Northern Ireland

Remembering D-Day: NI veterans who played key role

RAF pilot Bill Eames was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh
Image caption RAF pilot Bill Eames was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh

When I visited the Normandy beaches as a tourist last year, little did I know that I would have the opportunity to meet two of the men who survived the dangers of the D-Day landings in 1944.

Like many visitors to that part of the world, I walked alongside the Orne Canal which is a peaceful stretch of water not far from the coast.

For RAF pilot Bill Eames, who was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, that very waterway was a crucial guide for him in the darkness on 6 June that year.

He was flying in low cloud but, luckily, a blink of moonlight lit up the water and it became his pathway to his target destination.

It was his mission, along with 570 Squadron, to tow heavy gliders full of paratroops who would land onto French soil.

Although Bill, who now lives in Lisburn, County Antrim, encountered a lot of German anti-aircraft fire, he returned to base unscathed.

Media captionFormer RAF pilot Bill Eames shows BBC Newsline's Donna Traynor his collection of medals attained during World War Two.

It was during the later battle of Arnhem that he was badly injured.

I cannot even imagine the sort of risks Bill faced and took as a young man.

As we talked about his time during the war, I was struck by his modesty and humility.

When I ask to see his medals, he only tells me in passing that he received a mention in dispatches which is an official recognition of his gallantry.

Media captionBill, who is now 91 years-old, is one of a handful of Northern Ireland veterans who can recount what happened in the D-Day landings

A small bronze leaf on a service medal marks that honour and is a treasured possession.

The former flight lieutenant, who is now 91 years-old, is one of just a few local veterans still alive who can recount what happened in the D-Day landings, an important turning point in the war.

At 94, John Leishman's memory of that conflict is clear. He was with 153 Infantry Brigade of the 51st Highland Division who were the support for the front line troops.

John, who lives in Dundonald near east Belfast, had already escaped in a small fishing boat from Dunkirk in 1940 and had survived many other battles before Normandy.

The infantryman landed on Sword Beach. When I visited last year, I saw a long stretch of golden sand with a promenade alongside - a perfect holiday destination far removed from what it was on D-Day.

John told me that he was lucky to get there on 6 June.

Image caption John Leishman has very vivid memories of the conflict

He could not swim and two of his comrades had to hold him up out of the water as they left the landing craft.

As he talks about the frightening experience on that day and those that followed, he breaks off and takes delight in telling me that he is returning to Normandy to take part in the 70th anniversary commemorations.

He wants to go again for the 75th anniversary.

Donna Traynor's interview with John Leishman will be shown on BBC One NI on Friday at 19:00 BST

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