Richard Todd was not only an Irishman and soldier in WWII but may well have been one of the first, if not the first, Irishman to land in Normandy on D-Day. His life was not just about being a soldier, he was also an actor and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a film he starred in alongside Ronald Regan. These extracts are taken from Dark Times, Decent Men – Stories of Irishmen in WWII by Neil Richardson.
THE FIRST SHOTS fired during the Allied invasion of France took place after 181 British soldiers – mostly from 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 6th Airborne Division and led by Major John Howard – landed in Horsa gliders just minutes after midnight on 5/6 June and captured ‘Pegasus Bridge’ (Bénouville Bridge) over the Caen Canal from the Germans, in order to prevent German panzers from crossing the bridge and attacking the eastern end of Sword Beach once the landings began. Thirty minutes after landing, Major Howard’s men were reinforced by 7th Parachute Regiment, and with them was Captain Richard Todd from Dublin.
Todd was born in June 1919, and his father – Major Andrew Todd – was a British Army physician and Irish international rugby player who had earned three caps playing for Ireland. After moving to Devon, then India – where he spent several years – then back to Devon, Todd attended Shrewsbury School before preparing to apply to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. However, Todd soon decided not to become a soldier, and instead, he chose to pursue an acting career. He began attending the Italia Conti Academy in London, but because of this, he soon fell out with his mother. Sadly, in 1938 – when Todd was nineteen – she committed suicide.
After performing for the first time as a professional actor in 1936, he performed in regional theatres throughout Britain and then co-founded the Dundee Repertory Theatre in 1939. However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, Richard Todd finally joined the British Army. He was commissioned into the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1941 before joining the Parachute Regiment and being promoted to captain. By the time he parachuted into Normandy on D-Day to reinforce Major Howard’s men on Pegasus Bridge – making him one of the first British Army officers to land in France – Todd was five days away from his twenty-fifth birthday. The Germans counterattacked at Pegasus Bridge not long after he landed, and Todd was subsequently involved in the fighting to push the enemy back.
Academy Award nominee
After the war, his acting career really took off. After being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1949 for playing Corporal Lachlan ‘Lachie’ MacLachlan in The Hasty Heart (the film also starred future US president Ronald Reagan with whom Todd became good friends; the pair later had dinner with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in No 10 Downing Street), Todd played Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the well known 1955 war movie The Dam Busters. In 1962 he performed in another classic warfilm, The Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Irish war correspondent Cornelius Ryan. Ironically, in The Longest Day, Todd played the role of Major John Howard – who led the initial attack against Pegasus Bridge, and the very man who Todd was sent to reinforce on D-Day (he actually wore Howard’s original D-Day helmet during filming) – while Captain Richard Todd’s character was played by another actor. Todd had turned down the offer to play himself, feeling that the part would be too small.
In 1993 he was awarded an OBE, but then, in 1997, he suffered the first of two family tragedies when his youngest son – Seamus – committed suicide, aged twenty. After possibly suffering a severe depressive reaction to an anti-acne drug, Richard Todd’s son shot himself in the head. Todd was seventy-eight at the time. Then, in 2005, Todd’s eldest son Peter also shot himself, aged fifty-three. He had been having difficulties with his marriage. Richard Todd was eighty-six years old when he lost his second son.
He continued acting for another two years – his last role was in 2007 – and then, in December 2009, while living in the small village of Little Humby in Lincolnshire, Richard Todd died in his sleep. He had been suffering from cancer, and was ninety years old. Having been married twice – both marriages ended in divorce – the Dublin-born actor and Second World War veteran was survived by a son and a daughter. He was one of the first Irishmen, if not the first, to land in Normandy on D-Day.
Dark Times, Decent Men – Stories of Irishmen in WWII by Neil Richardson is published by The O’Brien Press and is available now in all good bookshops. Visit www.obrien.ie for more information.