How a Catholic soldier from the Bogside met a Protestant neighbour at Dunkirk
As Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic 'Dunkirk' hits the big screen, a Derry man has recalled how his father struck up the unlikeliest of friendships on the beaches of France that day in May 1940.
Derek McCauley’s father, Michael, or "Mack", as he was known to his friends, was an 18-year-old Catholic from Derry’s Bogside when WWI erupted in 1914.
Mack and his younger brother, Hubert, enlisted in the army as a soldier and medic, respectively.
He returned home as the war drew to a close to find two RUC officers raiding his home on Alma Place. They were looking for his eldest brother, James, who was involved in the anti-partition movement at the time.
James avoided detection by hiding at his Protestant girlfriend’s house in the nearby Fountain Estate.
All three McCauley brothers were involved in the politics of the time and were each interned for several months in Killmainham Gaol in 1922.
In 1939, the first shots of WWII were fired and Mack and his younger brother Hubert once again joined the service.
Speaking to The Irish News, Mack’s son, Derek, said his father and uncle joined up to fight for something than transcended the politics in Ireland at the time.
"What was happening here didn’t really matter compared to what was going on over there, it was a very different fight," he said.
In May 1940, Mack found himself on the back of a truck on the beaches of Dunkirk, evacuating the wounded and stranded from the area as the German army approached.
One man he hoisted onto the vehicle turned out to be a fellow soldier called Sammy Larmour – a Protestant who happened to be from the Fountain Estate in Derry.
The two men continued to fight for the allies after the evacuation of Dunkirk and the following year Mack's eldest son and Derek's brother, Colm, contracted an extremely aggressive form of leukaemia.
Mack was given two weeks compassionate leave from the French battlefields to tend to his ailing son, however, just a few weeks after returning to the fight, Colm passed away.
"I think that really put things into perspective for my father," Derek said. "It showed him exactly what he, and the thousands of other men, were fighting for."
Before WWII ended in 1945, Mack was discharged from the army after receiving several combat injuries.
Upon arrival to his house, he was once again greeted by two RUC officers, who demanded to see his official resident's permit, showing that he legally resided in the area.
Mack, in turn, wrote to his commanding officer in the army to voice his frustration at having to prove where his home was.
"The only time I have been out of Northern Ireland was when I was serving in H.M Army," he said.
"I fail to understand why I should require a residence permit. I am a citizen of this country and certainly do not intend on taking out a residence permit unless the law requires me to do so."
When Sammy Larmour returned to Derry a short time later, he arrived at the McCauley family’s home. Mack was working at the local bakery that day, so Mr Larmour gave his friend's wife a gift to pass on to his old war buddy.
That gift was a crucifix in the shape a holy water font that he had found amongst the rubble of a small French town before he returned home.
The two men, one Catholic and one Protestant, remained close friends until their deaths in the 1970s.
To this day, the crucifix his father was given remains pride of place next to Derek’s front door at his home in the Bogside.
Derek said he remembers well how his father felt about the politics that divided people in Derry, and politics that brought thousands together on the beaches of France.
"He always used to say, 'If all these bigoted people here just saw the things we seen at Normandy, they would realise there’s more that brings us together than there is that divides us'."