Vol. 2 No. 1 - 2022
Collections Officer, Northern Ireland War Memorial
As an entity, Craigavon did not exist during the Second World War, but the constituent settlements of the area were all affected by the conflict. It would be impossible to cover every aspect in detail as topics such as the Ulster Home Guard or the Bann Defence Line warrant their own articles. The aim of this article is to provide a broad overview, and because 2022 is the 80th anniversary of the official arrival of American troops in Northern Ireland, their presence in the area will be highlighted.
Local industries contributed to the war effort. Portadown Foundry was awarded contracts relating to the construction of the portable Mulberry Harbours that were used to facilitate the D-Day landings; the textile manufacturer Johnston & Allen in Lurgan turned part of their factory over for the production of tailplanes for Short Stirling bombers and munitions; and in Donaghcloney, Liddell’s converted their looms from weaving fine linens towards contracts for the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
Many locals volunteered to serve in the armed forces and voluntary services, while Commonwealth War Graves dotted around local cemeteries and churchyards bear silent testimony to those who gave their lives in active service. Notably, Lurgan-born Field Marshall Sir John Dill was Chief of the Imperial General Staff between May 1940 and December 1941, before being appointed as the Senior British Representative on the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C.
Having escaped the attention of the Luftwaffe themselves, Lurgan Urban District Council dispatched 80 volunteers to Belfast to assist after the Easter Tuesday Air Raid on 15 April 1941. After the Fire Raid of 4-5 May 1941, three Auxiliary Fire Service, three First Aid and three Rescue Parties were sent. As a result of the raids, the area witnessed an influx of refugees from Belfast with overcrowding reported. High Street, Portadown is recorded as being ‘thronged with people’ with a ‘steady stream coming into the town’ following the Easter Tuesday Raid. A small number of victims of the raids are also buried locally.
Buoyed by patriotic fervour, funds and appeals such as Tanks for Attack and Wings for Victory were well supported. Warship Week was held in June 1942 and as part of an overall target of £250,000 for County Armagh, Portadown and Lurgan were tasked with raising £50,000 each. The final figure amounted to £708,627 with £224,030 coming from Portadown, £135,539 from Lurgan and £25,600 raised in Tandragee. The citizens of Portadown also raised enough money in their contribution to the Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund to
have a plane named in honour of the town. This appeal raised enough money to fund 17 Spitfires in total, one of which was named Down. On 7 January 1942, this plane crashed at Raughlan, near Lurgan with Pilot Officer W.B. McManus killed.
As a major rail junction and the final bridging point of the River Bann before Lough Neagh, pillboxes were built around Portadown by local company Collen Brothers Ltd., as part of the Bann Defence line designed to impede a potential German invasion from Éire. Four remain in-situ covering Dyne’s Bridge, whilst two straddle the Tandragee Road outside Gilford to guard Madden’s Bridge over the Newry Canal. Two more are sited near Bleary and another still stands at the site of the old Portadown Railway Station at Hoy’s Meadow. The only pillbox built west of the Bann in the Annagh area has also survived encroachment by developers, only to be misappropriated by the Craigavon Borough Council as a war memorial.
With no seaport or suitable land for an airfield, the military presence here was limited to the army. Following the outbreak of the war, units of the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division were gradually stationed in Northern Ireland. After a rough sea crossing, 6th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers arrived in Lurgan in October 1939 only to find themselves billeted in derelict buildings. Meanwhile, 7th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers were the first British troops to arrive in Portadown, with their Second-in-Command, Major R.B.S. Davies, recording that they received a great welcome. However, in June 1940 Second Lieutenant David Bolland (133rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery) wrote to his mother and described Portadown as ‘a funny little place, packed full of German spies and IRA… we are billeted in a prison of a place…’ while a few days later he wrote:
‘This is a funny little town, very patriotic on the whole, but with certain IRA subversive instincts which have to be continually watched. We are, of course, only twenty miles or so from the border.’
As the war developed through 1940 the Division’s role changed from that of a training garrison force, to one placed on an anti-invasion footing. Every unit of the Division was tasked with helping to construct the Bann defence line, while the 83 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery constructed roadblocks at Lurgan’s key junctions which were then defended by the local Ulster Home Guard against a mock attack by the Divisional Supply Column.
As with the rest of Northern Ireland, the area had its own Home Guard units. Under the command of the RUC Inspector-General, the force was formed around a nucleus of ‘B’ Specials supplemented by volunteers and was organised by locality. Initially they were known as the Local Defence Volunteers, but they were later renamed the Ulster Home Guard.
As of 17 February 1942, Armagh Group HQ and 1st Armagh Battalion HQ were based in Lurgan with three companies totalling over 700 men spread between Lurgan, the Bannfoot, the Birches, Derryadd, Tamnafacarbet, Drumgor and Seagoe.
