Thursday, June 4, 2009

Remembering Northern Ireland's Contribution to D-Day

I finally made it back to Ireland. To get home I flew Orlando, Boston, Shannon, Dublin - 19 hours from curb to curb. Depending on where you're living, there are better ways of getting here. All I know is that a row boat probably would have been quicker.

The next few days are going to be frantic as I try to get my head around the piles of paperwork that lean like toppling mountains on my desk. However, tomorrow is a special day in some ways: June 6th and the 65th Anniversary of D-Day. Some of you may be aware that the Republic of Ireland and especially Northern Ireland had a roll to play in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Today, I'd like to briefly honour the memory of the many who may have sacrificed all that we can live in freedom.
(Pictured above: Harland & Wolf shipyard, April 1940, having been bombed by the Luftwaffe in the Belfast Blitz)

Ireland and The Emergency

The Republic of Ireland's role in WWII was limited. Then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamonn De Valera held an isolationist view of global politics, and besides, the country's 'arch enemy' England could not be supported due to Ireland history of British colonisation. For that reason, and within Ireland, the War in Europe was not called WWII, but rather 'The Emergency', a title which even today's Irish historians often find a bit quaint.

Due to this stance, many Allied countries to this day view De Valera with a mixture of suspicion and anger. After all, and when he discovered that Hitler had commited suicide, he ordered a representative of the Irish government to immediately march to the German Embassy located in Dublin, there to sign the book of condolensces. Ireland was one of the few countries to do so.

That said, and despite its policy of neutrality in WWII, as well as the Irish people's sometime support of German ambitions, the Republic of Ireland often turned a blind eye to Allied activity, or actually facilitated Allied activities, that helped to turn the tide of the War.

While I don't have space to write a treatise, some examples of this include:

  • POW Treatment - German, British and American bomber pilots occasionally fell into the hands of the Irish. These POWs were often interred in Irish camps. Mysteriously, many of the American and British captives somehow managed to escape back to their Flights. On the other hand, German captives were held throughout the war.

  • Weather Reports - weather reports from the West Coast of Ireland made their way into Allied hands, a critical part of the planning for Operation Overlord (D-Day). Irish weather reports, indicating bad weather, helped Allied commanders to actually delay the D-Day landing by a day. Had Ireland not made these reports available to the Allies, D-Day might not have been as successful as it was.

  • Assistance to Northern Ireland - during the early days of 'The Emergency', Northern Ireland's capital city Belfast was bombed by the Germans in what was the 2nd worst aerial blitz on Allied soil in WWII. While it is often forgotten, this Blitz (occuring in April 1940) destroyed 50 percent of Belfast's housing stock in a massive conflagration. Despite its neutral stance, The Republic responded with fire tenders to help quench these flames of destruction. For its efforts, and when the Germans learned of this so-called treachery, Ireland was repaid by German Luftwaffe bombardments of Dublin City.

Northern Ireland - a Field of War
But if The Republic rendered some assistance to the War Effort, the people of Northern Ireland contributed mighty, and often heroic, resources to the defeat of Nazi Germany:

  • Pre-1941 - in the early days of WWII, bomber groups stationed in Northern Ireland including B24s (lent to Britain by the US) and Sunderland Bombers kept the North Atlantic sea lanes open through their sorties against German U-Boats. Their efforts allowed tonnes of materials to make their way to England. Had it not been for this effort, and had the supply lanes been cut, England possibly would not have survived until America's entrance into the War on Dec 7 1941.

  • January 1942 and the Staging Post - on January 24th 1942, only weeks following Pearl Harbor, a massive flotilla of US soldiers and materials landed in Northern Ireland. Here, those people - with the assistance of the Northern Irish - geared up to position that Northern province as a critical staging post for the defeat of Nazi Germany. What is interesting is this: despite America's neutrality prior to Pearl Harbor, it is obvious that this was a pre-planned activity, and undoubtedly agreed between Roosevelt and Churchill prior to America's official entrance into WWII.

  • Northern Ireland, the Allied Aerodrome - Northern Ireland quickly became a critically important supply and training location that fed the European Theatre of War with vital men and materials. Aircraft from the United States, including B17 and B24 bombers, P47 and P38 Lightning fighters, and similar equipment was flown or transported into the North. There, the aircraft were prepared for European operations. American, British, and Canadian pilots were trained in Northern Ireland. Aircraft manufacturing and ship repair facilities located in Belfast and Derry (Londonderry) helped to supply much needed materials to Allied efforts.

