D-Day: Vivid picture of invasion painted by Belfast RAF man's diary
The diary of a Belfast RAF man has given a vivid insight into the D-Day landings in Normandy 75 years ago.
Henry Odell McNeice, from Ballarat Street in east Belfast, was a navigator on board a bomber at the time and had a bird's-eye view of the massive Allied invasion fleet heading to France.
While flying back from a mission close to Normandy beach early on June 6, 1944, he wrote: "This is it. Invasion started and saw it by dawn's early light as we were on way back.
"Dodged below clouds to avoid fighter and there were thousands of ships heading for France.
"Never forget as long as I live. First to land with the news."
A further entry talks of a "nightmare trip" of a short notice mission.
"Put on at last minute because another crew was sick. Not even in our own kite," he wrote.
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"Fighters galore. Combats, attacks, kites going down.
"Never expected to get back.
"FW190 nearly got us. ME21 preparing to attack. Tich shot him down. Makes three fighters to his credit.
"Glory be to God for having two feet on deck again."
Mr McNeice, who died aged 79 in 2000, later recalled he was to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), but said: "Personally I'd prefer a rise in pay!"
His diary also recalled his wedding that year to Popsy - a member of the Women's RAF who helped to repair aircraft - at St Paul's Church in Castlewellan.
"Best day's work I've done. Should have done it years ago or at least soon after I met Popsy," he said.
As 300 D-Day veterans marked the 75th anniversary yesterday in Portsmouth, Mr McNeice's sons William (73) and Mike (69) spoke of their immense pride.
William said: "I was stunned when I read this, because it was only shortly after he retired that he would have talked about it.
"When I was a boy I brought home war comics, but he told me, 'war's not funny'.
"He eventually told me stories about having to stick chewing gum into bullet holes in the aircraft.
"They would be playing cricket and told suddenly they were going off to bomb Berlin or Frankfurt, but after his mission he would come back and find an empty bed where his mates had been.
"So you realise just how heroic he and his friends were."
Mike added the thought of his father flying over the Normandy invasion was a haunting image.
"It sends shivers down the spine," he said.
"In personal terms, it means a lot that my late father played a role in the success, if you want to use that word, of that time."
The Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken, a former submarine commander, also spoke yesterday about a surprise family connection to the Normandy landings.
Benjamin Branche Talley was Brigadier General for the United States Army, who was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross after fighting at Omaha Beach and later Okinawa.
"We knew that one of our relatives on the US side had been in the Army but didn't realise his history," Mr Aiken said.
"It turns out he was one of the few people who knew how to do beach landings.
"He was a colonel in charge of planning for Operation Overlord, but was also put on to the beaches to take down a lot of the obstacles on Omaha beach, all while under sustained fire.
"So it's pretty impressive and we didn't know about it until two days ago.
"I was pleasantly surprised and shocked and just a bit proud."
In 2016, D-Day veterans from Northern Ireland were awarded France's highest military honour at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph at the time, Samuel McGookin, an able seaman in the Royal Navy, recalled the moment he landed on Juno Beach.
"I was on a landing craft... we were full of tanks and ammunition and lorries and about 500 troops," he said.
"Our ship just rolled up on to the beach, the doors opened and the ramp came down and then we were on the beach.
"What was it like?
"It was just b***** murder.
"I look back on it with pride, getting this medal and being able to help those people.
"That's what you're there for, it's a job."
George Thompson was part of a commando unit which landed on Sword Beach.
"Of the 129 commandos in my unit, there were only four left after D-Day," he said at the time.
"I landed on the beach when I was 17 and had my 18th birthday on the beach. "Only four survived.
"I think I'm the only one left."