Headquartered in Portadown, the 2nd Armagh Battalion consisted of seven companies of over 1,150 men across Portadown, Hamiltownsbawn, Richhill, Kilmore, Loughgall, Annaghmore, Charlemont, the Diamond, Drumcree and Vinecash. Two further battalions, the 3rd and 4th, were centred around Bessbrook and Armagh, respectively.
Their main duty, particularly due to their presence in a border county, was to patrol against the threat of ‘fifth columnists’ (IRA) and to defend against a German invasion, which was reflected in their training. In November 1941, for example, an exercise was held in Portadown featuring a female ‘fifth columnist’ who attempted to gain access to the HQ only to be overpowered and thwarted; whilst street fighting featured ‘fifth columnist’ snipers, local machine gun platoons, and cycling and signalling squads.
After the liberation of Belgium in 1945, the fledgling Belgian Army was deployed to Northern Ireland to train, and elements were billeted in the ‘Craigavon’ area. At Gilford, a number of units of the 4th and 5th Belgian Brigades were stationed at Bann Vale, Stramore and Gilford Castle, whereas the men of the 6th Belgian Brigade found themselves at Kircassock House near Magheralin, Donaghcloney and at Silverwood House, Woodville House, and Brownlow House in Lurgan. Many of the camps that were occupied by the Belgians towards the end of the war had previously been home to the American soldiers based in the area.
American personnel first arrived in Northern Ireland in January 1942. The USS Albatross docked in Derry for repairs on 16 January, but it was Private Milburn Henke who was chosen as the poster boy for the US Army, with the press depicting him as the first US solider to set foot in Northern Ireland when he and his comrades from the 34th Infantry Division arrived in Belfast on 26 January 1942.
Over the course of the conflict upwards of 300,000 American personnel are estimated to have been based or passed through Northern Ireland. They arrived in two waves with the first consisting of the men of the 34th Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division in the build-up to the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 which totalled approximately 39,000 men.
The second and much larger wave occurred as part of the build-up to D-Day in June 1944 when the US Army Divisions 82nd Airborne and the 2nd, 5th and 8th Infantry were based in Northern Ireland along with a substantial US Army Air Force presence. The US Navy's presence was focused in and around Lough Foyle but part of the Western Naval Task Force, including American battleships USS Texas, USS Arkansas and USS Nevada assembled in Belfast Lough before sailing for Normandy. At its peak, approximately 120,000 US personnel were based in Northern Ireland, equivalent to a tenth of the province’s population.
Locally, the American presence was initially limited. In June 1942, both the United States Army Northern Ireland Force and V Corps Headquarters under Major General Hartle relocated from Wilmont House, Dunmurry to Brownlow House, Lurgan. Before V Corps moved to Bristol in November it numbered 458 Officers, 38 Warrant Officers and 8,134 enlisted men. Of these, only the 63rd Signal Battalion was based in the locality, at the Lough Road camp in Lurgan (within the grounds of Woodville House), along with the 1st Platoon and 161st Signal Photographic Company, whilst a detachment from the 205th Military Police Company was also based in the town.
The Americans also established a presence at Waringfield Military Hospital outside Moira in June 1942 that would remain throughout the war. D Company, 71st Ordnance Battalion and 3424th Ordnance Medium Maintenance Company were based in Loughgall towards the end of 1942. With no airfield built in County Armagh, the nearest US Army Air Force presence was at Kircassock House near Magheralin. It became USAAF Station 231 and was code named ‘Nyack’ after the Eighth Air Force Composite Command established its HQ there in August 1942.
To the point of cliché, stories and histories of the Americans tend to focus on their social and economic impact, and this is reflected in the oral histories captured in the Northern Ireland War Memorial’s (NIWM) oral history project. Portadown man, Tommy Foy, recalled that a lorry would collect men on Francis Street, Portadown to work at Langford Lodge, a large airfield ran by the Lockheed Overseas Corporation on the shores of Lough Neagh near Crumlin. Gerry Topping from Lurgan recalled that:
‘the Americans took over the church hall in Queen Street. One Sunday night they brought all us kids in and Billy Gilbert the American film star was there…and they fed us with doughnuts, we'd never had doughnuts, and candy and sweets on the front row and Billy Gilbert and [his wife, Ella MacKenzie] and the party of American entertainers entertained everybody, but the other way the Yankee soldiers played poker and when they run out of money, they would have sold you a revolver for five shillings and there was a wee bit of dealing going on.’
