Whatever the local problems and conflicts, the outbreak of the Second World War brought about a temporary truce in Anglo Irish relations. It was the only time in modern history when there was full employment in the city. The influx of a vast number of foreign military personnel into the city, especially the glamorous Americans, lifted the city out of the depressing dullness and insularity of the 1930s.
A secret agreement which had been signed between the British and the Americans in 1941, before America had entered the war, provided the setting up of a United States naval base in Derry. On 30 June 1941, 362 ‘civilian technicians’ arrived. That number was doubled before Christmas of the same year. By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, after which the Americans did enter the war, a huge network of US facilities had been built in Derry. These included storage depots, radio installations, a ship-repair base, a new quayside at Lisahally, as well as domestic accommodation and administration offices. Later, other facilities would also be added.
The US Naval Operating Base, Londonderry, was officially commissioned on 5 February 1942. Derry was the first US navy establishment in Europe and became the terminal for US convoys bound for Britain. The base continued in operation until July 1944 when the installation was handed over to the British, leaving only a US radio station behind; this was not closed until 1977. Many of those who came to staff the base initially were transferred from a similar US installation in Iceland. Despite its conservative tradition of Protestant sabbatharianism, the Americans claimed that after Reyjavik Derry ‘seemed like Coney Island’.
An official American source said of the Londonderry base:
Until the creation of Exeter, Londonderry was the main supply depot for our naval activities in the British Isles, and throughout the war it was the major United States naval radio station in the European theatre.
Quite apart from the British forces stationed in the city, there were nearly as many Canadians as American in Derry during the war. Contingents from the ‘free’ forces of France, Belgium and Holland were stationed there also.
Northern Ireland’s official war historian, Professor J. W. Blake, claimed that from a British point of view:
Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic … Londonderry was the most important escort base in the North-Western approaches.
Four important wartime airfields were built close to the city, one of which, at Eglinton, now serves as the City of Derry Airport. One of the other former airfields is currently the site of the giant Du Pont industrial complex at Maydown.
Spitfires and other military aircraft from these airfields were a common sight over Lough Foyle. The city’s location on the border with the Free State, which was neutral throughout the war, was repeatedly exploited for wartime smuggling.
Damage to the city itself was limited to just one occasion. On Easter Tueday, 15 April 1941 a single German bomber dropped two parachute mines over the River Foyle, probably intended for the busy ship-repair base below. One of the bombs fell near Pennyburn Catholic Church, which a local eyewitness claimed was protected from a direct hit when the statue of St Patrick on the exterior of the building ‘shoved’ the bomb away!
Others were not so lucky: fifteen people lost their lives when the second bomb exploded as it fell on Messines Park. This was a small ex-servicemen’s housing estate named after Messines in Belgium where some of the men had seen service in the First World War. On the same night that the two bombs fell on Derry, two hundred tonnes of bombs were dropped were dropped on Belfast causing massive destruction and killing more than nine hundred people.
So crucial a role did Derry play in the Battle of the Atlantic that at the conclusion of the war the quayside at Lisahally was designated for the surrender of some of the Germad U-boats. The surrender of the first group of eight submarines was atken on 14 May 1945 by Admiral Sir Maxwell Horton, Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir Basil Brooke, attended the ceremony.
During the following winter, twenty-eight of these U-boats were towed out into the Atlantic and scuttled. As Derry’s pivotal position in the allied war effort was being recognised, civil servants were warning that peacetime was unlikely to bring harmony to the city. At a deeper level, many of the city’s structural, political and economic problems remained intact, ready to surface again as wartime prosperity melted away to be replaced by the economic depression of the 1950s and early 1960s.
"It wasn’t that the Derry girls had disliked the seduction style of the English Tommies, but most of them found the American technique irresistible: it included unheard of delicacies like mouth watering Herschey’s chocolate, so different from the dark brown wartime chocolate they were used to. Cigarettes came in new exciting packets and whole cartons of them could suddenly appear if the job was right. The ‘Camel’ was more potent that the ‘Player’."
"As if that were not enough to seduce the ‘maiden City’, the Yanks hit poor Derry with their chewing gum. Sean and his friends scrambled for it and for coins and sweets thrown to them from passing jeeps. They had no defence against succulent American confectionary, after the tastelessness of wartime rationed sweets and chewing gum that became bland rubber after a dozen chews. Who would blame Derry girls for succumbing to their other awful temptations? What hope had virtue against the novelty of nylons?"
Tomás Ó Canainn describes Derry’s reaction to American troops in his novel Home to Derry. Published in 1986, the book describes with boyish enthusiasm the highlights of life in the city during the forties.
The US Navy in Derry
The Petit arrived to a city already full of American sailors and Marines as well as representatives of all the Allied forces. Chief Sardo remembers how welcoming the people had been to him. He said, in fact, the first thing they did together was put on a show.
We had come to build the hospital. I had come over on the Queen Mary in late February. I had a nice little private state room and ate like a king. We landed in Southampton and flew on a C-47 outside of Derry, probably not too far from where my cousin landed. We were there to set up a mobile hospital for the troops. I was among the first Americans in Derry, although people told us that there had been a lot of American workers there building the port at Lisahally. This was one of those big military secrets that everybody knew. We put on a show for Mrs Churchill to raise money for Russian relief. I was a singer at the time and I sang "God Bless America". We had a lot of local talent in the show plus service personnel. We called ourselves the Creevagh Minstrels. Ironically, my cousin Amelia Earhart had also landed in Northern Ireland, but I think I had an even better time than she did.
Chief Joseph Earhart Sardo
For some of the US sailors, their arrival in Northern Ireland was a literal homecoming. Warren Craig of Newburgh, New York, arrived on a destroyer, the USS Shubrick. He knew the landscape from stories his parents had told him. His father, Joseph Craig, was from the countryside near Derry and his mother, Mary Moore, was from Belfast. They had met and married in New York City and now their son was one of thousands of US sailors swarming into the ports of Northern Ireland. Warren disembarked with a talisman in his pocket, the address of his mother’s childhood friend Meta Shaw.
We weren’t supposed to go to Belfast, but I got on this small train and headed for my mother’s friend’s house. She was really surprised to see me. They wouldn’t let me go; in fact, they followed me all the way back to Derry in a taxi with a huge barrage bag. They wanted to hear all my war stories and I had some to tell. I had enlisted when I was seventeen and shipped out to the Pacific on the USS Duncan. We were in the battle of Cape Esperance and we were hit fifty times in a few hours, but we sunk a Japanese cruiser, the Fuderacka.
I remember it going up and then exploding and going down into the ocean. There were over 1,000 men on that ship. We were finally sunk and out of 235 men, sixty-three survived. I was in the water for fourteen hours. I also saw action in Sicily and North Africa. I survived so many dangerous situations. When I was in Ireland, in Belfast, I found out more about my family. I realised I was a seventh son and my father too was a seventh son. So I guess the seventh son of a seventh son is truly blessed.
From Home Away from Home by Warren Craig; The Yanks in Ireland by Mary Pat Kelly.