Nobody would say that Mickie Tighe bored them with his stories about World War II. He seldom talked about it. Members of the Local History Group were surprised by what they learned in this interview in 1999. This is his story in his own words.
I joined the Irish Guards Regiment of the British Army when I was 24. Times were very bad and I saw an advertisement in the newspapers. There weren’t many other job prospects in 1936. A few other lads from around joined at the same time. There was a Reynolds chap from Mount Nugent, a Reilly lad from somewhere around Oldcastle and two lads from Castlerahan, Dolan and Callary.
So I went off and I spent three years in the regular army. I had no idea in the world where it would lead me. I thought there was no sign of war at that stage and I saw it as a great opportunity to go abroad and see a bit of the world. I did three months training in Surrey and London and in November 1936 I was sent to Cairo in Egypt. Our job was guard duty near the palace. I was there when King Faruk got married. The wedding celebrations went on for at least a month. In all I was in Egypt for about eighteen months; we saw a bit of the country. I was able to visit the famous tomb of Tutankhamun where the great treasures were found. I came home in 1938 but in 1939 the war started and I was drafted again. We weren’t too worried because we thought an agreement would soon be signed. Our regiment, the Irish Guards, had over 2,000 men. It had several battalions. The soldiers were mainly Catholics from Ireland and England but there were people from Northern Ireland too. No distinction was made between Orange and Green.
We were told our regiment would be sent to Finland and we got our fur-lined Arctic clothes. In fact early in 1940 we were sent to Norway where we spent a lot of our time on the sea in the fjords rather than on land. But we ended up being run out of it like rats out of a stack. We had to make our way on foot from the top of the country to the bottom in the snow with the Germans after us on motorbikes. There was a lot of boggy land like what you’d find in Ireland. At one stage we just got across a river when they were less than a mile behind.
Not many people died at that time but later I was on a transport ship, the Chobry, that was attacked by German bomber planes. The bombs hit the officer’s mess, killing most of them. (See note at the end of this article) The rest of us escaped in lifeboats back into Norway. From the land you’d see waves of German bombers coming at the ships. It was amazing how the captains were able to quickly turn the warships around and sometimes you’d see the bombs dropping in the foam. The army was evacuating from Dunkirk around the time we got out of Norway. We were saved by a heavy fog and got to Scotland and were stationed for a while in Coatbridge outside Glasgow.
After that, we were sent to a place near Croydon while London was being bombed – every night for about two months. You could read the paper in the village where we were, Harrow-in-the-Hills, with the light of the fires burning in London. I think it was early in 1943 that our brigade was sent to North Africa, to Algiers. The Americans were fighting there already; General Patton had just been put in charge. The biggest battles were in Tunisia, especially at the Kasserine Pass where a lot of men were killed. At that time Rommel was over to the east, near Port Said. I spent about a year in North Africa; most of the time I was in the city of Tunis. The food wasn’t too bad but the heat was terrible, especially the hot winds from the desert.
Early in 1944 I was sent to Italy and we landed at Anzio, south of Rome. We came in there after the Americans. The whole thing was a suicidal operation. In a German counter-attack I was taken prisoner and sent to Florence to a detention camp. It was four or five days before we got anything to eat; Then, in the month of March I think, we were sent off to Germany in open trucks. You could see the frost glistening on the bolts of the trucks. Before we went through the Brenner Pass I think it was; they took the trousers off us. This was to make sure than nobody would try to escape; they’d freeze to death. They gave us only black bread and water; you wouldn’t have the energy to try to escape anyway. We were brought to a camp in Magdeburg, near Halle where sugar was made.
We worked there in a cement factory until the war ended. I can remember fellows being so hungry that they rooted out the seed potatoes in the field. A farmer came to complain to the commanding officer that we could do more damage to a field than a Panzer tank. The locals didn’t know much about what was happening. One day one of the German engineers at the cement works told me that the war would be over in less than six weeks – a German victory. The very next day the roads were filled with people evacuating after another German defeat. We had to march too. Walking through Germany was a sad sight.
The fighting was coming to an end and the roads were like the crowd you’d see coming out of Croke Park on All Ireland final day; people wheeling little carts with whatever they could bring. They wanted to get away from the Russian front and Stalin because they knew what was coming. In a farmhouse an old woman kept repeating sadly as she made some coffee for us “This is the end of Germany.”
As we were marched along it was terrible to see thirteen year olds being sent off with guns in the other direction to the front. I was freed on about 8 May 1945 and brought to a town called Bitterfeld (Bitter Field). It was an industrial town north of Leipzig that ended up in communist East Germany. A lot of the German gas for the war was made there. Our regiment was involved in freeing some of the prisoners at the end of the war. I was told that the smell of death around some of the camps was awful. When I got back to Ireland around July 1945 I was a fairly shook man.
Looking back though, I probably had a better chance as a soldier than as a civilian during the bomb blitzes in London or Germany. Imagine what chance you’d have in Magdeburg if Americans had carried out the plan to bomb it with 3,000 Flying Fortresses. “Did I live in fear during those years? Well you’ll find that even the man who says “I’m not afraid of lightening.” has a bit of fear in him. We all live with some.
An article in Wikipedia says: In April 1940, the 1st Irish Guards were sent to Norway as part of 24th (Guards) Brigade. In May the Brigade HQ and the 1st Irish Guards were aboard the Polish liner/troopship Chrobry, being transported to the northern Norwegian town of Bodø from another area of Norway. Chrobry was attacked by German Heinkel HE 111 bombers which killed many men, including the CO, the Second-in-Command, the adjutant and three of the five company commanders of the 1st Irish Guards, and destroyed all their heavy equipment. Fire engulfed the ship and, considering the amount of ammunition on board, an immense explosion seemed imminent. However, the surviving Guardsmen were rescued by escorting vessels.
42,665 people from the Irish Republic (3,000 women) and 37,282 from Northern Ireland were in the British armed forces in World War II.