But the American authorities were conscious of having what was effectively a conscript army deployed overseas in an area where the dangers of inactivity, boredom and low morale were more of a concern than combat. As early as February 1942, orders were issued listing places that were off limits to US personnel. Included on this list were Mrs Dyne’s House, Whinney Hill, Gilford and 31 Church Walk, 2 Black’s Court and 37 Castle Lane, Lurgan. By February 1944 further orders had been issued adding No. 6 Taylor’s Court and the Castle Lane Dance Hall, Lurgan, No. 3 Coronation Road, Markethill and Fowlers Entry, Foundry Street and Lappin’s Public House, Portadown. It was a matter of when, rather than if, an incident would occur and inevitably the influx of Americans created problems. Gerry Topping remembered one particular fight between local men and Americans outside the Castle Lane Dance Hall:
‘The local boys and the Yanks went to it, the Yankee soldiers had plenty of money, cigarettes and all that and they must have been enticing the girls that night…But when they came out, a riot started between our local boys and the American soldiers and the local boys lifted them…and they threw them on top of the barbed wire, the Yanks they just lifted them and within I suppose ten, fifteen or twenty minutes the American people came from Kircassock house on the Dromore Road...with the white helmets, the jeeps and the batons when they flayed into their own men and threw them in the back of the jeeps and off they went and that was that. …, I don't remember if they came back, but it didn't annoy me, but I always remember that riot.’
The incident in Castle Lane was not an isolated example; numerous cases of drunkenness and disorderly conduct are recorded before the first summary court in the European Theatre of Operations was established at Victoria Barracks, Belfast during September 1942 as part of an attempt to improve American behaviour.
Yet despite these efforts, on 21 September 1942 Edward Clenaghan was found unconscious at the side of a road which was a short distance from his home on the Soldierstown Road, near Aghalee. He was brought by truck to Lurgan Hospital but died early the next morning of a fractured skull.
That night a detachment from H Company, 13th Armored Regiment, 1st US Armored Division was enjoying the hospitality of Clenaghan’s pub on the Soldierstown Road in Co. Down. When asked to leave at closure, Privates Embra H. Farley and Herbert G. Jacobs demanded further service but were eventually persuaded to leave.
Fifteen minutes later a window of the pub was smashed, and the soldiers were discovered a short distance away. After again persuading the Americans to leave under the pretence of finding further drink elsewhere, James Joseph Clenaghan returned to learn that his brother, Edward, had left on his bicycle to report to the commanding officer of the nearby American camp.
At midnight, a Mr Samuel Hendron was cycling home from Moira train station when he discovered Edward Clenaghan unconscious at the side of the road. Farley and Jacobs were found guilty of voluntary manslaughter at a court martial held at Castlewellan on 9th October 1942 and were both sentenced to dishonorable discharge, total forfeiture of pay and confined to hard labour for ten years.
After the successful invasion of North Africa in the winter of 1942, the second wave of American forces began to arrive throughout the autumn of 1943 and due to the much larger numbers of personnel involved, their presence in the area was more marked.
The existing camps that had previously housed British and American forces were again used. XV Corps established their HQ in Brownlow House in December 1943 before moving to Kircassock House in March 1944, along with a platoon of the 506th Quartermaster Car Company that was also previously in Lurgan. Brownlow House also housed the 666th Engineer Topographic Company and 139th Army Postal Unit. Meanwhile the Lough Road camp housed companies A and C from the 544th Quartermaster Service Battalion as well as the 4193rd Quartermaster Service Company who were all ‘colored’ units (according to the terminology of the time).
Northern Ireland Base Section was re-established in October 1943 and was subdivided into four districts. One of these, XXXVIII District, was headquartered at Portadown under Major Whiting P. Lightfoot and the town was also home to several other units; Company K, 467th Quartermaster Truck Regiment, 3630th Quartermaster Truck Company, 55th Finance Disbursing Section, 19th Special Services Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 152nd Quartermaster Battalion and 136th Quartermaster Truck Company. The American presence was not however limited to the two major towns of the area.
The Headquarters and Headquarters Battery of the 2nd Infantry Division Artillery was based at Gosford Castle from October 1943 until April 1944. Donaghcloney housed more ‘colored’ men from the 4049th Quartermaster Truck Company and 563rd Quartermaster Battalion.
Perhaps the most significant presence in the area was that of the 6th US Cavalry Regiment (Mechanized) who were based in Tandragee. The 1st and 2nd squadrons were there from October 1943 before being redesignated at the 6th and 28th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons in January 1944.
Many of the participants of the NIWM’s oral history project had relatives or knew women from the area who went out with and ended up marrying an American soldier. These women were colloquially known as GI Brides and in fact there were so many of them that a special transport was arranged for their transit to the USA.
