- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Corporal James McGuinness MM, Sergeant Patrick Joseph McGuinness, Private Hugh McGuinness, Frances McAlone (née McGuinness), John Henry McGuinness, Catherine McGuinness, Sergeant Patrick McGeevor MM, Lieutenant Colonel Terence B.H. Otway, Lieutenant Alan Jefferson, Private Sidney Capon, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Major C.F.O. Breese.
- Location of story:
- Merville, Normandy, Dunkirk (France), Whitehaven (Cumbria), Ancona (Italy), Arnhem (Netherlands)
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 June 2005
Statue of 'Monty' at Colleville-Montgomery, Calvados, France (close to 'Sword Beach'). In September 1944 Field Marshal Montgomery decorated Corporal Jim 'Marra' McGuinness with the Military Medal for his part in the attack on Merville Battery, D-Day 6 June 1944.
This article is based on information obtained from various sources, including personal research in Normandy. Although I have visited many of the places where the Battle of Normandy took place, I only recently heard that that a former resident from my home county of Cumbria had been awarded the Military Medal for his actions in attacking the Merville Battery on D-Day 6 June 1944.
I would like to thank Mrs Frances McAlone for details about one of her uncles, Corporal James McGuinness MM. This MM had been awarded to Corporal James 'Marra' McGuinness MM who came from Whitehaven in what was then the county of Cumberland.
Unfortunately Corporal McGuinness passed away some years ago so I cannot get ask him for his first-hand testimony. Hence I have had to write this article based on information available elsewhere and I have tried to cross-check what I have written is accurate.
There are more detailed and specific accounts about the role of the 6th Airborne Division on D-Day than written here. However, I would like to dedicate the article to Corporal Jim 'Marra' McGuinness and his other brave colleagues from the 9th Battalion Parachute Regiment who landed in Normandy in the early hours of D-Day 6 June 1944.
Corporal Jim McGuinness MM
Sergeant Pat McGuinness, who was killed in Italy in July 1944 was the father of Mrs Frances McAlone. While I was listening to Frances relating some of her memories of World War Two, which I was also writing down, Frances told me a little about one of father's brothers:
"Not long after my father was killed we heard his brother, my Uncle James McGuinness, had been awarded the Military Medal for an action on D-Day in Normandy. He didn’t say much about it after the war. I’m not even sure if he ever wore his Military Medal for Remembrance Sunday. He put his medal out of sight in a drawer. I only really know what happened because of a newspaper article.
Jim’s unit had to capture a coastal battery at Merville, near ‘Pegasus Bridge’. The paratroopers Jim was with were scattered over a wide area. The Commanding Officer managed to get a few of the men together. Because it was that important to the Normandy Landings the CO decided they had to attack the battery. Jim was a corporal by then.
A Sergeant McGeever and Jim supported the CO by going through a minefield and barbed wire to the battery with a Vickers machine gun. The Germans surrendered and the paratroopers captured the battery. Although this was before my Daddy died, I think he got the medal afterwards".
Jim was born in Whitehaven in 1911, one of the sons of John Henry and Catherine McGuinness. He attended school firstly at Quay Street RC School near the Harbour and then St Begh's RC School on Coach Road, leaving school at 14 years of age. After leaving school, Jim initially worked in one of Whitehaven's coal mines, Haig Pit at Kells. Along with several other close relatives and friends Jim joined the local battalion of the Territorial Army, the 5th Battalion Border Regiment where he played the cornet in the Battalion band. Jim then had a spell in the Regular Army, serving firstly with the Border Regiment and secondly with the Royal Artillery.
By the time war broke out Jim was back working at Haig Pit. Despite Jim wanting to sign up again early in the war along with his other relatives, he was not allowed to enlist until 1943. After initially retraining with the Royal Artillery, Jim volunteered for an airborne unit and at almost 32 years old, Jim was one of the oldest in the unit. Jim was assigned to the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, proudly wearing a red beret.
It appears Jim was known by many of his fellow paratroopers as 'Marra'. This term 'Marra' is used by West Cumbrian lads for a very special friend and colleague. It is akin to what others would understand the term 'blood brother' to mean. Hence, being known as 'Marra' says a lot the high esteem Jim will have been held by his fellow paratroopers.
The Commanding Officer of Jim's battalion was Lieutenant Colonel T.B.H. Otway. For the D-Day assault the 9th Battalion 3rd Parachute Regiment formed part of the 6th Airborne Division. They were assigned to put the Merville Battery out of action before the main Normandy Landings took place on Sword Beach.
After the war, some of my relatives worked with Jim and were among his close friends. However, from what I have learnt Jim very rarely spoke about his wartime experiences after the war, except perhaps among comrades. Nevertheless, if someone specifically asked him something about the war, Jim would explain what happened. Fortunately, Jim did talk to a local newspaper journalist in January 1983 about his time as a paratrooper. I have been able to read this article to cross-check certain things.
