An Irish World War Two veteran has paid tribute to his fallen comrades after he was awarded France’s highest military honour in recognition of his role in the Normandy landings.
Pat Gillen, a father of four and grandfather of 12 from Cork, made the trip back to Normandy in 2010 with support from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme.
The 89-year-old was due to travel under the programme to take part in the 70th anniversary D Day commemorations in June. But although his trip had to be cancelled due to a health problem, a group of his Irish army veteran friends laid the laurel wreath made by his daughter Mary in his place.
Last week, the Ambassador of France to Ireland Jean-Pierre Thebault, visited Pat at Mercy Hospital in Cork to present him with a medal in an emotional ceremony.
In his speech Pat said: “I feel both extremely honoured and humbled in receiving the ‘Chevalier de la legion d’Honneur’ – conferred on me by President Hollande and Government of France. On receiving a letter from your embassy a few weeks ago, I was thrilled and felt immediately unworthy.
“This year marks the 70th Anniversary of D-Day (June 6th, 1944) and of the first time I placed my feet on French soil.
“In accepting this award, these, and other brave Irishmen – thousands of young men who lost their young lives in the pursuit of peace – remain in my memory. This award is as much theirs as mine.”
One of Pat’s sons, Robin, said: “Words cannot describe the enormous pride and honour we felt for Dad while witnessing the wonderful award ceremony, conducted by the French Ambassador to Ireland, and very kindly facilitated by the management and staff of the Mercy Hospital Cork.
“It was a very emotional but happy day for Dad, made all the more special by having his children and grandchildren and retired Irish army colleagues and friends attend the presentation.”
A teenage Pat, who is originally from Galway, ran away from home with his cousin Tommy and two friends to sign up to the British army in 1943. After just a few months of training, he landed on Sword beach on D Day.
Pat endured sniper fire and harrowing conditions to help secure the strategically important Pegasus bridge. At one point he spent 42 days in a slip trench where his unit were dug in to stop the Nazis from attacking the eastern flank of the landings at Sword beach.
“We were shelled every night. You don’t get used to it – you never get used to it. The odds are against you all the time,” said Pat.
Pat and his comrades later marched back to the coast to clear the beaches of mines. Miraculously, he was never injured.
“We lost a lot over the time. Good boys, fellows of my age I knew well. I still think of them of course and keep in touch with my good friends from No 6 Commando.”