by Dr Éamon Phoenix, Historian and Broadcaster
8 May marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day when Northern Ireland, in common with other parts of the UK, celebrated the total surrender of the Nazi regime and the formal ending of the Second World War in Europe.
In Northern Ireland with its historic divisions, both communities celebrated – though with different emphases. For all the region’s citizens, however, the German capitulation marked the end of six terrible years of war, loss and devastation. It was a period when the very future of civilization and freedom was at stake.
Yet, as the people of Armagh, Banbridge, Portadown and other Ulster towns ‘let themselves go’ in an upsurge of spontaneous rejoicing, some recalled loved ones killed on active service or in the carnage of the Belfast Blitz.
During the war years, Northern Ireland’s experience differed from that of England or Southern Ireland (then known as Eire) which remained neutral.
This special article will explore the impact of the war on this region – from its politics and government to heavy industry and its key role in the Allied war effort. In particular, it will consider how such issues as the absence of Conscription, the Belfast ‘Blitz’, the dramatic ‘invasion’ of US troops, Evacuation, German prisoners-of-war and the South’s’ benevolent neutrality’ formed the essential backdrop to VE Day 1945.
Northern Ireland and the Second World War:
Those crowding the streets of Belfast, Armagh and other towns and villages on this day in 1945 would have been aware of the background to the war; the rise of Hitler in Germany in 1933; the establishment of the ruthless Nazi dictatorship; the persecution of the Jews and other minorities and Hitler’s aggressive expansionist policy in Europe, culminating in the invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Yet Northern Ireland’s experience of World War 2 differed from that in England or Southern Ireland. For one thing, Conscription- introduced in GB- did not apply here. Despite the appeal of the Unionist Prime Minster, Lord Craigavon for ‘equality of sacrifice’, his British Prime counterpart, Neville Chamberlain was dissuaded from extending the measure to NI due to nationalist protests and his hope of persuading Eamon de Valera, the Irish leader, to make Southern ports available to the Allies.
When Winston Churchill- Chamberlain’s successor- re-considered introducing compulsory military service in 1941 he was advised by the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Charles Wickham, that it would lead to a rise in sectarian tensions and even serious violence.
‘Northern Ireland is only Half in the War’:
The absence of Conscription was regarded as the main reason for the ‘lack of war urgency’ in Northern Ireland in the early years of the war. The Stormont Cabinet’s most dynamic Minister, John MacDermott, wrote in 1941 that the region was ‘only half in the war.’
This lack of urgency, a Whitehall official noted, stretched form ‘the highest Cabinet Minister to the humblest peasant on the Antrim coast’. Blackout regulations, designed to thwart air raids, were widely flouted while the Stormont Cabinet seriously underestimated the vulnerability of Belfast’s heavy industries to German aerial attack -especially after the Nazi occupation of France in 1940.
For general defence the regional government relied on the Home Guard which was based on the Ulster Special Constabulary.
The Belfast Blitz and a Change of Prime Minister:
The result was the Belfast ‘Blitz’ of April/May 1941 when the Luftwaffe carpet- bombed the city. Though the main industrial base was largely unscathed, 1000 citizens died in two major bombardments. The Blitz awakened both the Government and the civilian population from their lethargy. Over half of Belfast’s housing stock -much of it insanitary- was destroyed. A doctor’s wife noted ‘the appalling influx from the slums’ as over 200,000 citizens fled the city for shelter in the surrounding countryside.
The political impact of the Blitz was a game-changer. It led rapidly to the fall of the PM, John Andrews (Craigavon’s successor) and his replacement by the more energetic Sir Basil Brooke in 1943. Under Brooke -a divisive figure in the 1930s- NI’s contribution to wartime productivity improved dramatically. There was full employment in the shipyards and linen mills as Harland and Wolff launched 170 Admiralty and merchant ships, Shorts turned out 1200 Stirling bombers and women workers in Banbridge, Lurgan and Portadown made parachutes and uniforms.
The Belfast-London-Dublin Triangle during the war:
From the onset of the war, de Valera asserted Eire’s neutrality in ‘The Emergency’ (as the period was known in independent Ireland.) However, a determined Churchill (UK Premier from 1940) stressed the importance of Southern Irish ports to British security. De Valera’s refusal to yield forced Churchill to rely on the support of Northern Ireland and the key port facilities of Belfast and Londonderry.
As he declared in his victory broadcast in May 1945: ‘This was a deadly moment in our life and had it not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland, we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish forever from the earth.’
Nonetheless de Valera pursued a policy of ‘friendly neutrality’ towards Britain and the Allied cause. In particular, from January 1941 he allowed the RAF to access the ‘Donegal Corridor’ a narrow strip of land between Lough Erne and the Atlantic. This secret agreement enabled Allied war planes to strike against German targets in the North Atlantic. In addition, captured British pilots were quietly permitted to escape across the border.
