It was the day that marked the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and his hated Nazi regime, when tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen from across the free world descended on the coastline of Normandy in one of the greatest invasion forces the world had ever seen.
For those young, often frightened troops, there was no way to know if they would live to see another dawn, let alone the end of the Second World War, but for those who did survive, today marks another milestone in their tale, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
As world leaders gather in the immaculate cemeteries of northern France, for many old soldiers, their acts of remembrance will be of a more personal nature, as they recall the friends and comrades who never came back from that fateful day.
While the invasion force which departed on the night of June 5, 1944, had been largely concentrated in the south and south-east of England, Northern Ireland also played a crucial role in the build-up to the operation, as a temporary home and training ground for thousands of American troops stationed here, as well as a significant part of the huge naval armada that transported the men and machinery across the English Channel and into the teeth of the German defenders on Hitler's Atlantic Wall. As the world stops to remember those events, we speak to one local veteran who played his part in the invasion, as well as a local historian who has brought to life the story of that naval force that sailed from here on a journey of liberation.
'As soon as the Germans saw us the sky lit up like fireworks ... it was all that we could see'
Former RAF pilot Bill Eames towed a glider full of airborne troops to targets in Normandy just ahead of the D-Day landings. The sprightly 91-year-old widower and father-of-two lives in Lisburn and has seven great-grandchildren. His elder son, David, is a former Aer Lingus pilot, while his younger son, Peter, worked as an aviation operator at Aldergrove Airport. A grandson, Justin, also flies for Aer Lingus. Bill worked as a light aircraft instructor at Newtownards airfield until he retired at the age of 80. He says:
I was an only son – my parents didn't like me going into service but they didn't instruct me against it, at the same time.
They had a confectionery and tobacco shop in Enniskillen, but my father had been in service in the First World War, so it was a way of life for us.
I left Portora school at 17 – Samuel Beckett went before me – to enlist, and trained in Canada and South America, where the weather was good for flying. I learned how to fly light bombers and the transport aircraft used to tug the gliders into Normandy.
I was like Adrian Mole – 20 and three-quarters, and had my 21st birthday just before D-Day.
I was footloose and fancy free at the time and not particularly frightened, but we did indeed realise the significance of what we were doing that day. We'd been training for it in secret for the past year. Nobody, including my parents, knew about the operation.
We flew out from Harwell, Oxford, just before midnight on June 6, 1944. I remember having a bacon and egg supper beforehand and enjoying it!
I didn't pray – religion didn't come into it. It was indeed an exciting experience; there were five of us in the crew flying out as a squadron and we knew something very big was going to happen.
We were flying in the dark to the eastern side of the front to deliver troops from the Sixth Division to the Pegasus Bridge, which they secured.
There were dozens of us tugging the gliders in – they were heavy, so it took us five hours.
It was a very unpleasant night, quite stormy for us towing these gliders.
It was an essential job to land them in the right position; if we hadn't, they would have had to do a forced landing. It became dangerous once we approached the French coast – as soon as the Germans spotted us, the sky lit up like fireworks with anti-aircraft fire. It was all I could see for a while; there were thousands of ships below us, but I couldn't see any of them.
Yes, there was always the fear of being shot down, but to think of that was too depressing. I tried to stay positive.
Was I scared? Well, I did get a bit cross with all that anti-aircraft fire trying to take me down – but they missed! We were under attack for 20 minutes or so, but no, we didn't panic.
We were delighted to get there and back in one piece, though. Landing was fine – the weather had calmed down a bit and once we caught a flash of moonlight on the canal leading into the target area, we were able to land the gliders.
Without the weight of them, we got home in half the time it took us to get there.
We were delighted to have done our bit well and to hear the good news of the victory, but the sea landings must have been dreadful. I was back in bed by the time the landings took place.
It had to be a success, no doubt about that, there was no going back. Thankfully the gliders all got back home a week after us, all intact.
I'm the only one left of the five in my group that flew out that night. They were from all over Britain – I stayed in touch with all of them until they died. I flew all my life but had to retire when I failed my medical at 80, due to some minor heart trouble.
I'm very glad to be alive for this big anniversary. I just enjoy life as it comes and am very glad to have done my bit for D-Day."
'I'd never seen such an armada in my life!'
