Homegrown heroes of D-Day

IN the pre-dawn hours of June 6th, 1944, the skies above the English Channel were alive with activity. The unseasonal storm of the previous day was only just beginning to subside as hundreds of Allied aircraft droned over an ominously churning grey sea.

Beneath them, a vast armada of ships of every size, sprawling from horizon to horizon, steamed inexorably towards the heavily fortified Normandy coastline.

The ‘Great Crusade’ - as future US President Dwight D Eisenhower dubbed it whilst serving as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force - was at hand.

The objective as defined in his order of the day was nothing less than ‘the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world’.

Onboard one of the 2,395 planes scrambled for action that morning was Richard Todd, the actor later to find fame for his leading roles in such classic 1950s films as ‘The Dam Busters’ and ‘The Virgin Queen’.

The future screen star, then serving as a lieutenant in the 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion, was born in Dublin, but spent much of his childhood at Brecart Lodge near Toome with his stepfather SR Hunter - a halcyon period which he looked back fondly upon in a rare interview with the Antrim Guardian in the 1990s.

On D-Day, he and his men were tasked with landing by parachute near the Bénouville Bridge spanning the Caen Canal, codenamed ‘Pegasus Bridge’ by Allied planners, at 00:40 hours.

Upon arrival, they were to reinforce Major John Howard’s D Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry - who, it was planned, would land first by glider and seize Pegasus Bridge in a daring surprise assault.

Having effected this rendezvous, Todd and his men would help the coup-de-main force hold the bridge against the expected German counterattacks that would inevitably follow.

Pegasus Bridge was a crucial objective. If destroyed by the enemy, the build-up of Allied traffic due to arrive later via the nearby ‘Sword’ landing beach (the most easterly of the five main beaches to be attacked on D-Day) would be delayed, throwing the entire carefully timed invasion plans off schedule.

More critically still, if the bridge remained in German hands, they could use it to send their reserve force of tanks in a direct counterattack against the eastern flank of the Sword beachhead, potentially rolling the troops there back into the Channel in retreat.

The airborne troops were a vital buffer, and were expected to hold fast to the last bullet until they could be relieved by reinforcements landing by sea.

“There's a hell of a lot I've forgotten,” recalled Todd in 2004, “but certain elements are still very clear in my mind, such as my actual landing on the ground.

“I was quite pleased I got there intact, then became aware of the fact it wasn't a very healthy place to be because there was a lot of tracer going around.”

Dashing from the cornfield he landed in to a nearby wood, Lieutenant Todd - one of the first British troops to arrive in Normandy, and, according to some sources, the very first Irishman - regrouped with 150 other paratroopers and proceeded to Pegasus Bridge, meeting with Major Howard there.

The first of the expected German counterattacks on the bridge came between 5am and 7am. The initial confused and uncoordinated sorties from German infantry grew gradually worse in intensity, and, before long, enemy tanks and armoured cars were entering the fray.

Recognising the strategic importance of Pegasus, the Germans threw everything at their immediate disposal at the beleaguered paratroopers’ bridgehead.

At one stage, two German naval coastal craft sailed up the canal to attack the bridge, and, at another, a Luftwaffe plane dropped a 1,000lb bomb on the bridge - which, thankfully for the British airborne troops, failed to detonate.

“There was no cessation in the Germans' probing with patrols and counter-attacks, some led by tanks,” Todd later recalled.

“The regimental aid post was overrun in the early hours. The wounded being tended there were all killed where they lay. There was sporadic enemy mortar and artillery fire we could do nothing about.

“One shell landed in a hedge near me, killing a couple of our men.”

By the time Todd’s battalion was relieved by men of the 3rd Infantry Division moving inland from Sword Beach, it was at half strength due to the heavy casualties sustained in the landing and in holding the bridge. But they had held.

That morning, some 50 miles to the west in the American sector of the invasion, another former Toome resident prepared to leap out into a night sky illuminated by bursting flak and red-hot shrapnel.

Detroit-born Private First Class Edward J. Tipper Jnr from Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S 101st Airborne - the very same company immortalised in HBO’s blockbuster 2001 mini-series ‘Band of Brothers’- was born to Irish immigrants, with his father hailing from Dublin.

