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21: The Second World War in Northern Ireland - Your questions answered
Episode 127th September 2023 • A Wee Bit Of War • Scott Edgar of WartimeNI
00:00:00 00:43:25

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A Wee Bit Of War returns for a second series. We've recently returned from We Have Ways Fest, where we met lots of new friends and answered lots of questions about the Second World War in Northern Ireland. After twenty episodes of the podcast, we thought it was now time to answer some of our most frequently asked queries. So, here is an overview of wartime life in Ulster including life during the Belfast Blitz, American GIs, the on and off-pitch heroics of Paddy Mayne, and H.M.S. Caroline.


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Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode we are kicking off what we’re calling Series 2 of the podcast. We had never planned to do series but then again, I never thought, we’d still be going after 20 episodes. Earlier this month, we attended We Have Ways Fest, run by historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray, a three-day festival of talks, reenactments, military hardware, and real ale. We met lots of people keen to chat about all things Second World War in Northern Ireland. By way of breaking into series 2, we’re going to use those conversations as a base to give you an introduction into wartime life in Ulster, covering five things that people wanted to know more about. So, here in no particular order are the five most frequently asked questions from the festival.

1. What was Northern Ireland’s role in the Second World War?

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Along with the blackout came the introduction of rationing. Food items, petrol, clothing... The purchase of many items was restricted although Northern Ireland fared better than some other places in the U.K. as it was predominantly an agricultural landscape. Dairy products and eggs were easier to get hold of in rural areas, and of course, it was only a short journey - although an illegal one - across the border to Ireland for black market goods.

Farming in Northern Ireland remained a thriving industry. In fact, some farms, particularly those involved in the growing of flax increased in size. In consecutive years, help was sought from the British Army for help in bringing in the harvest, such was its size. Not all farms thrived, however, and some found themselves victims of requisitioning as military bases and airfields began to spring up.

One of the largest industries in wartime Northern Ireland was shipbuilding. By the Second World War, only one major shipyard remained in Belfast, that of Harland and Wolff, most famous for the building of R.M.S. Titanic. But many more impressive vessels rolled off the slipways in east Belfast, from little ships used in the evacuation of Dunkirk to landing craft used during the Allied invasion of Normandy. And, of course, H.M.S. Belfast but that's a story for another podcast.

On Queen's Island, close to the shipyard was the main aircraft manufacturing plant of Short Brothers. You may remember hearing how both industries formed wartime ice hockey teams back in Episode 20 of the podcast. When not on the ice, however, workers at Shorts were rolling out vast numbers of aircraft including the Sunderland flying boat and the Stirling bomber.

If you're making a lot of ships, you're going to need a lot of rope. Gustav Wolff, of Harland and Wolff, was also a director of the Belfast Rope Works. By the time of the Second World War, this site - now home to Connswater Shopping Centre in east Belfast - was the largest ropeworks anywhere in the world. The linen industry too saw something of a revival in wartime with Ulster linen used for millions of uniforms, parachutes, and the fabric coverings on the famed Hawker Hurricane fighter plane.

Societal changes were afoot across the world in wartime. Northern Ireland was no different and one major change saw an influx of women into workforces. Factories and mills that once served in other industries were given over to war work including the assembly of vehicles and the production of munitions. In Portadown, Co. Armagh, in one such factory worked my grandmother who often claimed she made the bullets and my grandfather fired them.

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In the latter days of the Second World War, German boots walked on Northern Irish soil. These men were prisoners of war, captured by Allied forces and brought to Ulster to be held in camps. Around 13,000 P.O.Ws came to Northern Ireland. Camps were mostly in more rural areas, occupying former military camps. Some Germans died in Ulster and were buried in Belfast. Others staged daring escape plots. You can find out more about them in episode 11 of the podcast.

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There were airfields too in Northern Ireland. Despite its small size, there were more than twenty of them operational at times throughout the Second World War. In fact, only Co. Armagh did not have a dedicated airfield in use by either the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, or United States Army Air Force. The remnants of many airfields remain today and some in Belfast, Derry~Londonderry, and Co. Antrim remain in use as civilian airports.

Northern Ireland's key strategic position on the Atlantic Ocean made it an ideal base for Allied navies. Both the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy operated from Belfast and Derry~Londonderry. The latter was such a key port in the Battle of the Atlantic that it was there where many U-Boats met their ultimate fate, scuttled during Operation DEADLIGHT after the Kriegsmarine surrender.

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The Luftwaffe also attacked the strategically important city of Derry~Londonderry. A pair of parachute mines caused death and destruction in Messines Park in the city, perhaps intended to fall closer to the port and docks area on the River Foyle.

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2. Were there American GIs in Ulster, and if so, how many?

By now, you will, of course, realise the short answer to this question is yes, there were certainly American GIs in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. In fact, around 300,000 men and women from the United States of America passed through Ulster on their way to North Africa and Normandy and onwards. In previous episodes of this podcast, we have looked in depth at the experiences of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland, as well as the formation of the 1st U.S. Ranger Battalion in the coastal Co. Antrim town of Carrickfergus. The first Americans to arrive were not, in fact, soldiers but civilian technicians. Even before the United States officially entered the Second World War, technicians worked alongside their Northern Irish equivalents constructing military facilities. These included ports, docks, and airfields. Other Americans trained British airmen in the use of lend-lease aircraft such as the Catalina. One such person was Leonard "Tuck" Smith, who while on a training flight from Co. Fermanagh spotted the German vessel Bismarck alerting the Royal Navy to the battleship's location. While kept secret at the time, Tuck Smith's actions later earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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Back in episode 3 of the podcast, we spoke at length to Dr. Simon Topping about the experiences of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland. For the most part, it was a positive time in their military careers. Those who served in Northern Ireland were mainly in quartermaster regiments, cooking, providing transport, carrying out the logistical work that keeps an army on the move. More than that, though, for many it was the first time in their lives they felt treated as equals. There were some negative stories. Private William C. Jenkins was killed as racial tensions boiled over in the streets of Antrim. In Belfast, a black soldier named Wiley Harris fatally stabbed a local pimp in a dispute over payment in an air raid shelter in the Sailortown area of the city. Overall, however, the experience of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland was a good one. One letter-writer noted the warm welcome received in Carrickfergus while others delighted at being called 'sir' or made for the first time to feel like an equal American.

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3. Was Northern Ireland bombed during the war?

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The Belfast Blitz brought great change to Northern Ireland. No longer was the war against Nazi Germany something that happened somewhere else. Gone was the attitude of 'it'll never happen here' - it had. In the days and weeks that followed, Ulster buried its dead, around 1,000 people. Some remained unidentified and mass funerals took place to Belfast City Cemetery and Milltown Cemetery in the west of the city. Memorials commemorate those unknown victims at both cemeteries. In some parts of the city, entire streets were wiped from the map. Some churches, schools, and commercial buildings that were once the heart of communities were never rebuilt. But Belfast carried on. The shipyard and aircraft factory continued production and at Clifton Street Recruitment Centre, queues of men lined the road eager to sign up for the services. The Luftwaffe attacks had brought the reality of war to the streets of Northern Ireland and in some ways brought Nationalist and Unionist communities together. They suffered together, sheltered together, sang and prayed together, and died together. Over 80 years later, there is still no single permanent memorial in the city to those who died as a result of the air raids but many organisations do their part in ensuring their stories are not forgotten.

4. Well, there were an assortment of questions about Paddy Mayne.

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5. You have H.M.S. Caroline in Belfast, don’t you?

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