Europe

WW2: Irish D-Day veteran Pat Gillen receives France's highest honour

Pat Gillen Image copyright PA
Image caption Pat Gillen dedicated his Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur award to his fellow Irishmen who fought in WW2

One of the few surviving D-Day veterans from the Republic of Ireland has been awarded France's highest honour for his role in the World War Two operation.

Pat Gillen was among the first wave of troops to invade Sword beach on the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944.

Mr Gillen was presented with the honour in a County Cork hospital, where he is being treated for ill health.

Now 89, he dedicated his Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur award to all his fellow Irishmen who fought in WW2.

"In accepting this award, other brave Irish men, thousands of young men, who lost their lives in pursuit of peace remain in my memory," he said.

"This award is as much theirs as mine."

The Republic of Ireland remained neutral during WW2 but many Irishmen signed up to fight in the British Army.

'Extremely honoured'

Mr Gillen received his award from the French Ambassador to Ireland, Jean-Pierre Thebault, on behalf of the government of France.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Pat Gillen was flanked by his two sons Robin (left) and Gerard (right), as he was presented with the the Legion d"Honneur from French Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault

Irish Defence Minister Simon Coveney also attended the ceremony in Mercy Hospital, Cork.

Mr Gillen said that when he landed on the beach 70 years ago it was the first time he had been on French soil.

"By the grace of God, I survived to be here today while many of my friends sleep in the fields of France," the veteran said.

"I feel both extremely honoured and humbled in receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur conferred on me by President (Francois) Hollande and the government of France."

Mr Gillen, now a grandfather, had planned to return to Normandy this year for the 70th anniversary of D-Day but was prevented from making the journey by ill health.

'Emerald island'

Instead, he paid tribute to his fallen comrades in a handwritten message on a wreath.

His message said: "In memory of all commandos from the emerald island who lie in sleep in Normandy fields."

The wreath, decorated with poppies and an Irish tricolour, was handmade by his daughter, Mary.

The French embassy wrote to the pensioner in recent weeks to inform him of the award.

The former rifleman was part of a commando unit tasked with securing the strategically important Pegasus Bridge near Caen.

Mr Gillen survived a six-mile trek from Sword beach to Pegasus and several weeks in the trenches without sustaining an injury.

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