Richard Keegan served with 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles during the Second World War. He was born in Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh but spent most of his life in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. His move across Northern Ireland was due his father's posting to a new Royal Ulster Constabulary Station.
Keegan was 16 years old when the Second World War began in 1939. He took a “wee notion” to enlist in the British Army but his father – a Sergeant in the Royal Ulster Constabulary – insisted he was too young to sign up. In 1941, aged 18 years old, Keegan joined the Royal Ulster Rifles.
He was first based at Low Camp, St. Patrick’s Barracks, Ballymena, Co. Antrim. After a 6-week induction, he joined 70th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles at Palace Barracks, Holywood, Co. Down. This Battalion, formed of young soldiers, served throughout Northern Ireland and saw action during the Belfast Blitz. They disbanded in 1942 and Keegan and others joined 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles.
Preparing for D-Day
Throughout 1943, physical fitness and discipline were training priorities. They rehearsed sea landings, assault courses and undertook mountaineering and ammunition training. As well as the physical aspect, the men were also prepared mentally for the situation in Europe and the effects of battle.
The men of 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles were aware they were part of something big but rumours in April 1944 indicated they were bound for North Africa. By May, they were on their way to Droxford, Hampshire, England to join up with around 2,500,000 other troops assembling for Operation Overlord.
Even at Droxford, the men were unaware of their final mission. At one stage, Keegan found himself in a tent with the setup laid out showing part of a European coastline. Richard knew it would be France or Spain but that was the most information he or his comrades had.
The Rifles Are There
Richard Keegan took part in the D-Day Landings on 6th June 1944 dodging machine-gun fire on Sword Beach. Along with comrades in D Company, 18th Platoon, he began the Normandy campaign. They had been aboard their landing craft on 3rd June 1944 ready to invade but the well documented bad weather put paid to plans. Richard recalled the palpable tension, the fired-up atmosphere and the fear on board as they crossed the channel.
The Royal Ulster Rifles disembarked on Sword Beach loaded down with equipment, ammunition, radios, and a bicycle. Larger men like Richard helped keep the smaller men above the swelling water that soaked them all through.
German machine-gun fire rained down on the beachhead as they made their way up the sand. Engineers and commandos had cleared the path of mines going ahead of the landing troops. At the top of the promenade, Richard came upon a row of fishermen’s houses. Following their commander, Keegan and his men worked through narrow streets to an assembly point code-named The Orchard. From there, the next stop was The Farm, a rural house secluded by trees several miles inland. They dug in there for the night knowing their beachhead was more or less secured.
The Royal Ulster Rifles’ codename for Caen was “Belfast”. A commanding officer had assured Richard Keegan that he would be in Belfast by the time the sun set on D-Day. Estimates suggested the men on Sword and Juno beaches would take Caen by the end of the first day. Circumstances and conditions on the day meant that most were several miles off.
The Battle at Cambes Wood
At dawn on 7th June 1944, his platoon fought towards Cambes Wood taking shelter in cornfields. It was at Cambes where Keegan saw his friend Jimmy Pedlaw, with whom he enlisted, taken down by German shrapnel. Pedlaw had left his trench to have a smoke and caught shrapnel in the neck. Keegan was amongst those who thought Pedlaw was dead but he would recover and rejoin the Battalion. Snipers and shrapnel from shells caused most of the injuries to Keegan’s battalion.
Such incidents did not hold up D Company. Richard and a few other men cycled to the outskirts of the woods, dumping their bikes before venturing into the cornfields. Rifleman Keegan was a platoon runner and a wireless operator. With equipment soaked in the landings, his wireless was useless and it was left next to a water tower along with the army issue bike.
Pinned down in Cambes
All the while, German shells continued to rain down. As machine guns fired up the middle of roads Keegan and the men sheltered in ditches. Anti-personnel mines hung from trees and other mines dotted the roads and fields. The action ended when the German bombardment killed commanding officer Major John Aldworth. He had been leading his men from the front.
