Our soldiers in hidden war that led to Film Epic

Members of A Company of the 9th Infantry Battalion, Kilkenny on war duty in the Dublin Mountains

BECAUSE of circumstances in our country at the time a war that featured a platoon of Kilkenny soldiers was played out behind closed doors.

The film, The Blue Max, featuring super stars Ursula Andress, George Peppard and James Mason, and starring soldiers from our city and county almost went unnoticed because of a nationwide strike of journalists.

The action in the air and on the ground was in the Dublin Mountains but not only did it fail to hit the headlines but it hardly got a column, even a paragraph as there was a virtual news blackout in our entire country.

So a film that did well at the box office following its release in 1965, is remembered today in The Reporter.

Retired Commandant Noel Bourke, a city man who was Platoon Commander, 2nd Lieutenant Noel Bourke takes the lid of a famous production that re-lived World War 1 with the help of Kilkenny Army Reservists, then known as the FCA or Local Defence Force.

Today, the tale is just as spectacular as it would have been had it been told at the time of the filming over half a century ago.

Noel Bourke was commissioned as an officer in the 2nd Line Reserve Defence Force, An Forsa Cosanta Aitiuil at Collins Barracks, Dublin in 1965.

He was Company and Area Commander with A Company 9th Infantry Battalion, until 1985.

He was Staff Officer with Curragh Command FCA HQ until his retirement in December 2000.

Biggest war film ever made in our country

By Noel Bourke    

IN THE Summer of 1965 over 1,000 Army Reservists took to the trenches on a vast open air Film Set in the Dublin Mountains.

The men were drawn mostly from the South Eastern Counties of Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois and Wexford.

Kilkenny was represented by volunteers from Kilkenny City, Callan, Castlecomer, Thomastown, Freshford and Ballyragget. 

The shooting of the film, the biggest War Epic ever filmed in Ireland, was never given any national coverage or publicity due to an all out national news strike by journalists covering all mediums.

Subsequent films using members of the Defence Forces, such as

Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan did not suffer the same lack of publicity as The Blue Max film. The film was directed by John Guillermin.

Personnel of the 30th Film Platoon drawn from A Company 9th Infantry Battalion, Kilkenny are shown in our group photograph taken on location over 50 years ago, in Kilpeddar, County Wicklow.

Included are Platoon Commander 2nd Lt Noel Bourke, Privates Hayes, Bolger, Leahy, Cleere, Larkin M, Gannon, Browne, Holohan, Wall, Carpenter, Larkin P, Hennessy, Magennis, Holohan, Culleton, A N Other, Corporal Cantwell, Sergeant. Barry. Four of the platoon are now deceased.

The film depicted the aerial battles of 1917 along the Western Front.

Film company, 20th Century Fox Films negotiated the use of the Irish Defence Forces for the battle scenes and the Air Corps Personnel to augment the aerial scenes.

In August 1965 over 1,000 FCA volunteers from the 6th Brigade were drafted into the film company shoots in the hills above Dublin.

The logistics of billeting, feeding and transporting these troops for two weeks presented many problems for the Defence Forces at a tune when resources were scarce.

Fifty Bedford Trucks, each holding a platoon of 30 men and their equipment departed from Portobello Barracks in Dublin at 0600 hours each morning.

On alternate mornings the battalion was required to dress either in British or German Battledress uniform.

Examples of both the German and British Uniforms are shown on the photographs and worn by the author.

Explosives experts who simulated the land mines, trench mortars and artillery barrages were so effective and realistic that many units suffered real life casualties.

Members of the writer’s platoon got too close to a land mine charge on one occasion and were engulfed by flammable liquid and powder causing skin burns and debris cuts to several members.

I can remember visiting St Bricken’s Military Hospital, Dublin where the men received treatment for minor injuries.

It was all taken in good spirits by the young soldiers. Most seriously injured was a regular soldier who was mistakenly bayoneted, and, fortunately, due to the presence of a filming helicopter was airlifted to hospital where he recovered.

The sight of over 1,000 young men averaging in age 18 or 19 years waiting in the forward trenches with fixed bayonets, waiting for the final whistle

before entering ’no-man’s land’ and the barbed wire entanglements, was most surreal.

A low flying helicopter took the close-up shots of the action in ‘no-man’s land’ between the opposing trenches.

It was a warm and sunny dry August day, and the dust was being blown about by the helicopter rotors.

I can remember two large figures of British Infantry charging towards me with fixed bayonets, I took evasive action and jumped into a nearby fox-hole, to avoid contact.

The determined enemy was none other than Leo Hennessy, and Jim (Link) Walsh, the former Kilkenny hurling full back from Dunnamaggin.

Filming went on until dusk each evening due to weather delays and re-shoots.

Meagre rations delivered during the day to feed the hungry masses, as well as being in short supply, were unappetising, to put it mildly.

The standards in the cook houses of 1965, pertaining to the requisition, supply and provisioning of over 1,000 lunch-packs on a daily basis can only be left to your imagination.

Jokes about the loaves and fishes, and how it was possible to create 1,000 egg sandwiches from two dozen eggs became legendary.

Because of the lack of proper food, low morale and the over enthusiastic work ethics of the film director, the Brigade Commander took control and ordered us out of the trenches and back to barracks, much to the annoyance of the film crews.

This was the first and last time we had an all out mutiny on the film set.

For all this effort and disruption to our annual Summer Camp we got an extra fiver in pay and the officers were gifted with a bottle of whiskey and the other ranks got 50 cigarettes.

The 20th Century Fox Films certainly got a bargain with the Department of Defence officials of the day.

Due to the media strike at the time no coverage whatsoever was given to this epic re-enactment of the First World War in the foothills of the Dublin mountains.

In fact this article about the event is the only one ever published in an Irish newspaper.

When filming was over after two weeks, we were all transported in convoy down O’Connell Street in Dublin to view the film rushes, the unedited versions of films, in the Savoy Cinema.           

I can remember the raw shots of un-edited filming gave us many a laugh.

The 30th Platoon shown above are all young Kilkenny men who spent their two weeks annual army training on the set of the Blue Max in 1965, over half a century ago.