Goodbye Granda

As some of you will know, the last 3 months of my life have been incredibly tough. Just 12 hours after the Eisbären season came to an end, I was sitting in a hospital in Northern Ireland visiting my Granda who had just been diagnosed with terminal & aggressive cancer. We didn’t tell him I was coming home. Only 3 people knew of my last minute trip home. Over the next month I ended up spending more time in Belfast than in Berlin, travelling between the 2 cities almost every week. It became somewhat of a normal way of life.

Then just a couple of days after my birthday he sadly passed away. From receiving the news to arriving at my front door in Greenisland was just 14 hours, the wonders of modern transport helping me get back to spend time with my family when it mattered most. Those weeks racked up quite the credit card bill, but it was worth it to spend an extra few days and moments with the most important man to ever be in my life, and to share in the many stories and memories people had about him.

inct 19-203-am funeral

I decided to continue on what would have been our third annual trip to Normandy for the D-Day commemorations in early June. He had repeatedly told me to still go regardless of his health situation, but with him not there it was a strange experience. Seeing the outpouring of love and respect from not only the group that he annually travelled with, but also the group of people from Saarbrücken and their incredible gesture of holding a moments silence for a man they only seen 3 days a year made the week an incredibly memorable one.

During the week I scattered some of his ashes on the D-Day beaches at Arromanches, as despite not serving during World War 2, he always loved his annual trip to France with some of his best friends. And Arromanches has, in his opinion, the best mussels in France, so it seemed like the perfect place for part of him to forever be resting. Seeing the faces of all his friends filled with tears was something I will never forget. Ian Crangle, my grandas annual room mate for these trips, and the company bugler, played an emotional rendition of ‘The Last Post’. Bystanders all stopped for a moment and looking out over the sea. It seemed like time stood still for the minute I was on the beach, and I hope I made him proud.

IMG_1643

Then exactly 2 months from his passing, the entire family got to say their goodbyes as the remainder of his ashes were spread to sea at Carrickfergus, a place he called home for over 50 years.

For those of you who never knew Alan Hamilton Senior, he was a great man. To summarise his life in just a single paragraph is a challenge, but I will give it a try!

Born in 1938, he grew up in a Belfast suburb before lying about his age in order to join the British army. He joined the Royal Ulster Rifles where he served during the Cypriot war of 1957/58, and also in British occupied Wuppertal in Western German in 1960. He returned to Britain to marry my Grandmother Iris in 1963, raising two daughters and working as a Texaco fuel tanker driver. He reached the level of branch manager before stepping down to spend time with his now extended family of grandkids, but also to take care of my grandmother Iris, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimers. She passed away in 2004, and the void in his life she left behind was noticeable. If anything he started working even more then with the Royal British Legion. He became chairman in 2006, a role he proudly held for 10 years until his death. He was also a main organiser behind the annual Armed Forces Day in Carrickfergus, even bringing the famous Red Arrows display team over in 2013.

SDC15542

I was very close to my Granda, and the last 2 months since his passing have been extremely strange. No longer receiving the weekly whatsapp message about a random topic has been a strange void in my life. And I just know he would have been constantly on the phone to me about the Northern Irish football team in the Euros, as he always had immense pride in his national team, no matter what the sport. Plus, he would have loved that England v Iceland game!

It was tough to say goodbye to a man who was effectively a father for me. He taught me most of what I know today. The realisation has hit hard that I am the last remaining Hamilton to continue our family name, a name which he single handedly built up to its current status and reputation in his local community. And not only that, but to live in the shadow of a man who had so many friends in so many places, is going to be an incredibly tough job.

If I can even be half the man he was, I will be happy.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 19.29.39
Alan Hamilton 1938-2016
Advertisements

For our tomorrow, they gave their today.

Every year a group of Royal Ulster Riflemen from Newtownabbey make the near 500 mile, 17 hour trek by both air and sea to the beaches of Normandy in Northern France. For most of them, it is a memorable and meaningful trip to make annually, but for one in particular it means a whole lot more. William ‘Billy’ McConnell MBE served with the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles on D-Day, and even at the ripe old age of 90 he makes the trip every summer to pay respect to his comrades, most of whom were his friends.

He flew into Normandy at the age of 19 on the evening of 6th June 1944 with the 6th Airborne Division as part of Operation Mallard, and he played a major part in the liberation of Longueval and Ranville in the days immediately following their landing.

Picture: Alan Hamilton
Ranville War Cemetery with the church in the background. Bullet holes are still visible on the church, bell tower, and the surrounding walls.

One of his most memorable and fascinating stories, is that of the battle in the village of Ranville. It is a beautiful place, with a church and bell tower dominating the village skyline, and a large war cemetery with over 2000 graves, the majority of which are soldiers from the 6th Airborne Division. While walking through the village, a German sniper opened fire on Billy’s battalion from the bell tower of the church. The the Luftwaffe soldier to took out a Royal Ulster Rifleman before being taken out himself. This scenario unfolded all throughout the Battle of Normandy, most notably in the American sector which was then portrayed in the movie Saving Private Ryan.

The thing that makes Billy’s story special though is that he was the one who took out the Nazi soldier, quite the feat considering he didn’t have a sniper rifle to do so. The four RUR men were laid to rest, not in the war cemetery next to the church, but in the church graveyard itself. Buried alongside them is the German soldier whose name is still unknown to this day. Every year Billy returns to that churchyard and places memorial crosses at the graves of his friends. He then places a cross at the grave of the German soldier. This draws a lot of questions from bystanders, but his reasoning is simple and admirable. The German soldier was just doing his job, defending his country for a better life for his family. Billy and his comrades were doing exactly the same. And for that reason he remembers the German soldier knowing that as there is no name on the grave, his family more than likely never found out where he died, or where he was buried.

Billy fought in Normandy until September when he was sent back to England before going to Belgium that winter to halt the German offensive in the Ardennes. He then went on to cross the Rhine in 1945 where he suffered shrapnel wounds. Billy eventually rose to the ranks of RSM before leaving the army in 1969.

The Royal Ulster Rifles were the only regiment in the British Army to have two battalions sent into Normandy in Operation Overlord, and when Billy returned to Normandy for the first time on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 he was shocked to see there were no lasting monuments to either of these units. He set out single handedly to change this, and for the cost of a bottle of Bushmills whiskey in exchange for some land from a local farmer, and a trip to France for a Ballymena stonemason, he had erected two beautiful monuments to both the 1st battalion (Longueval) and 2nd battalion (Cambes en Plaine).

This was my second annual trip to Normandy in the presence of Mr McConnell, and I have already started planing flights from Berlin to Paris and a train on to Caen next June for next years visit!

“When you go home, tell them of us and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” ~ John Maxwell Edmonds

Clip from BBC One Documentary ‘We Fought on D-Day’ featuring Billy McConnell