Bravery is a word bandied about all too easily in some parts nowadays.
As much as I love sport, seeing the aforementioned word hackneyed by journalism’s toy department could well leave readers losing sight of what the word is meant to represent.
But a new book which forensically recalls the valour of the Irish who fought in World War II provides evidence aplenty of what true bravery constitutes.
‘In the Ranks of Death: The Irish in the Second World War’ honours who donned Allied uniforms in history’s worst conflict.
Richard Doherty’s stupendously researched book is both an academic feat and a literary triumph, revealing the courage displayed by men, including some from these parts, under fire.
The story of Waterford Trooper Matthew Flynn, a member of the British Army’s 45th Reconnaissance Regiment which served in Burma in 1944 really caught the eye when leafing through Doherty’s tome.
The Burma Campaign, which ran from 1942 to 1945, was the lengthiest British-conducted military operation of World War II.
The tortuous and savage exchanges with Japanese forces were conducted in some of the war’s most demanding landscapes, as soldiers fought to stave off jungle diseases as well as their enemies.
Trooper Flynn came to prominence during ‘Operation Thursday’ led by Major General Orde Wingate, the founder of the Chindits – the Allies’ special force in Burma.
Flynn was a member of the 45th Reconnaissance Regiment which had marched into Burma, unlike other brigades which entered the country via no less than 80 gliders.
Writes Doherty: “Known, inevitably, to his comrades as Paddy, Trooper Flynn achieved a unique niche in the history of the Reconnaissance Corps, becoming the only member of the Corps to earn the Military Medal and Bar.”
Flynn was recognised for remaining at his gun for 48 hours between March 26th and 27th 1944, in what became known as ‘the battle of the water bottles’.
Despite the encroaching jungle fire caused by the volleys unleashed by British and Japanese forces, Trooper Flynn didn’t budge from his post.
His exemplary behaviour, holding his position even as the rubber pipe on his machine gun began to melt, earned him the fulsome praise of his Commanding Officer (CO).
“His cheerful coolness, as well as the casualties he inflicted on the enemy, set a magnificent example to his comrades”, his superior would later comment.
With the Military Medal already won, the Bar was earned thanks to Flynn’s valiant command of a machine gun detachment which fended off further ferocious Japanese attack on April 18th 1944.
The British National Archives at Kew, a resource expertly availed of by Doherty during the course of his research, includes the following citation dedicated to ‘Paddy’ Flynn.
“In spite of very heavy mortar and machine-gun fire from very close range, Tpr Flynn maintained his detachment in action, he himself firing the gun throughout. “By his coolness and skilful handling of the gun, all counter-attacks were beaten off, despite severe casualties suffered by his detachment. He accounted for many enemy killed.
“When the action was finally broken off, Tpr Flynn and his few men manhandled their gun out of action and carried it some 10 miles, all the mules having been killed. Tpr Flynn displayed outstanding courage and leadership throughout.”
The limited space a newspaper column provides means the listing of just one courageous soldier excludes the many other brave Irishmen and women that Richard Doherty’s book so masterfully pays tribute to.
Nonetheless, Matthew Flynn’s bravery in Burma is symptomatic of the courage which Irish soldiers have demonstrated in battlefields the world over throughout history.
There are those among us still who find difficulty in acknowledging the efforts of Irishmen in foreign uniform, even, as in World War II, when fighting the despicable evil of Nazism. Thankfully, their numbers are dwindling.
Interviewed for an RTE documentary just months before his death in Basra (Iraq) in 2003, Lance Corporal Ian Malone eloquently articulated his reasons for joining the British Army.
“At the end of the day, I’m just abroad doing a job,” he said.
“People go on about Irishmen dying for freedom and all that. That’s a fair one. They did. But they died to give men like me the freedom to choose what to do.”
Now who could argue with that?
‘In the Ranks of Death: The Irish in the Second World War’ is published
by Pen and Sword