Article written May '04
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Richard
Keegan was sixteen years old and living in Lurgan. A 'wee
notion' that he took, to join the Army, was rebuked by
his policeman father - who was insistent that they wouldn't
take him on. Not to be deterred and reluctant to give
up on his 'wee notion',
he applied two years later, when he was eighteen, and
was duly accepted.
Richard talks about enlisting.
Stationed at the ‘Low Camp’ in Saint Patrick's
Barracks in Ballymena, Richard, along with the other
new recruits, underwent six weeks of a rigorous induction
before being transferred to Palace Barracks and the
Seventieth Battalion, of the Royal Ulster Rifles.
Company, Eighteenth Platoon, 2nd Battalion of
the Royal Ulster Rifles - Richard is first on
the left, second row from the top.
Although involved in active service during the Belfast
Blitz – their superiors made the decision to break
up the Seventieth Battalion in late ‘42. Richard,
although disheartened, was transferred along with some
of his colleagues, within the regiment - to D Company,
Eighteenth Platoon, 2nd Battalion of the Rifles, and
it was here that his training began in earnest.
For the next year physical fitness and discipline were
the priorities - sea landings, assault courses, mountain
and ammunition training became part of Richard’s
daily routine. However, mental well being was also worked
upon - an awareness of the situation in Germany, team
building and preparation for the effects of battle were
integral elements of the men’s training.
Richard talks about his training and the 'Baptism of Fire'
that the men received.
'Monty Wants Us'
Unaware of the high-level plans being made for their
battalion, rumours started to circulate among the men
in April ’44, that they would be taking part in
a landing in North Africa – "Monty wants
us on his job" was the word in the mess. However
in late April / early May of 1944, the company was
moved to Draxford in Dorset, to the 'concentration area'
- joining up with the other two and half million plus,
servicemen assembling in the South of England for Operation
The Big Scheme
Secrecy was of the utmost importance, and even at this
point, Richard and his friends, were unaware of their
mission. Confined to their barrack, all Mr Green their
platoon officer would tell them is that “you’re
going on a big scheme”. Richard vividly recalls
walking into the tent were the whole set-up was laid
out in front of them, and although shown the piece of
coastline where they would be landing, he was unable
to decipher the exact location. He knew it was somewhere
in France or Spain but that was all the information
he could gleam!
As the history books record, the mission was
initially planned for the 4th June, Richard and his
platoon were duly assembled on their landing craft on
the 3 June, however the well documented bad weather
scuppered plans for the invasion, and so the men were
taken off the ship, to be brought back two days later.
Crossing the Channel Richard recalls that the tension
was palpable, the men were ‘fired up’, but
fear was abated by a sense that this was the culmination,
of all those years of training.
Disembarking at Sword beach, Richard, loaded down with
ammunition, equipment, a radio and a bicycle, was soaked
from head to foot by the heavy swell that was surrounding
the shore. Here he recalls grabbing one of the smallest
members of the platoon (seated at the front of the Company
photograph) from going under and explains how his canny
plan for changing his socks was thwarted!
Landing on the beach and sighting his first German.
On first glance, the Germans were not in evidence on
the beach, but their machine guns were continuously
bombarding the landing craft, however this fire seemed
to be considerably far enough away to pose no immediate
By the end of the first day it had been estimated that
the troops landing on the Easterly beaches of Sword and
Juno would have taken the town of Caen, some nine miles
south. However circumstances and conditions decreed this
objective over-optimistic, as all the Battalions were
some miles off, by the fall of night.
Richard remembers making his way up a ramp onto the
promenade and coming face to face with a row of fishermen's
houses. The company, following their commander, made
their way up a narrow street towards their first assembly
point ‘the Orchard’ where a head count was
taken to establish if everyone was present and correct.
The men then made there way to 'the farm', a rural farmhouse
surrounded by a square of trees, six or seven miles
inland, and where they dug in for the night. On their
way they had encountered welcoming French civilians,
their bounteous offers of wine, kindly refused by Richard.
Early Morning Snipers
The men had been warned to watch for snipers! The roll
call at the end of the first day had registered some
of the Company out of action, however it wasn't until
the next morning that Richard witnessed his first victim
at close proximity. His friend Jimmy Pedlaw, whom he
had signed up with in Belfast, ventured out of his dug
out and was caught in the neck!
Listen to Richard recall Jimmy's exit from the war.
Keegan and Jimmy Pedlaw.
First Attack on Cambes Wood
Jimmy's incident however did not detain the Company,
who had to press on to the town of Caen. Their next
mission was to secure Cambes Wood, and D Company was
to lead the attack. Richard and his colleagues cycled
for a number of miles to the outskirts of the Wood where
they dumped their bikes, and came face to face with
a large cornfield that they had to clear, in order to
reach their destination. There was some shelling going
on, and the men divided into two groups. However the
mission had to be aborted when the Company commander
Major Allsworth (who had been leading the other group)
was killed. Because of the situation at the cornfield
it would have been impossible to take back the injured,
so it was decided to leave them and entrust them to
the care of the German forces. The men where not to
know how foolish this was!
Richard talks about the attack on Cambes Wood and the
fate of his injured colleagues.
The cornfield the men had to cross to reach
I gazed upon a foreign field
Where British blood was shed
And there I placed a poppy
In remembrance of our dead
My heart was full of sorrow
And my tears began to flow
When came those misty memories
Of that day so long ago
I saw the wood of Cambes
In the light of early morn
And riflemen waiting to advance
Across the field of growing corn
When came the thunder of
Lines of riflemen arose as one
And over the field into enemy fire
They advanced at a steady run
They stormed and took the
And Cambe village fell by noon
The cost was the blood of riflemen
On that field on that day of June
I bow my head in solemn
My words are firm and true
Rest in peace you Ulster Rifles
For we still remember you
A memorial now stands there
In temperance of those who died
But regardless of the passing years
We still speak of them with pride
This poem (above) was written by a member of the Battalion
in memory of those who fought at Cambes Wood.
End of the Fighting
On the 9 June, 150 yards from the edge of the wood and
under heavy shelling from the Germans, an 88 dropped
close to Richard, injuring his side and effectively
ending his part in Operation Overlord! After making
his way precariously to a ‘safe area’ he
came across the Company’s stretcher-bearers, both
wounded! After administering first aid to each other,
the men were eventually moved down to their medical
post, and from there to a large tent on the beach. Richard
had come full circle in three days!
Richard talks about the premature end of his active service.
He left France soon after, for a Canadian hospital on
the South Coast of England, and was then transferred
to a British military hospital in Yorkshire. His requests
to rejoin the second Battalion were dismissed, his permanent
injuries precluding any return to the infantry and ‘the
action’. Richard joined the Royal Chorus Signals
and spent the rest of the war in a backup unit, who
played an important supporting role for the advancing
troops in France and Germany. In 1946 he left the military
and returned to civilian life.
Richard acknowledges to this day, that his injuries
may have saved him. Who knows if he’d of returned,
had he continued forging ahead into France with D Company.
However this grudging acknowledgement is tinged with
a certain amount of regret - as a soldier he regrets
missing the battles that he had trained for and the
action that he had mentally and physically prepared
for, and for the comrades that he never saw again.
Richard travels back often to France, to remember the
men who fought and lost their lives advancing into France
and this year he shall be attending the 60th Anniversary
D-Day Memorials on Sword beach.
and Secretary of State
Paul Murphy at a D-Day memorial service.
Royal Ulster Rifles War Memorial
and his friend Stanley
Burrows on Sword Beach at a memorial ceremony.
piece of music presented to Richard
and composed in memory of those who died.