John Shanahan served in the Royal Ulster Rifles and took part in the Normandy Landings on 6th June 1944.
He was born in Co. Cork, Ireland. This meant he was not obliged to enlist to serve in World War Two. In 1941, though, at the age of 20, he made his way north to Newry, Co. Down. There he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps and transferred to Belfast.
John’s journey continued to Huyton, north Liverpool via Larne and Scotland. Several months into his training in the north of England, he found himself posted to the Royal Irish Fusiliers. With the fusiliers, he returned to Omagh, Co. Tyrone to train in Northern Ireland.
John Shanahan in The Rifles
By 1943, Shanahan was once again on the move after spending months in Luton defending munitions facilities. After preparations for the front line in Crete, a transfer to the Royal Ulster Rifles saw him leave for England once more.
Training for what would become Operation Overlord was underway and The Rifles were based in Norfolk. Many British troops practised landings in Scotland but in the bombed out docklands of Hull, The Rifles trained in urban warfare. The rubble-strewn roads with residents evacuated were what was anticipated in war-torn Europe.
Before D-Day he boarded a liberty ship in Southampton. The Rifles split into three brigades. John Shanahan would form part of the second wave in the invasion.
We were transferred from the Liberty Ship onto small landing crafts; this was about 4 miles offshore. We hit Sword beach just after 0900; actually we landed in about 4 feet of water. My big concern was not to get my rifle wet! The landing area was heavily defended and we met mortar and heavy gunfire… of course there were some who didn’t manage to get as far as the beach.
Once ashore, our battleships continued their heavy bombardment inland. Although we met strong resistance, we had to be careful not to advance too fast and overtake their reach.
The funny thing I remember is that many of us had been issued with fold-up bicycles. I’ve often thought this must have been some sort of psychological trick – to make us believe we could just walk up the beach and cycle over to Caen. Once we got off the beach there was a big pile of these bikes at the side of the road; it was obvious we wouldn’t be cycling anywhere!
Attack at Cambes Wood
On 7th June 1944, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles attacked Cambes Wood. They were faced with the 12th SS Panzer Division of Hitlerjugend. Intelligence suggested the woods were lightly held so The Rifles were surprised to find them under the command of this elite group. The Ulster regiment would lose many men and eventually retreat.
Two days later, the Royal Ulster Rifles attacked once more. With better understanding of the opposition, they used the entire battalion. The Rifles received support from Sherman tanks and naval gunfire.
Forming up in the village of Anisy, they began an advance through the Normandy cornfields. On this occasion, The Rifles would be successful in their campaign to take Cambes. Under fire from German snipers and mortar attack, the battalion lost almost 200 men. John Shanahan was one of those who remained at Cambes treating the wounded and burying the dead before the advance to Caen.
Battle of the Bocage
The enemy fell back inland of the beachheads and The Battle of the Bocage began. Small fields with earthen banks and thick hedgerows made for ideal defensive locations. The fight through the Normandy countryside was slow and inflicted heavy casualties on the Royal Ulster Rifles. The men had only received 48 hours rations in advance of the landings.
After that we had to cadge ‘hardy’ biscuits from the tank crews whenever we found them. Of course we would forage for food. Most villages had been abandoned so we would look out for what we could. We took a few casualties that way because the Germans would leave booby traps wherever there was food.
Shanahan’s battles in Normandy
A few weeks later, Shanahan found himself back at the beaches, amazed by the massive developing infrastructure. Ships, tanks, and armoured vehicles carried troops from the Mulberry Harbour and onwards. John Shanahan remained with the same platoon of 15 men for the next few months. Progress to the east was slow and steady. As casualties returned to field hospitals, new men arrived to take their place at the front.
All the objectives had been given codenames. Everything was wrapped in secrecy and we didn’t know the real place names just in case we were captured and interrogated. Caen was given the codename of ‘Poland’. So if I’d been captured and questioned I could only have revealed that I was on my way to Poland!
The Rifles engaged in reconnaissance patrols and fighting patrols. The former would check the lie of the land ahead but a fighting patrol was there to engage the enemy. In an interview, John Shanahan remembered his roll in a particular fighting patrol. The aim was to capture a German sentry who had been spotted patrolling a roadway.