This article appeared in the 'Evening News and Star' (a sister paper to 'The Whitehaven News') on Monday 17 January 1983 and was written by David Hay who should be acknowledged for an excellent piece of journalism. It uses a couple of original photographs of Jim from that time. However, while researching this article I was informed at 'The Whitehaven News' office that virtually all of their original photographs taken prior to 1983 had been damaged in a flood.
The role of the 9th Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment
This brief section about the role of the 9th Battalion, 3rd Parachute Regiment is included mainly for background information to understand the rest of my article. There are numerous articles explaining in great detail the role of the 9th Battalion and the 6th Airborne Division, to which they formed a part for D-Day. For the 60th Anniversary documentary the BBC re-enacted the attack on the Merville Battery for a drama-documentary entitled 'D-Day 6.6.44'. An official BBC book by Dan Parry, published in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum ties in with the film. Both this book and the film draw upon the first-hand testimonies of three former paratroopers with the 9th Battalion: Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway (Commanding Officer), Lieutenant Alan Jefferson and Private Sid Capon.
In 1944, the Merville Battery had four guns in casemates overlooking what was to become 'Sword Beach' where the 3rd British Infantry Division was due to land on 'D-Day'. Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway arranged to have a life-size replica of the Battery constructed on Salisbury Plain and the 750 men in the unit practised trained by 'attacking' the replica.
As a result of this thorough training, the eventual plan was that about 60 paratroopers would go in gliders with the heavy equipment while the rest would land by parachute. The battalion would assemble in a wood a little over a mile away from Merville, and they would then proceed to the Battery and put it out of action.
On D-Day, very little went as planned for the 9th Battalion paratroopers. Most of them ended up scattered over a wide area rather than concentrated in a small area to meet at a pre-arranged rendezvous. In fact by 02.50h only 150 men had made the rendezvous location. The equipment gliders went down into the English Channel because the tow-ropes snapped. While Jim was on board his aeroplane crossing the Channel he was saying his prayers, especially the 'Act of Contrition'. Although Jim lost his rifle and bugle after jumping from the aircraft, he was one of those who actually made it to the rendezvous location on time.
Despite the small numbers of paratroopers who had made it to the agreed location, the CO decided that they had to attack the Battery anyway. They did have one Vickers Machine Gun available. I understand it was Sergeant Pat McGeevor and Corporal Jim McGuinness who were then assigned to be the machine gun team. Lieutenant Colonel Otway led the party of 150 men across a minefield and through barbed wire obstacles towards the Battery. The Vickers machine gun team 'knocked out' three German machine gun teams enabling the assault on the Battery to go ahead.
After a desperate assault the German big guns were put out of action and a signal was sent to the waiting fleet. Of the 150 attacking paratroopers, only 65 were still left standing, the others having been killed or wounded. Out of the 200 German defenders about 22 surrendered while the rest were killed or wounded. It turned out that the German guns were not quite as big as the Allies believed: 75 mm instead of the expected 150 mm. Nevertheless, the 9th Battalion had somehow achieved its objective despite all the problems it had faced.
A small force of determined paratroopers led by the inspiring Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, with one Vickers machine gun, had stormed one of the strongest fortified places on Hitler's 'Atlantic Wall' and put it out of action in approximately half an hour. Corporal Jim McGuinness was one of those lucky enough to head back from Merville without a scratch. The battalion then went to link up with the invasion armies to defend the Allied bridgehead on the eastern side of the River Orne for about a week before they were relieved. There was some tough fighting during this period as well.
Among the monuments and museums commemorating the Allied Liberation of Normandy, Merville has a 'Battery Museum' where it possible to see the casemates where the guns were stored. On 7 June 1997 a bust of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, realised by Vivien Mallock, was also unveiled at Merville commemorating the achievements of 9th Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel Otway in particular. Most of the paratroopers who died during the attack on Merville Battery are buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries in Normandy, such as the one at Ranville, situated a little to the south-east of 'Pegasus Bridge'.
Bravery above and beyond the call of duty
(a) London Gazette, 19 October 1944:
Corporal Jim McGuinness and Sergeant Patrick McGeevor were awarded Military Medals for their bravery on D-Day. I checked the online WW2 Archives of the 'London Gazette' and found the Military Medals for these two were announced in the 'Supplement to the London Gazette', 19 October 1944: No.6008160 Sergeant Patrick McGeever and No.14526028 Corporal James McGuinness.
As well as Sergeant McGeever and Corporal McGuinness Military Medal awards were announced to some other Army Air Corps servicemen. However, I am unsure as to which Battalion or Regiment these others were from.
(b) 'The Whitehaven News', Thursday 21 September 1944:
When I visited the Cumbria Archives Office to consult the back catalogue of the local West Cumbrian newspaper 'The Whitehaven News' I found that the medals had in fact been awarded a month before the London Gazette announcement. They had been awarded by General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, a couple of days before 'Monty' had been promoted to Field Marshal. This personal presentation by 'Monty' only a few days before 'Operation Market Garden' may indicate how significant their achievement was by eliminating the Merville Battery guns.
