A Cork war veteran has made an emotional return journey to the battlefield where he fought 65 years ago thanks to a grant from the Big Lottery Fund.
A grant from the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 programme has allowed 85-year-old Dennis Boardman to make the journey overseas to commemorate the battles he fought in and the comrades he lost during the Second World War.
Dennis, who lives in Monkstown in Cork but originally comes from Roe Green, Worsley near Manchester, travelled to the beaches, battlefields, villages and war memorials of Normandy in June, to pay his respects and mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
It was an emotional return for Dennis who joined the army at the age of 19 in 1942 and was one of the first soldiers to parachute into France on D-Day. He was a member of the 13th Lancashire Unit that liberated the village of Ranville at 02:30 hrs on D-Day, the first French village to be freed from German control, six hours before the British and US troops landed on the Normandy beaches.
The 85-year-old has been returning to Normandy every year for the past 35 years to remember his comrades and visit the villages and countryside where so many men sacrificed their lives.
“I signed up because I had heard so much on the radio and read a lot in the newspapers about Hitler and Germany and I just felt it was my duty to participate,” explained Dennis. “I felt that we were fighting for a legitimate cause against the evil and tyranny of the Nazis, and there was no doubt in my mind that something had to be done.”
He continued: “I did my basic army training at Saighton Camp outside Chester in England for nine weeks and then I was posted to the Royal Artillery to train as a radio operator in October 1942. That got a bit monotonous so I decided to train as a glider pilot. But I wasn’t allowed to wear glasses and it was discovered that my right eye was weaker than my left, so I failed the training.
“At this point I decided to volunteer for the parachute regiment and I found my calling. The Commandos and the Parachute Regiment were, and are still, known as the toughest men in the army and I quickly realised it was for me. I went to take part in the selection process in Chesterfield in September 1943 and out of 1000 people I was chosen for the elite team.”
Once Dennis passed the training he was posted to the 13th Lancashire Unit and the build up to D-Day began. “We took part in the most intensive training that anyone could ever imagine,” he said. “We had training jumps every night and you could almost guarantee that every time you jumped one or two lads would be killed. On one occasion 12 blokes were killed jumping from a bomber. But the training really stood us in good stead when D-Day arrived.”
On D-Day Dennis and his unit took off from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. “I remember the events of that night so well even now,” he said. “I had a kit bag strapped to my leg weighing about 60 pounds it was supposed to release below me, but it didn’t and I nearly fractured my leg when I landed. I kept my boot on for three weeks because if I took it off the foot would have ballooned up and I wouldn’t have been able to walk.
“Our job was to capture the village of Ranville near where we landed. We fought all night and eventually captured it in the early hours of the morning. We continued to fight across the French countryside, liberating village after village. During one major battle in the village of Putot-On-Aug we lost 28 men in one night’s fighting.
“We fought the Germans back for three weeks to the River Seine, until three weeks later we were given the chance to return to England to regroup and rest.”
Dennis explained why he felt it was so important to attend the 65th anniversary D-Day commemorations in June. “It means a lot to me to show my respect. I went back to pay homage to my mates and all the other lads who died for our freedom.
“The people in France in the villages we liberated still remember me and I like to visit them every time I’m back. They send me a Christmas card every year that simply says “We thank you with all our hearts for what you did for us.”
Veterans across Ireland can apply to the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return 2 scheme as part of a veterans group or as individuals embarking on their own overseas commemorative trip.
Breidge Gadd, the Big Lottery Fund’s NI Chair, said: “This might be the last chance for many veterans to travel overseas to commemorate one of the most significant events in their lives.
“Thanks to this funding ex-servicemen across Ireland, along with their spouses and carers, will be able to renew friendships, relive and share past glories and tragedies and pay respect to fallen comrades.
“A huge debt of gratitude and recognition is owed to these men and women and I am delighted that we are able to remember their bravery and heroism through the Heroes Return programme.”