JULIE SPENCE REPORTS ON A POIGNANT RETURN TO FRANCE
THE air will be thick with memories of lost friends and acts of courage amid the Second World War when Lisburn man Tommy Williamson returns to France this summer.
He will be travelling together with 28 other veterans from Northern Ireland, many from the Lisburn area, in June to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Tommy was just 18 years old when he enlisted in the army in 1942. Recalling his memories of those momentous days, Tommy
says: "I did my training in Omagh in 1942 and after that I went to the 70th Battalion of the Young Soldiers of the Royal Ulster Rifles."
In 1943 Tommy went with his battalion to Essex where he fondly remembers his colleagues and time there. "I had three sergeants from Lisburn - Joe McMillan, Billy Crawford and Albert McConville, so I felt really at home.
"I also played football and boxed for the company. After that I went to the Airborne Division in the middle of 1943."
On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the allied forces launched an attack on the German army in Normandy. While the Second Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles sailed onto the beaches of Normandy, Tommy Williamson and the First Battalion Airborne Division of the Royal Ulster Rifles were parachuted in behind enemy lines.
The task of the airborne division was to take out the German gun placements in order to provide a safer landing for their Second Battalion comrades.
Tommy recalls: "On June 6 1944 we went in by air. We left England at 7 o'clock and landed in Ranville in France at 9 o'clock. It was our job to take out the German guns around the beaches of Normandy so the men coming by sea would have a safer crossing."
Despite Tommy's modest talk, Major Roy Walker talks of the vital importance of the role played by the First Battalion. "The Airborne Division were absolutely vital to the war effort. If they hadn't done their job and taken out the guns the outcome of the D-Day landings and the war itself could have been very different."
Following the D-Day landings Tommy, together with the rest of the First Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles, travelled through France, Belgium, Holland, Austria and Germany - ending the war in Berlin.
Tommy, who was by now a Corporal, was then sent to Palestine with his comrades.
"In 1946 we were supposed to go to Japan but were sent to Palestine instead. We landed in Palestine and went to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. When we were coming out of Camp 22 in Jerusalem, the 3 tonne lorry we were travelling in was blown up. I lost two of my men and 13 were wounded.
"I was the pall bearer for the two men, Lance Corporal Higgin and Curly Galbraith, who are both buried in Ramala."
In 1948 Tommy left the army and returned home to Lisburn. Recalling his time in battle, he said: "It was very traumatic but I was young then and we did what had to be done."
"It will be a time to remember all those people who didn't come back from France. I am sad that two of my friends, Billy Moore and Tommy Patterson, who were with the 2nd Battalion, are not well enough to return with me and I want to wish them both a very speedy recovery." Whilst in France Tommy, together with the other veterans, will retrace the route that they took six decades ago.
They will also attend the official opening of the British Memorial Garden in Caen by the Queen and take part in the commemoration at the beachheads in Normandy.
One of the most poignant moments will be a visit to the Memorial to the First Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles at Ranville, where Tommy will also visit the grave of his brother-in-law.
This important anniversary is likely to be the last chance many World War 2 veterans have to pay personal homage to the sacrifice made during the war and the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland, and particularly in Lisburn, have been fundraising to raise the �15,000 that is needed to take the veterans to France.
The fundraising committee of the Lisburn branch of the
Legion - Archie Mitchell, John Welsh, Billy Donald, Billy Cree
and Jimmy Rea - have paid tribute to the generosity of the
people and business in Lisburn in helping to achieve
Archie said: "The people of Lisburn have been very generous in donating money and prizes for a raffle and there are some in particular that I would like to mention. The UDR Association, Lagan Valley Pigeon Club, Smyth Patterson, Cash Converters, Gift Centre, Coopers Restaurant, Gowdys at the Maze, Mrs Welsh, Mrs Mitchell, John Welsh, Billy Mitchell, Billy Donald, World of Wonder, Eddie Bell, Tommy Weeks, Hertford Arms, Dennis Croot, Robins Nest and Rodney Dowling.
"Many other people have helped and contributed and I would like to thank all of them for helping with this important cause."
The Lisburn Branch of the Royal British Legion is holding a Valentine's Night dance and raffle on February 14.
The evening of entertainment is open to everyone, members and non-members and tickets are available at the door on the night. There will be a host of prizes up for grabs and Crawford Bell will be providing the music for the night.
Everyone is encouraged to go along and help to support the men who made the ultimate sacrifice.