This is how the local newspaper reported Jim's award of the Military Medal (included with permission of 'The Whitehaven News'):
Decorated by "Monty"
Just a few days before he was promoted to the highest rank in the British Army Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorated Cpl. James McGuinness, Seacliffe, Whitehaven, with the Military Medal. Cpl. McGuinness is serving with a Parachute regiment and was one of the first parachutists to land in Normandy. Although he had been landed to act as a provost corporal, Cpl. McGuinness took charge of a machine gun and went into action.
Later he got possession of an anti-tank gun and went to the assistance of some British troops who were being attacked by enemy tanks. So well did he operate the gun that the tank threat was dissipated. Then, enemy infantry came on the scene, the officer in charge of the detachment asked Cpl. McGuinness if he could engage the enemy with his anti-tank gun. The corporal replied with feeling, "It'll be a pleasure," and his accurate firing routed the enemy infantry.
Cpl. McGuinness was one of the few of his battalion who escaped without wounds and he has taken part in many engagements in France. He served with the Royal Artillery before the war and was for a time in the band of a Territorial battalion of the Border Regiment. He worked at Haig Pit but was recalled to the Army in 1943.
His brother, Sergt. Pat McGuinness who was recently reported killed in action, was commended for very great gallantry during the evacuation from Dunkirk. Local men reported having seen Sergt. McGuinness swim from the dive-bombed beaches to the rescue vessels on no fewer than nine occasions carrying wounded men and men unable to swim."
(c) Additional information
The above article from ''The Whitehaven News' refers not just to the great bravery and determination of Jim but also to that of his brother Pat, especially during the Dunkirk evacuation. When I read this newspaper article at the Cumbria County Archives Office in Whitehaven, it was the first time I had learnt of Pat's great courage and determination at Dunkirk. Evidently, his actions there in saving several other colleagues get away from Dunkirk made a great impact on the other local fellows who saw what Pat did. Jim demonstrated similar courage and determination under heavy enemy fire in Normandy, for which he was awarded the Military Medal.
Although this article is mainly about Jim McGuinness, yet another member of the McGuinness family from Cumbria demonstrated similar courage and determination during the war in 1944. It is included here to show how they all coped with adversity in wartime and were a bedrock of support to all those around them.
Recently, I visited the Border Regiment Museum at Carlisle, Cumbria and briefly spoke with the Museum Curator Stuart Eastwood. On the same day that 'The Whitehaven News' article mentioning Jim and Pat was published in September 1944, one of their nephews was involved in heavy fighting in the Arnhem area during 'Operation Market Garden' . This was Private Hugh McGuinness who at that time was serving with 'D Company' of the 1st Battalion Border Regiment.
Hugh's Company was possibly the last to continue resisting the Germans even after they learnt the rest of their Division had been withdrawn. 'D Company' continued fighting until they ran out of ammunition on Tuesday 26 September 1944. After that, those soldiers like Hugh who were still capable of resisting could do was wait until the Germans came forward to take their positions. Hugh and the others then became POWs until the end of the war.
The Border Regiment Museum has a letter from Hugh to Major C.F.O. Breese explaining the SS Captain who eventually took their position said they had been the finest soldiers the SS captain had come into combat with during the war. The letter is also mentioned in the 1994 book 'When Dragons Flew' by Stuart Eastwood, Charles Gray and Alan Green (Silver Link Publishing Ltd).
Despite taking part in one of the key operations in the early hours of D-Day 6 June 1944 and being awarded the Military Medal by General Montgomery, I have heard that Jim McGuinness kept his medals out of sight in a drawer. After Normandy, Jim later went on to take part in crossing the Rhine and parachuted into Germany. He returned to civilian life in 1946 after a spell in Palestine and returned to work in the West Cumbrian coal mines.
It is only recently that I have learnt of Jim's part in the attack on the Merville Battery. Jim was obviously very determined to get into the army and play what he saw as his part in winning the war. He managed to get out of working at a coal mine in 1943 and rejoin the army, which was not an easy thing to do at that stage in the war. Then, he volunteered for parachute training. This cannot have been an easy step to take for someone in his early 30s. Most of the other men doing the training were perhaps 10 years younger. Even Lieutenant Colonel Otway at 29 was younger than Jim. Finally, despite nothing going as planned for the attack on Merville Battery Jim followed the officers of his unit to achieve what had to be done.
The three McGuinness lads I have mentioned in this article, Jim, Pat and Hugh, were greatly respected by Ordinary Ratings and Officers alike. All three of them were a credit to their family and to their community. Jim being decorated with his Military Medal by General Montgomery would indicate even the great 'Monty' recognised the role of at least one McGuinness lad in the war. However, perhaps the greatest accolade accorded to Jim McGuinness was being a 'Marra' to those who knew him.
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