Sixty-four years on

Jun 6th, 2008 | By | Category: Ireland

Archie wanted to fly.

Born in Co Down in April 1923, he joined the Royal Air Force at the age of eighteen.

No-one forced him to enlist, there was no conscription in Northern Ireland. While many of those who in later years would declare their undying love for all things British lay at home in their beds, Archie went off to a war that Britain was losing.

Archie trained as a radio operator. His future would be as a member of a bomber crew, or so he thought.

The 1st Canadian Army, on British soil to defend the “old country”, needed radio operators and Archie was transferred. From aspirations of being in the air, Archie’s future was an infantryman.

Sixty-four years ago this morning, Archie jumped from a landing craft into the shallow water of a Normandy beach. Many of his companions never made it off the beach; Archie’s story was happier, he walked, from 6th June 1944, right through to the end of the war.

There were never stories of battle, never even stories of how they got off of that open, windswept beach. We would go walking and he would occasionally talk of sensible things: how looking after your feet was vital; of daft things like trying to shoot rabbit with a .303 rifle, the bullet would go straight and the rabbit would run on; or of sad things, like reaching a rocket launch site to find three men dead from alcohol poisoning after drinking rocket fuel.

Archie died a few years ago. I wrote to his widow when he died. Up until his final months he had remained the fit young man who had walked across Europe with the Canadians, looking up at the planes in which he might have flown.

The Europe that emerged from the war, that ordinary blokes like Archie had helped to win, was one where there was desire that there would be no repeat of the two World Wars. The quest for European unity came out of the wish on the part of France and Germany that they would never again fight each other.

This morning’s opinion poll suggesting that the Lisbon Treaty might be defeated at the referendum next Thursday, suggests a need to dig the dream of peace and co-operation, the desire that young men like would never have to go to war again, out from among the nightmare of bureaucracy and legalism that Europe has become.

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  1. Wars are ever with us, today is the 112th. birthday of the oldest survivor in Britain of WW1 he was at the battle of Jutland and maybe had similar thoughts to Archie. Will life ever change.

  2. D-Day is significant in my family.

    My father who was in the R.N., has a great story about taking part in an exercise staged in the English Channel on 5th June 1944, to confuse the Germans. Thankfully, his boat was ordered to return to base in Dartmouth for D-Day itself.

    My maternal grandfather died (from natural causes) in the UK on 6th June, 1944. His two sons (one an RAF pilot and the other serving in the British Army) got special dispensation to come home from war duty for their father’s funeral. A few days later, the RAF guy flew his small plane back to France (against advice) and was killed en route. His brother died six months later. Yet another family left with no menfolk by the time the war was over.

    I’m glad Archie story was a happier one even though his aspirations went unfulfilled.

  3. Steph,

    Sometimes watching the events of those times on the old black and white newsreels can make them seem unreal. I saw a programme once of WW2 in colour and the people suddenly came alive as individuals with their own stories.

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