AS he relaxes with his family and friends after celebrating his 100th birthday, West Cork man Ted Shea surveys a life and a journey which brought him far from his native Glengarriff.
It also saw him bear witness to some of the most historic events of the 20th century.
Flanked by his daughters, Susan and Bridget, and his granddaughter, Fiona, as he flicks through an album of old photographs at his home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, Ted admits that as a boy growing up in Glengarriff, he could never have predicted the extraordinary life that awaited him.
And extraordinary it most certainly was, as he survived the heartache of emigration from Ireland in the 1930s, to be plunged into the horrors of World War II before making a life and finding contentment with his late wife, Sheila, and their family in the north east of England.
‘I grew up in a place called Coomerkane on the Healy Pass road outside of Glengarriff. My father, Michael, was a Kerryman and my mother, Bridget, was from Coomerkane. My father was a farmer – it was hill farming – but it was all rocks and none of us was interested in farming,’ he recalls.
‘There were six of us – Mikey, Jimmy, Molly, Paddy, John and myself – I was the fourth – Mikey and Jimmy died young and my father died from the Spanish flu, I think, when I was just two or three. I can barely remember him and I was eight or nine then when my mother died.’
Life was tough for Ted and his siblings and he recalls that meals often consisted of bacon and cabbage and potatoes, supplemented sometimes by wild goat which roamed the hillsides outside Glengarriff and which he and his brothers hunted with their dogs.
After the death of his mother, Ted spent three years in the Industrial School in Upton near Innishannon with his younger brother, Paddy, before he returned to Glengarriff where the two of them turned down the chance to join their aunt Lizzie in Boston.
Instead, Ted opted for another route familiar to generations of West Cork men and women and, in the early 1930s, he followed in the footsteps of his older sister, Molly, taking the boat to England. He landed in West London where he spent a week in Ealing before meeting up with an old friend.
‘London was a big change from Glengarriff. There were no youngsters around Glengarriff at that time. They had all left and gone to America and Canada. I had a pal in London and when I landed there he dropped me a line and said to come down to Brentwood in Essex to get a job.
‘You would see factories with signs up “No Irish need apply”. It wouldn’t be allowed now but we more or less all stuck together, the Irish were working as navvies on the road and on the buildings. It was a tough life, I can tell you.’
Ted started working laying electric cables for Prices before joining Nash Builders, building a new estate in Romford. But when war broke out in 1939, he and his friends, the O’Connors from Midleton, decided to sign up and he joined the Queen’s Royal Regiment, based in Surrey.
After completing his basic training in Guildford, he volunteered to join the newly-formed Parachute Regiment, where his training took him all over England. He remembers singing ‘Kevin Barry’ in the convoys as the Luftwaffe bombed British cities and the country braced itself for a German invasion.
‘I had never been in a plane before, but we had to do seven jumps to qualify as a paratrooper – five from a barrage balloon with a basket beneath. There was a hole in the bottom and you just dropped through it and then two jumps from a plane and you were qualified,’ he recalls.
‘Our lot used to get the best of rations, though. That had lot to do with the RAF – we used to be based with them and they got the best of stuff. We used to joke that they were just fattening us up for the kill, we had a load of Last Suppers!’ he says with a smile.
Posted to Margate in Kent in anticipation of a German invasion, Ted remembers the town was deserted. ‘I wasn’t in London for the Blitz but there were no civilians in Margate – people were scared the Germans were going to land anywhere along the coast and they were all evacuated.’
But with the RAF winning the Battle of Britain, Hitler deferred Operation Sea Lion and the Germans never landed. Instead, Ted’s first action came in Tunisia when he parachuted into Souk El Arba in November 1942 to take an airfield, before being sent in to take Djabel Mansour in February 1943.
‘Before you go into action, you are all tensed up – people used to ask me was I nervous, but once the fighting starts and shells and everything are flying about it, you just don’t think about it and you just get stuck in,’ says Ted.
‘You don’t get much sleep when you are on active service like that. Sometimes you are walking in your sleep. Any chance you get, you lie down and get a nap, if things quieten down for a bit. But you dare not even take your boots off, in case somebody attacks.’
‘I was a rifleman to begin with – I was a sniper – I was always a good shot. I don’t know how I ended up such a good shot, because I had never fired a shot back in Ireland but in training, I was always pretty good with the rifle on the firing range.
