John McMillan Leishman served in the 153rd Infantry Brigade, 51st Highland Division. He was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1920 but spent his days after the war in Co. Down.
On 3rd September 1939, he joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Sterling Castle. During World War Two, he spent time based throughout Co. Down.
- Moira: July 1940 to November 1940.
- Lisburn: November 1940 to May 1941.
- Waringstown and Donacloney: May 1941 to 1942.
While based in Moira, his regiment attended services at St. John’s Parish Church. There, he met a local woman Florence Lennon who sang in the church choir.
John remembered thinking “that would be the perfect wife for me”.
They couple became engaged in October 1940 and married in July 1941. On his release from the army in 1946, they settled in the Co. Down village. John and Florence remained together for almost 67 years having two children, Yvette and John.
D-Day, 6th June 1944
On 6th June 1944, Leishman landed on Sword Beach. His division was part of the support group for the front line troops. By D-Day, he had survived other battles and escaped the horror of Dunkirk on board a small fishing boat in 1940.
In the following four years, he fought many battles including the famous Battle of El Alamein. In October 1942, he fought alongside Montgomery and the 8th Army ‘Desert Rats’.
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 Leishman on visiting Sword Beach in 2013
Leishman was lucky to even make it to the beachhead on D-Day. As a troop who couldn’t swim, he had to rely on support from two of his comrades in the water as they left the landing craft.
Sergeant Leishman returns to Normandy
Many veterans do not like to dwell on their experiences. Belfast’s John Leishman was not one of them. At the age of 90, he visited Lisburn joining Rev Paul Dundas and Rev John Pickering at Christ Church. Over a coffee, he reminisced that he was once billeted in the Nicholson Memorial Hall adjoining the church.
Two years later, he met Queen Elizabeth II during her historic visit to Belfast. John reminded her that she had once changed the spark plugs on his car. The young princess had worked in the auxiliary territorial service at the time.
In 2013, he revisited Normandy on a battlefield tour with Omagh District Orange Cultural Association. John Leishman and George Thompson accompanied the group of ten on their visit. They first traveled from Paris and onto Caen.
They stopped at the British landing zones by the River Orne, the Merville Battery, and Ranville Cemetery. The two veterans also visited Pegasus Bridge, calling into Café Gondrée and regaling customers with stories and songs. There, they were given a warm welcome by Madame Gondrée who had been a little girl when France was liberated in 1944.
The following year, John also attended the D-Day 70th-anniversary commemorations in Normandy in 2014 at the age of 94.
Remembering John Leishman
After his wife’s death in 2008, John Leishman lived in Dundonald, East Belfast. There, he attended St. Mary’s Church on the Ballybeen Estate.
John passed away in hospital on Wednesday 15th April 2015. His funeral took place at St. Mary’s Parish Church, Craigleith Drive, Dundonald at 1100hrs on Friday 17th April. The service was followed by burial in Moira Parish Churchyard. First Minister at the time, Peter Robinson, described John as “a true hero and gentleman”.