The story of the tens of thousands of American GIs who trained in Northern Ireland during World War Two is well-known. But less familiar is the story of the flotilla which gathered in Belfast Lough just before D-Day, June 6, 1944 – 30,000 Allied sailors preparing for the biggest military operation in history.
They were part of the Western Naval Task Force, whose role was to support the landings on the Normandy beaches by bombarding enemy positions.
The story of the Task Force is told in So Vast An Armada, a new publication by local historian Ian Wilson, published for the 70th anniversary of D-Day by the Northern Ireland War Memorial.
Most of Mr Wilson's booklet is comprised of vivid personal reminiscences, as in this exclusive extract:
It was indeed only years later that the Allied men realised they had been part of history. Many were only 18 or 19, and for a lot of Americans especially, being drafted to the great battleships Texas, Arkansas, and Nevada (with over 2,000 crew each), it even meant their first view of the sea.
As James Conroy of HMS Erebus recalled: "I had never seen so vast an armada of ships. They were anchored on both sides of the lough, facing each other. Many years later, I was reminded of it by hearing what the German General Rommel said when he stood on the French coast, pointing out to sea: a monster is waiting to be unleashed!"
The veterans again and again refer to the warm Ulster hospitality they received. Particularly affected were the Afro-American sailors, who were used to segregation. "For the first time in my life, I was simply a Yank!" recalls one. Such experiences are believed to have speeded up the Civil Rights movement post-war.
And as Allied sailor Charles Cole recalled: "It was at this time I found myself on board USS Texas, a 35,000 ton battleship, anchored near the city of Bangor, Ireland. My name is Charles Frederick Cole. I was born and grew up in Madison, Indiana, a small Midwestern town. Coming from the wide-open spaces I found the size of Ireland to be very interesting. Roadways and streets are more narrow and in many ways the Irish seem to use everything to its fullest advantage. Most of all, I admired the Irish people!" For some local people, the war was the best, not the worst time of their lives! The famous Bangor dance-hall, Caproni's, ran weekly American dances. Recalled Sadie Cresswell: "At a dance in Caproni's with my girlfriend, we met the captain of the Nevada, Captain Rhea. He invited us out to the ship for breakfast. Breakfast! That's the American way of doing things. Anyway we were young and thought it was just great. I remember getting syrup and waffles, not the kind of thing we ever had!"
As Clifford Bygate of HMS Glasgow recalled: "We found the local people very friendly indeed, and were glad that on our return from Normandy, having been hit twice by the Cherbourg coastal batteries, we steamed into Bangor again before our journey round Scotland to the Tyne for a refit. Although I have not returned to Bangor since 1944, I have never forgotten the local people and the lush green hills around the lough. I visited many countries in my naval days, but the memory of Bangor will remain forever ..."
As the crucial date drew closer, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces, General Dwight D Eisenhower (left), visited Northern Ireland to encourage the forces. He came to Bangor on May 19, 1944.' (Such An Armada includes rare photographs from the US National Archives of Eisenhower going aboard the fleet to address crews.)
After the war, Eisenhower was fully appreciative of the role Northern Ireland played, and when receiving the Freedom of the City of Belfast, he uttered these words, which today are on a plaque on the pier in Bangor, from where he embarked to go out to the anchored ships: "From here started the long, hard march to Allied victory."
The Bangor pier was renamed the Eisenhower Pier in a special ceremony in 2005 by the former president's granddaughter, Mary-Jean Eisenhower.
- So Vast an Armada – from Belfast Lough to D-Day, by Ian Wilson, published by the Northern Ireland War Memorial, 21 Talbot Street, Belfast, price £3. For details, visit www.niwarmemorial.org
An interactive commemoration
- The NI War Memorial has been working alongside the Wartime Living History Society to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and tomorrow hosts a free interactive commemorative event, suitable for all ages
- Members of the Wartime Living History Society – wearing the US and British uniforms of the Normandy campaign – will give informal presentations about the preparations taking place in Northern Ireland in the lead up to D-Day, and the public is invited to drop in throughout the day to see interactive displays of artefacts and weapons, while the costumed experts explain how the American and British armies, along with the US Navy and the Royal Navy, were preparing in Northern Ireland for the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944
- Including educational activities for children, it's a great opportunity for families to visit NI War Memorial, as it's not usually open at weekends
- The event runs from 10am to 4.30pm on Belfast's Talbot Street and admission is free