession of the bridge and holding that position until relieved by Lord Lovat and the 1st Special Service Brigade. The original bridge still bears the bullet marks where the first fatal casualty of D Day, Lt Dennis Brotheridge, fell.
David recalled fondly a visit to Café Gondree where 93-year-old John Leishman regaled the large group of visitors in song.
He and fellow veteran George were given a warm welcome by Madame Gondree who, as a little girl, witnessed the liberation of her home; the first in France by Allied Forces on D Day. She presented both veterans with memento’s of this occasion.
The memorial of the 51st Highland Division south of Ranville was next on the itinerary for the Omagh group, where John took a “poignant moment” to recall his comrades in the Division before heading to Sword Beach where both veterans landed almost 70 years earlier.
On day three, the Omagh group headed for the Bayeaux War Cemetery and Memorial, the largest World War II cemetery in Europe. They also visited the attached museum followed by the untouched Longues Sur Mer German coastal gun battery where most of the weapons have been left as they were found in their emplacements.
After John attracted yet another crowd as he broke into song, the group proceeded on their journey to the Ulster Rifles memorial at Cambes en Plaine where the 2nd Battalion suffered many casualties on June 9, 1944. A short service of remembrance was conducted at the memorial with a wreath laid by the association chairman, Harold Doherty.
Day four was given to visiting the American sectors of the D Day landings. The very large cemetery at Omaha Beach and museum impressed all in attendance recalled David.
He said “Our two veterans, George and John, got so much awe and respect from the staff and American visitors as they were repeatedly greeted with the words, ‘thank you for serving’.”
The Omagh District Orange Cultural association group concluded its Normandy trip by driving some 60 miles inland to St Charles de Percy and the British War Cemetery to visit the grave of Lance Sergeant Robert Wood of the Irish Guards.
From Churchill, Fermanagh, Robert Wood was serving with the 1st Battalion Irish Guards that was sent to attempt to repel the German invaders of Norway at the outbreak of the war. Their cruiser was hit by a German dive bomber that left the ship in flames, killing many, however he survived.
The group from Omagh were told that another “B Man”, David Law, ex Irish Guards and latterly Sub District Commandant of Killybrack near Augher, also survived the disaster
Robert Wood was later killed in August 1944, aged 24, during a tank battle in the push to capture the road juncture at Vire and the high ground at Mont Pincon.
Two wreaths were laid at this grave by his nephew Robert Carson on behalf of Sgt Wood’s only surviving brother and sister.
David said, “This was a very emotional and poignant moment for Robert and his wife Vivienne and the group as a whole. This was the first time a family member had the opportunity to visit the grave.
On return, the group reflected on what was described as the best of the four battlefield trips conducted since the Somme visit in 2006 when 91 people travelled.
The association also paid tribute to John and George for their “stoic and energetic” participation.