The Portadown News carried a story in March 1946 about four of the local GI Brides leaving for New York on board the SS Henry Gibbons, along with over 300 other women and 140 children from across Northern Ireland. A further 14 brides and three children from County Armagh were also on board. The same article states that at that time there were at least another dozen GI Brides still in Portadown and many more in the surrounding districts who were expected to sail to New York from Belfast on board the troopship, Thomas H. Barry later in the year. Three of the featured brides had married Americans from the ordnance units based at Loughgall while the other had married a cavalryman based at Tandragee.
These women were just a few of the approximately 1,800 women from Northern Ireland who became GI Brides. Although hard to define or measure, this cultural and social impact of the Americans is by far the biggest effect they had on the ‘Craigavon’ area. The physical scars of their time in the area are scarce, especially in comparison to other parts of Northern Ireland, while their activity here was routine; claims that the invasion of North Africa or the D-Day landings in Normandy were planned at Brownlow House are unsubstantiated. There is no evidence to suggest that this ever occurred, and the assertions are nothing more than a marketing tagline. It is also more than likely that Eisenhower stayed at Kircassock House rather than Brownlow House.
The number of Americans within Northern Ireland dropped steadily after the invasion of Europe in June 1944 and when the end of the war in Europe was declared in May 1945, only a skeletal force remained. The Portadown News reported the day under the headline, ‘Scenes of unbounded enthusiasm as Portadown celebrates VE Day’ and that, ‘not the least happy were the Belgian soldiers, who had come into town to give vent to their joy at the defeat of the German nation and the liberation of their own homeland.’ Tommy Foy remembered that:
‘We were all out in the middle of the town. The music and all were going. We belonged to an organisation at that time called the YCW. Young Christian Workers, we belonged to them, and there was a quare' squad of us suspended for being in the kissing rings.’
After the war life gradually returned to normal, and the physical impact of the war in the area began to disappear; air raid shelters, emergency water tanks and pillboxes were demolished. The possibility of converting the War Office camps around the country into temporary dwellings to help alleviate the housing crisis, exposed and worsened by the Belfast Blitz, was explored by local authorities and the Ministry of Local Government and Housing. Feasibility studies were conducted for the camps at Silverwood, Brownstown, Woodville, Gilford Castle and a portion of the Tandragee Castle camp.
Whilst Silverwood was deemed unsuitable for conversion, by early November 1946, 16 dwellings were ready for occupation at Woodville. In Portadown, the large camp at Brownstown was initially earmarked for the training of Polish troops but this did not materialise, nor did the conversion of the hutting into temporary dwellings. Instead, the northern portion of the camp near Atkinson Avenue was selected to be converted to provide a training facility for the Ministry of Labour.
The remainder of these camps and those not selected for conversion and no longer required by the War Office were sold off via public auction. Some 80 of the huts, along with other fixtures and fittings from Brownstown were sold in April 1947. A number of Nissen huts, boilers, basins, tubs and doors from Brownlow House camp were sold in October 1946, as were the huts, water tanks, boilers, ranges, stoves from Silverwood. And listings exist for several camps across the wider ‘Craigavon’ area; Moira Demesne Camp, Summerisland Camp (Loughgall), Gilford Castle Camp, Bannvale Camp and Kircassock House; listing not only the huts but the fixtures and fittings, boilers, storage tanks, ablution benches, showers, baths, petrol pumps, stoves, ranges and surplus military equipment.
Despite the sale of the camps in the immediate post-war years and the subsequent development and encroachment of the new city of Craigavon from the 1960s (brought upon in part by the post-war housing crisis), the war’s physical legacy can still be found. A toilet block and Nissen hut foundations are all that remain of the camp at Silverwood House; American graffiti can be found in the basement of Brownlow House, and a public air raid shelter lies beneath the Bann bridge in Portadown. Whilst slightly further afield, the remnants of Prisoner of War camps remain at Elmfield outside Gilford and at Gosford Forest Park.
However, the biggest impact of the war on the area was undeniably on its people and it is more important than ever that this is captured. With 80 years having passed since the first arrival of the Americans, the NIWM are actively collecting oral histories and written testimonies on not only the impact of the American presence but any wartime memory before they eventually pass from living memory.
In her contribution to Review Vol. 7 No. 3 1999, Mary Jenson stated:
‘when all the people of my vintage are dead, there will be no one left who remembers the ordinary every-day things of war time. Historians will know the dates of battles and important events and will teach them to their students, just like we were taught about The Wars of the Roses or The Boer War, but who will tell about the games we played, or the excitement when the Yankee soldiers drove past the school in long convoys, or how our mothers worked miracles to make tasty meals out of scarce rationed foodstuffs?’
And this sums up exactly what NIWM are trying to capture. So, if you, a relative or someone you know, have memories of the Americans in Northern Ireland during the Second World War or any other wartime memory, we would love to hear from you and record your story. Call 028 9032 0392 or email email@example.com