    The men and materials transported into the North, and then on into England, helped to assist the US 8th Army Airforce in its daylight bombing efforts against Nazi-occupied Europe. This massive assistance in all probability helped to shorten the war. What is also interesting - and poignant - is the fact that accidents did occur. Today, you can find the graves of American fliers buried in the Province.

  • Belfast Harbor as a Staging Post for D-Day - meanwhile, thousands of American military (including Army and Navy personnel and materials) eventually assembled and trained in Northern Ireland. Belfast became a sort of immense Irish USO as they brought an American view to the country: Americans were everywhere in Northern Ireland, and invariably they handed out items that could not be found in the Province. Silk stockings, cigarettes, booze, and chocolates were particularly popular. I've had the privilege of meeting Northern Irish War Brides who married American soldiers. Bob Hope played to American and Northern Irish audiences, as did Glen Miller. For a number of years, love blossomed to the sounds of American Swing. Then, in 1944, a massive fleet began to assemble in Belfast Harbor. Troops were called from their training posts, ordered to board the many vessels that swamped the local waters. General Dwight D Eisenhower visited in mid-June of that year, wishing his troops luck. And a fleet destined for eventual victory sailed from those waters, bound for a remote French coastline, and many would never return.

Churchill, never a fan of Northern Ireland, stated categorically that if it had not been for the sacrifice of the people of Northern Ireland, the war would not have been ended as quickly. Today, no monument stands in Belfast to remember the thousands who died in the 1940 Belfast Blitz. Few remember that the German Battleship Bismark was spotted by an aircraft flown from Northern Ireland that led to its eventual sinking. Few remember that if it were not for Northern Ireland and its efforts to keep open the North Atlantic, Britain might have been defeated by Nazi Germany.

Few remember the courageous contribution that Northern Ireland and her people made to the War Effort. And few discuss the critical roll that Northern Ireland played in the implementation of D-Day, Operation Overlord.

On this 65th Anniversary of D-Day, I hope to remind us all of that sacrifice. And to those who are still alive, or who are the proud off-spring of those who participated so courageously, I would like to state my humble thanks for helping us in the fight for freedom.

Tom Richards
June 6th, 2009.


  1. Tom, as a Scot who has lived in Ohio since 1982 I find your (recently discovered!) Blog very interesting. Particularly so with this article.

    I am ashamed to say I was not even aware of the "Belfast Blitz"; I don't know if it been so long since I was in school in Scotland that I have forgotten, or (more likely) it was never brought up in the first place. Thank you for filling that gap in my knowledge.

    I'm glad you had a safe (if tiring) trip back from the land of "E Pluribus Unum", and look forward to more posts as you get caught up with the mountain of paperwork.


  2. Good hearing from you Skippy. You're not alone in never hearing about the Belfast Blitz. I only learned of it a few years ago, together with the contribution that the NI people made to the War effort. I started a mass of research, hoping to product a feature Film - Fields of War. However, funding has been cut because of the financial mess today. Anyway, it's something that I'll do later - either a film or a novel. One of those areas that I find fascinating, and that should be remembered by being told. Where in Ohio do you hail from? My Mom - passed on now - is from East Liverpool OH. I really enjoy going back when I get the chance. My best - T

  3. Tom,

    It sounds like a story that needs a wider audience, so I hope you do get to do a book or movie about it.

    My wife is from Cleveland, OH and we lived and worked in the Cleveland /Akron area (NE Ohio) until a couple of years ago when we moved to the middle of state. We have lived in a couple of suburbs of the state capital, Columbus. My wife's grandparents actually hailed from East Liverpool - small world!

  4. Last Friday (June 19, '09) I flew from Shannon to JFK to Atlanta to Coumbia,SC. With the travel time to the airport in Shannon (2 hours), etc. It was almost a 24 hour trip! I felt as though I had traveled from Africa! But, it was well worth the trip, I was in Dungarvan, County Waterford and it was lovely. First time in Ireland, but I enjoyed the relaxed vibe (compared to Switzerland and Germany). I have American friends living in Ireland, I will be sending a link to your blog...

  5. Thank you for the comment, Krissi. Isn't that trip crazy? For many years, my parents lived in San Francisco. Getting from here to there was NUTS! And a quick seque... I only thought of setting up this blog a few months ago, and am so glad I did. I've 'met' so many nice people through this! In fact, I recently received a phone call from a woman originally from South Carolina who was moving to...Navan, County Meath. Absolutely amazing! Tom

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