When Tipper was three years old, he moved to Northern Ireland with his family, living for a number of years in Toomebridge.

“When I was three years old, my parents decided to move back to Ireland,” the American paratrooper recalled.

“They settled in Toomebridge, a small rural village in Northern Ireland, where we lived for two years. My father ran a small General Store and Coal Yard.”

“That part of Ireland was a paradise for a kid,” added Tipper, who died in 2017.

“It was completely safe. Every morning, Mom opened the front door and sent us outside to play. All the kids mothers did.

“We played outside all day long. For lunch, we ran to whichever house was closest, and the mother there fed us. During the day, we explored the countryside, looking for bees nests, and honey. We chased butterflies.

“We all returned home from play after dark. It was very fortunate to experience such an idyllic upbringing.”

On the morning of D-Day, unexpectedly heavy German fire and adverse weather conditions meant that the 101st Airborne landings were scattered. Men struggled to find their units in the darkness, and many were killed or captured by German patrols.

Tipper, however, was fortunate to join fellow Easy Company member Frank Mellet and an ad-hoc group of paratroopers from other companies. Together, this improvised unit took and held a German strong point at Marmion Farm.

The following week, Tipper took part in Easy Company’s attack on Carentan, a vital crossroads town that needed to be captured so as to link the American lodgements at the Utah and Omaha landing beaches.

During the bitter house-to-house fighting for the French town, Tipper was grievously wounded when a German mortar shell exploded near him as he stood in the doorway of a house.

With both of his legs shattered and his right eye destroyed, the war was over for the soldier who once called Toome home. He was discharged and returned to the United States.

The dramatic nature of the D-Day landings captured the public’s imagination, and, long after the guns fell silent, Hollywood sought to capture the horror and the heroism of the invasion and bring it to the big screen.

One of the most notable early efforts was Darryl F. Zanuck’s 1962 classic, ‘The Longest Day’, an expansive film of enormous scale that documented the events of D-Day from the perspectives of both sides.

In the film, the attack on Pegasus Bridge is dramatised - with Richard Todd playing the part of Major John Howard.

As a participant in the very battle being reconstructed, Todd was offered the chance to play himself - an offer he declined, wryly joking “I don't think at this stage of my acting career I could accept a part ‘that’ small.”

Indeed, in a strange piece of cinematic trivia, one of the scenes depicting the battle for the bridge features a junior officer running up to Major Howard (as portrayed by Todd) to relay information to him.

The actor playing the part of this junior officer was meant to represent Richard Todd himself back in 1944.

Private Edward Tipper, on the other hand, was portrayed by actor Bart Ruspoli in 2001’s ‘Band of Brothers’.

The third episode, a gritty re-enactment of the battle for Carentan, even features a gruesome depiction Tipper being wounded during the fighting and shambling dazed and bloodied towards his visibly shocked comrades.

Hollywood visions of blood and viscera have served to keep the horrors of D-Day’s murderous combat alive in collective memory, but only an ever-shrinking band of veterans will ever truly know the awfulness of that morning’s carnage.

By the end of D-Day alone, over 10,000 Allied troops had been killed or wounded breaking through Hitler’s vaunted ‘Atlantic Wall’.

The terrible human cost of securing a firm footing within ‘Fortress Europe’ was steep to say the least, but, by the end of that pivotal day, the tide of the Second World War had turned against the Axis Powers by a catastrophic margin.

Already struggling to hold back the vengeful Soviets on the Eastern Front, Hitler could scarcely afford to divert troops and resources to fight on the newly opened ‘Second Front’ in France.

As soon as the Western Allies established themselves in Normandy, the final outcome of the war was no longer in contention - only the grim question of how many more lives would be sacrificed to end it remained.

“The other day I was in Normandy and I went and found the exact spot where I landed, and there isn't even a dent in the ground,” said Richard Todd 17 years ago.

“It was the first time I'd been able to find it exactly. It brought it all back. There were too many emotions to start describing that day.

“Let me put it bluntly: we were there to do a job, that was all that was in our minds. It wasn't meant to be a jubilant occasion.”

The actor, veteran, and honorary Toome resident died in 2009.

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