Richard Keegan’s platoon officer asked him to inform Captain Montgomery of Aldworth’s death. The platoon was pinned down and the only option was to pull back. Keegan made two trips through Cambes Wood to relay the message and response. The Rifles decided to pull back to Anisy and naively to leave their injured to the care of the German forces.
Patrols were sent forth on the 8th June 1944 and the following day, A Company under the command of Stanley reached Cambes. There, they found all the wounded men of B Company had been shot in the head by German troops. On 9th June 1944, the Royal Ulster Rifles came under attack again at Cambes Wood. Only 150 yards from the edge of the woods, heavy shelling pinned The Rifles back again. An 88mm shell landed near Richard Keegan injuring his side and foot. That was the end of his involvement in the Battle of Normandy.
Keegan's War Ends
Stretcher-bearers carried Keegan back across the cornfield. They were also injured and after improvised first aid, they all made it back to the medical post. From there, Rifleman Keegan was brought to a field hospital and shipped back to a Canadian hospital in the south of England. Further treatment in Wakefield and Dewsbury in the north of England followed for further treatment on his foot.
Richard had several broken bones and ruptured ligaments. He was reassigned to 7th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles while in hospital receiving treatment and physiotherapy.
After regaining full health, he pled to rejoin The Rifles but his requests were refused. Instead, he joined the Royal Signals Corps. He provided vital backup support for the rest of the conflict from 50th Division Headquarters. Richard regretted not being able to rejoin the Battle of Normandy but acknowledged that his early injury may have saved his life.
Return to civilian life
In 1946, Richard Keegan returned to civilian life and spent a short time as a coal delivery man. After this, he was trained in the lenses department of an optical firm. Eventually, he would work there, become a charge hand and serve as Branch Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union.
While working at the optical firm. he met a colleague Renée. They were married in 1949. They had two sons, Richard and Billy, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. In later life, he also worked as a postman, trained as a fitter and worked in Lurgan Hospital until his retirement. Outside of work, he was a warden at both St. John’s and Shankill Parish churches in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.
Back to Normandy
Keegan made several trips back to Normandy. These included the 60th anniversary in 2004 and again in 2005 when he returned with his son Billy. In 2004, he attended a parade in Arromanches with 1,000 other veterans. A small group of Royal Ulster Rifles veterans travelled together from Lisburn. Richard Keegan was joined by Councillor Ned Falloon, John Walsh, Archie Mitchell, Billy Donald, and Stanley Burrows. This international commemoration was attended by The Queen, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder. This marked the first time a German Chancellor had attended D-Day commemorations. Richard Keegan was one who bore the Germans no ill will:
I came back to Normandy once and met a German soldier. It turned out he had fought in the same areas as me. I told him that we had probably shot at each other and that it was a good job we had missed.
Keegan met up with comrades from the Royal Ulster Rifles at Douvres War Cemetery before the dedication of a British Memorial Garden in Caen. There, they met with Prince Charles who unveiled a replica Horsa Glider like those used by 1st Battalion on 6th June 1944.
When you go round the cemeteries and see the young fellas, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, lying in their graves that came from Northern Ireland – and the Irish Republic – it’s a disgrace because they are forgotten men and they shouldn’t be forgotten, ever.
Remembering Richard Keegan
At the end of the commemoration in Caen, the band of the Royal Irish Regiment struck up Killaloe, their regimental march. Richard and the other veterans of the Royal Ulster Rifles involvement in Normandy were left with their thoughts.
We were all ordinary fellas. Some farmers, some unemployed like myself. Fellas from down South, Derry, Belfast and all over Northern Ireland. They were all heroes… all heroes.
Richard Keegan died on Tuesday 27th August 2013 aged 89 years old. His funeral service took place at 1400hrs on Friday 30th August 2013 in Shankill Parish Church in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.