Evacuees and the ‘American Invasion’:
For people living in the Armagh, Banbridge and Lurgan-Portadown area, the biggest shock came in February 1942 when, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States finally entered the war. As a result, tens of thousands of American troops arrived in Northern Ireland and were posted to a series of bases including Brownlow House in Lurgan, Tandragee Castle and Langford Lodge on the shores of Lough Neagh near Glenavy.
Churchill saw the arrival of 120,000 GIs by 1944 as a ‘powerful deterrent against a German invasion of Ireland’. To cynics, the suave, smartly-dressed ‘Yanks’ were ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’. Armed with their trademark gifts of chocolates and nylons -impossible to obtain locally- they dated local girls. In the end around 600 Ulster girls married American soldiers and were transhipped to join their husbands in the States after the war.
It was from Northern Ireland also that the bulk of the US troops were despatched for the D Day invasion of Europe on June 6 1944.
Another feature of the war years in the area was the arrival of evacuated children in West Down and North Armagh from Blitzed parts of Belfast. Among them was Jack Magee, now in his mid-80s, and living in Australia. Jack and his family from Belfast’s Sandy Row district were billeted at Magherally outside Banbridge for around a year in 1942. A few years ago he returned to the area and managed to trace his wartime childhood friends!
Prisoners of War Camps and Belgian Troops:
From late 1944, 2000 German prisoners of war were sent to Northern Ireland due to overcrowding in Britain. They were held in local camps including Elmfield Castle (Gilford), Killicomaine Camp (Portadown) and Gosford Camp at Markethill. Among the detainees held at Gilford was the former German paratrooper and later famous Manchester City goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann.
After the German surrender these men were involved in construction and harvesting work in the locality and enjoyed good relations with local people. A group of German Catholic POWs presented a thurible to the local Roman Catholic Church in Gilford.
At the same time Armagh and Banbridge were used as bases for a large number of the 20,000 Belgian troops. They were sent to Northern Ireland following t liberation of Belgium in 1944 suffering from exhaustion and acute food shortages.
Local Men Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice:
Many local men were among the 38,000 volunteers who enlisted from Northern Ireland during the war. A number of men from both traditions made the supreme sacrifice. Among them were:
Lieutenant Norman Gracey, Royal Navy, who served on the HMS Nile and was killed in December 1942 and is buried in Beirut;
Corporal Robert Lynas, Portadown, who joined the RAF and was killed at Naples in May 1945;
Fusilier Patrick McCann (22), Lurgan, of the 8th Bn. Royal Irish Fusiliers who as killed in January 1941 and is buried in Malta;
Private Arthur McCluskey (30) of Portadown, who joined the 6th Bn Durham Light Infantry and died in action in September 1944 and is buried in Belgium;
Stoker Ian McCready (32) who joined the Royal Navy on HM Trawler Lady Shirley and who died in December 1941 and is buried at Lowestock, Suffolk.
VE Day 8 May 1945:
In the days running up to VE Day the local press noted ‘certain rumours…that the surrender of the entire German armies’ was imminent.
On May 2 1945 de Valera caused a diplomatic storm by calling on the German Legation in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Hitler. British public opinion was outraged. The Northern Ireland Premier, Brooke spoke for many when he declared: ‘The world is a sweeter place for the disappearance of a man who has strewn Europe with corpses and made possible the horrors of Bechenwald and Belsen [the Nazi death-camps].’
On 8 May, Victory in Europe Day dawned in resplendent summer sunshine. Given a two- day paid holiday by their employers, thousands gathered at Belfast City Hall to hear the stentorian tones of Churchill over the airwaves announcing that the Nazi high command had surrendered to General Eisenhower.
In Portadown and Armagh cheering crowds thronged the town centres, flags and bunting emerged and tableaux of the King, the Queen and Churchill appeared at windows. Everywhere church bells pealed to signify the return of peace. In Armagh, ecstatic young men and women climbed onto military lorries and toured the streets singing and cheering. Community relations had improved during the war and the celebrations reflected this.
Throughout Northern Ireland, street parties were held with lemonade, cakes and treats for the little ones. In the evening, Thanksgiving Services were held in the Protestant churches while Catholic churches hosted Solemn High Masses for the coming of peace. Everywhere Union flags, the Stars and Stripes and, in nationalist areas, Papal colours fluttered in the breeze. By late evening bonfires blazed, bands played and people danced in streets illuminated for the first time since 1939.
They dreamed of a brave new world and within three years their lives would be transformed by the new Welfare State, the NHS and free universal education.