It’s almost unbelievable that approximately a quarter of Fermanagh’s population was American military personnel towards the end of the Second World War!

That was approximately two GIs for every farm in the county, or alternatively, one GI for every registered household.

Indeed, one of the (very rare) endearments of war was the many lasting friendships formed – for the soldiers who survived the battlefields.

County Fermanagh played a vital role in the Allied victory and amongst many historic signposts on the road to Hitler’s defeat are two 80th anniversaries.

On May 18, 1944, five-star General Dwight (‘Ike’) D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, came here on a top secret visit to inspect his troops.

The outcome of Ike’s inspection was a critical element of the second 80th anniversary – June 6, 1944: D-Day – ‘the beginning of the end’ of World War Two.

(If Ike’s army hadn’t been trained and ready, D-Day would have to wait!)

Before perusing next month’s packed programme of 80th anniversary events in Enniskillen (‘D-Day 80’), let’s focus on General Eisenhower’s visit, eight decades ago on May 18.

US servicemen were scattered around more than 20 locations in Fermanagh.

Besides their unmatched natural beauty, these places are now historically significant addresses because of their former role in World War Two, for instance, the Lough Erne seaplane bases at RAF Castle Archdale and Killadeas, and the Castle Coole and Breandrum military bases, with both of the latter inspected by Supreme Commander Eisenhower, as well as General Patton.

The part that these places played in the war will never be forgotten.

They’re included in the Primary School curriculum and there’s a stunning memorial panel at the former Celtic Park US base, next door to Enniskillen Model School.

Portora’s rugby pitches, also with a memorial panel, are now called ‘The Eisenhower Playing Fields’.

Here, at 3.30pm on May 18, 1944, 2,000 GIs marched behind a massed brass band and General Eisenhower took the salute, making a passionate address preparing them for what was ahead, while reassuring himself that they were trained and ready.

There’d already been two full-scale dress rehearsals at Portora for Eisenhower’s visit, and General George Patton had previewed the American troops in Fermanagh on the previous February 8.

None knew – not even the officers – that Ike was there for the final inspection of his troops prior to D-Day on June 6, 1944.

Billed as ‘The Longest Day’ years later by 20th Century Fox, D-Day was known variously as the Normandy Landings, Operation Overlord, Operation Neptune, or the Battle of Normandy.

Historically, it was ‘the beginning of the end’ of World War Two, and next month’s 80th anniversary will be commemorated around Northern Ireland, all over the UK, on the beaches of Normandy and around the world.

Thousands of Ulster folk, including many from Fermanagh, had joined up before America officially entered World War Two in 1941, and on the Home Front manufacturing and agriculture were essential, particularly ships, munitions, tanks and aircraft.

The province quickly became a core training ground for American troops, with a total of 300,000 GIs passing through, peaking at 120,000 in the immediate run-up to D-Day.

Along with the county’s multiple army camps and training grounds, Lough Erne’s resident ‘fleet’ of RAF sea-planes were here because Fermanagh was such a vital strategic location.

Despite strained Anglo-Irish relations, the ‘Donegal corridor’ brought the county into the front line of the Battle of the Atlantic, with a handy flight path to the open sea.

Meanwhile, Ike’s GIs were training for D-Day – a campaign that lasted for months and involved numerous Allied nationalities.

The initial assault included five Allied army divisions and both Battalions of the Royal Ulster Rifles.

The whole operation involved more than 7,000 ships and several thousand aircraft – bombers, fighters, gliders and spotters.

Approximately 75,200 British and Canadian troops and 57,500 US troops landed by sea, and another 23,400 by air.

By the end of June 11 (D-Day plus five), 326,540 Allied troops, 54,200 armoured vehicles and 104,430 tons of supplies were on the beaches.

Harland and Wolff built eight enormous Tank Landing Craft that were used, and the shipbuilders’ Southampton yard manufactured the Mulberry Harbours that were towed to France to service the invasion.

The first two prototypes of the Churchill Tank, that played an immense role in the whole of Operation Overlord, were built in Belfast.

After the tanks’ engine specifications had been modified in Luton, orders for hundreds of the vehicles came to Belfast and Carrickfergus.

It’s often recounted that Lagan-built HMS Belfast fired the first salvo on D-Day, and by the time the push inland was over, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, and more than 4,000 were dead.

Ulster’s part in World War Two, from Londonderry to Enniskillen to Ballyhalbert to Newry, was summed up by two of the war’s most iconic leaders.

Supreme Commander Eisenhower, later to become the 34th President of the USA, openly expressed his opinion that “without Northern Ireland I do not see how American Forces could have been concentrated to begin the invasion of Europe”.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill confirmed Ike’s commendation “but for the loyalty of Northern Ireland ... we should have been confronted with slavery and death, and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched”.

Enniskillen’s D-Day 80 commemorations next month include a service followed by a beacon-lighting ceremony at St. Macartin’s Cathedral at 8pm on Thursday, June 6, and a community extravaganza at Enniskillen Airport on Saturday, June 8, from 11am to 5pm.

Formerly RAF St. Angelo during World War Two, the airport will offer something for all the family, including vintage World War Two displays and a military village.

Bring a picnic for the ‘Big Lunch’ and enjoy the live music. Meet volunteers from a range of health and wellbeing charities as part of the ‘Big Help Out’.

Have your photograph taken in the Ulster Aviation Society’s replica Spitfire plane and enjoy more than 80 local pipers and drummers, including the regimental pipes and drums of The Royal Dragoon Guards, and the band, bugles, pipes and drums of The Royal Irish Regiment performing a special D-Day 80 musical tribute.

There’ll be lots more free activities, and admission and car parking are free too.