On D-Day, June 6 1944, Dubliner Bill Wallace, a pilot with Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve’s 886 Air Squadron, was shot down over Normandy while participating in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of occupied France.
The definitive account of D-Day was published in the book The Longest Day, written by Cornelius Ryan, and the subsequent film starred a veritable army of American and British film stars including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda and Sean Connery. Given the remarkable adventures of Bill Wallace on that historic occasion, June 6 may well also have been the longest day of his eventful life.
Before the war he lived at 115 Grafton Street in a flat above the Northern Bank where his father Archie worked as a porter. Bill decided he wanted to join the fight against fascism and he went to England to enlist. Eager to become a pilot, he applied to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) but the Brylceem Boys, as the RAF pilots were nicknamed because they were inclined to be elegantly turned out, were the most glamorous of the fighting forces; young men were keen to enlist with them and so the waiting lists were long. He applied successfully for the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
On D-Day his aircraft was a Seafire, a naval version of the Spitfire adapted for operation from aircraft carriers. At 7.40 a.m. he flew from the Royal Navy’s air station at Lee-On-Solent near Portsmouth to carry out spotting for the naval bombardment of Axis positions on coastal France. This duty required that he fly low to get a good look at enemy locations, which amplified the danger.
He described his downing in a subsequent debriefing: “Flak hit my engine. I force-landed at 08.20 hours in field five miles behind the enemy lines. The engine was on fire and I therefore hid in a ditch about 200 yards away while the aircraft burnt out.”
There was a farmhouse nearby and after 90 minutes watching it he saw two men approaching a place near him where a number of cattle had been killed in the previous night’s bombardment. “I approached the men and asked them the way to the sea. They sent me up to the farmhouse where I was given directions to reach the coast and told to keep clear of Port-en-Bessin where the Germans were known to be.”
Nearing the municipality of Russy, he approached a group of people standing in the street and an elderly man took him into a barn. “He said the English were about 10 kilometres away and gave me directions to reach them. He then pointed to my uniform coat which I took off and turned inside out. The man then took off his pullover and put it over my head. For the rest of the journey I wore the pullover and carried my coat on my arm.”
He continued on and saw a uniformed German soldier coming along a lane. “I hid in a ditch for about 20 minutes to make sure the coast was clear. On crossing a field, I came across a rather agitated farmer looking at his animals that had been killed by the bombing. I did not approach him but when he saw I was going towards Port-en-Bessin he ran after me and directed me further to the west. I arrived near the coast about 17.30 hours. I climbed down the cliff and walked to the west. At about 20.30 hours I came upon the Americans. I had no difficulty in identifying myself.”
In fact, the Americans needed to ensure that he wasn’t a German spy. Before the Normandy landings some of them had been stationed in Northern Ireland where rationing was in force and the custom was to travel down to Dublin, where steak was still available, and enjoy a good meal. On hearing that Wallace was a Dubliner, an officer inquired as to the nature of the sign that dominated the lower end of Grafton Street. Bill identified the Bovril sign, a Dublin landmark of the day, and his identity was accepted.
After the war, he returned to Ireland. He joined Aer Lingus in 1946 and worked there for 24 years. In 1947 he married Hilda, who had also served in the war as an Auxiliary Transport Service driver, and they had five children. In 1970 he joined Aer Arann when that pioneering airline was formed. He loved the Aran Islands and during his years there he became something of a legend to the islanders. He was a keen fisherman and enjoyed a traditional music session and a singsong. In 1985 he sang The Queen of Connemara and other songs at a session in the American Bar on Inishmore. He was found dead in his bed the following morning, aged 67 years.