‘It was at Djabel Mansour that we met the French Foreign Legion. They were marvellous soldiers – they weren’t under our command but they were fighting with us on our flank as we went to attack a German position up in the mountains,’ he recalls.
Ted was close to the top of Djabel Mansour when he was wounded in the leg by what he reckons was a ricochet bullet. Although he felt it was only a flesh wound and wanted to stay and see the job done, a French Foreign Legion soldier insisted on bringing him back for treatment.
He brought him down on his back to the “blood wagon” – what they used to call the ambulance – and from there to the field hospital where the doctor gave him a shot of morphine and took out the bullet and stitched him up.
However ,Ted soon rejoined his unit and was with them when they parachuted into Sicily in July 1943. He helped secure the Catania Bridge before being withdrawn to take part in the invasion of Italy, landing by sea at Taranto and fighting his way up to Brindisi before they were again withdrawn.
‘We had no idea at all what life was like under German occupation. We wouldn’t have known about the concentration camps at all, for example, until after the war but landing in Italy and climbing over the mounds of rubble we saw what war was like for civilians and it was the most shocking thing.”
Back in Britain,Ted and the paratroopers were held in reserve during the D-Day landings in June 1944 but, three months later, the British 1st Airborne Division were to play a central role in Operation Market Garden when they were assigned to capture the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland.
‘The Arnhem job came up – I will always remember it, the 17th September 1944. We took off from Beacon Hill in Lincolnshire. I could even tell you the time we took of, it was 11 o’clock and it was a lovely day and the sun was shining and when you looked down, you could see people going to church.
‘I was in the first wave that went in – they gave us three or four days to take the bridge – it was quiet when we landed, not like for the Polish who were shot before they even hit the ground, but it got hot and heavy then because, of course, the bridge was very well defended.
The fighting at Arnhem was very close quarter stuff. ‘There were houses overlooking the bridge and some our chaps took up positions there but the German just blew them to pieces anyway and we never made it across the bridge.
‘We didn’t have a chance up against the German Panzers – we didn’t have any artillery – all we had were mortars and Bren guns and of course, the main army never made it up. The Germans cut us off and we were stuck there on our own.’
Wounded when “a burst of machine gun bullets” ripped up his arm, Ted was captured and ended up having his arm amputated by a German doctor before he was transferred to Stalag VII A POW camp at Moosburg near Munich, from where he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange in January 1945.
Back in Britain when war ended, Ted spent two years attending Roehampton Hospital where surgeons worked to correct the botched amputation before he was discharged from the army in 1947 – by which time he had met his future wife Sheila Hoare from Dungarvan.
‘I met her through a friend of mine – I was smitten straight away. She had been in London during the war and they got married in Overton Road in Enfield in North London. ‘She was working as a nanny for a fashion designer so her wedding outfit was very classy,’ he recalls with a smile.
They moved to Newcastle in 1947 where Ted worked in security for Bainbridge’s and later John Lewis. He returned to Ireland with Sheila on holiday and it was one of those visits home that led to him meeting up with his brothers, Paddy and John, who also were in London after being demobbed.
John had been with the RAF in Egypt while Paddy had also been in North Africa where he had served with REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineering) maintaining equipment, and Ted linked up with them again through a friend from Glengarriff.
Sheila passed away in 1993. ‘I miss her everyday’, says Ted, before he recalls how some eleven years later, Susan and Bridget brought him back to Arnhem for the 60th anniversary of the battle. At the war cemetery at Oosterbeek he found the grave of his friend, Nobby Clarke.
So what was it like returning to Arnhem some 60 years after he had parachuted into a town and a battle immortalised in films like ‘Theirs is the Glory’ and ‘A Bridge Too Far’? ‘Do you know, it was so much nicer being able to walk off the plane this time,’ he says with a smile.
Proud of his Irish roots, Ted has a copy of the 1916 Proclamation on the wall of his living room and carries an Irish passport. Yet Ted, like many World War II veterans, is modest about the part he played in the defeat of Hitler and Fascism.
Ask him if he sees himself as a hero, he shuffles uncomfortably for a moment and then replies in a low voice: ‘It was just a day’s work to you, really – I wasn’t a hero – the heroes are all those chaps we left behind – we lost a lot of good men in Arnhem, I lost a lot of pals – they are the real heroes.’