My job was ‘tapeman’ – I had this great big roll of white tape wrapped around a pick-axe handle and I was to roll it out on the ground to mark our way back. You know, at this stage everyone was a bit trigger happy so you didn’t want to be returning to your own lines at a point where you weren’t expected! We formed a secure line as four NCOs went forward to capture this lone sentry. After what seemed like hours they returned empty handed – no sentry had appeared.
The order was given to retreat, with me bringing up the rear of course, trying to roll up the damn tape. Well – the patrol hurried back to our lines and I was doing my best to gather up this white tape onto the axe handle. Of course the tape kept getting tangled in bushes and stuck on every little twig. As the others disappeared ahead of me I was all too aware that I was now more likely to be shot by my own side than by the enemy! Thankfully, the NCOs stopped just ahead of me in the woodland and all was well.
With The Rifles, John was a PIAT man. The Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank weapon had been in circulation since 1943 and was very effective. Shanahan would have been dug in at the side of a road to destroy oncoming armoured vehicles. One incident in his PIAT trench stuck in the soldier’s mind.
All the telephone wires were down loose on the road from a previous bombardment. From the other direction one of our bren-carriers came belting down the road and caught the wires which at the same time had wrapped around my legs. We shouted and screamed for them to stop… which happily they did, just as I was being dragged out of my trench!
Arnhem and Injury
Approximately four months after the D-Day Landings, the Royal Ulster Rifles supported the advance on Arnhem. The plan was for the airborne divisions to capture the town and secure bridges over the Rhine.
As we now know, the plan would fail and for John Shanahan, this action marked his last with The Rifles. A mine blast triggered by a tank in support of the infantry blinded John and he was evacuated back to England via Nijmegan and Brussels. He received treatment in South Shields and his sight recovered.
After convalescing in Scarborough, he resumed training with a holding unit in Southend-on-Sea. From there, he went on to Naples, Italy and spent nine months in the occupying British Army. These were better times and many men signed on for another three years. John returned to London and was preparing to embark for Burma when the Japanese surrendered.
I was on the Edgware Road and remember there was some sort of party going on. We knew the bomb had been dropped on Japan but I was still expecting to be shipped out to the Far East as the war was still going on there. A young woman came running up to me in the street and threw her arms around me, shouting ‘the war’s over!’
John’s return to civilian ways
John Shanahan returned to civilian life in 1946 and went back to Huyton in Liverpool. While stationed there, he had made good friends. After everything he had seen and done, going back to live in Ireland didn’t seem right. He married Beryl and raised a family in the north of England and remained there for the rest of his life.
Looking back on D-Day, Shanahan was philosophical:
We didn’t have the detailed awareness that people have these days. Most everything was done in secret, so we didn’t have any tactical understanding of what was going on at the time. It wasn’t a great crusade; we were doing the job we’d been trained for. Having said that, on the day of the landings we all knew we were involved in something big. We were back in Europe; we were advancing and we were winning. It had to be done; Germany had to be stopped.
After the war, like many veterans, John wanted no more part of marching or military ceremony. By the 50th anniversary of D-Day, though, he became involved with the Normandy Veterans Association.
The return to Normandy
In 2009 John returned to visit Sword Beach in Normandy travelling from his home in Chester with wife Beryl. The trip was organised by a Hawarden-based charity D-Day Revisited. Charity organiser John Phipps attended with John and eight other veterans.
The following year, he would return again and would meet and shake hands with Charles, Prince of Wales at Pegasus Bridge in Benouville. The taking of the bridge in 1944, had been a huge strategic victory for the Royal Ulster Rifles and locals still fly the Ulster flag on D-Day.
On the 70th Anniversary in 2014, Shanahan accompanied piper Karl Wainwright on a journey around British port cities and onwards to Normandy. The Millin-Montgomery Remembrance Voyage commemorated the story of piper Bill Millin who played pipes on Sword Beach under command of Lord Lovatt. In Normandy, Bill Millin’s son John presented the pipes to the mayor of Coleville-Montgomery.
John passed away peacefully after a short illness in April 2016 aged 95. His stories from the beaches of D-Day and tales of the Battle of Normandy live on for future generations.