Training the Troops
Training camps in Northern Ireland during World War II
To say that the north of Ireland was one vast training camp during the second World War would not be an exaggeration. For both British and American troops the terrain provided natural training grounds: from the Mournes in County Down to Divis around Belfast, from the hills and Glens of Antrim to the Sperrins in Co Londonderry, manoeuvres and mock battle fights erupted across Northern Ireland.
Not only the mountains and hills, but our villages and narrow country roads provided the ideal ‘battle conditions’ for what lay ahead in various campaigns in Italy, France and Germany.
But these ‘battle games’ were to have a serious outcome. The first wave of Americans to come to Ireland took part in ‘Operation Torch’ the Allied invasion of North Africa and would participate in the Allied invasion of Italy. The North Irish Horse, a Territorial Armoured Regiment, put their ‘tank training’ in the Mournes to good use when they achieved a feat by taking ‘Longstop Hill’ inTunisia. They later fought in Italy and won a Canadian Battle honour at Monte Cassino.
The second wave of Americans who trained in Ireland took part in the D Day landings, and many of the British troops were part of the British 2nd Army who fought through and liberated Belgiumand Holland.
As far as Banbridge was concerned British Army ‘occupation’ began almost at once. One of the first was the British 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. They were billeted in and around Banbridge, after the outbreak of war in September 1939. One known location was ‘The Old Brewery’ in the town. The exploits of the brigade, who left Banbridge in December 1939 for a transit camp in England, are recorded in The Flames of Calais by the late Airey Neave, highlighting the brigade’s actions in the turmoil of France in 1940.
Many regiments would come and go in and around Banbridge throughout the war, most notable in local memories being the Liverpool Scottish who were based in Edenderry House, now part of Banbridge Academy, with Nissen huts laid out on what today are the playing fields; the Yorks and Lancs are another Regiment remembered, as were the Welsh Fusiliers who were based at Chinauley. The Fusiliers were part of the 53rd Welsh Division and were based all over Co Down being brought up to combat readiness throughout 1942/43.
They first arrived in Banbridge from Belfast in 1942 on a Sunday afternoon led by a fife and drum band, and the regimental goat. The band and goat would on occasions (on a Sunday) beat the retreat in the centre of Newry Street.
As a boy Walter Porter, who had a keen interest in band music, would often be keen to get to school at Ballydown near Chinauley, simply to catch the band on parade. More Welshmen married Irish girls than did men from any other regiment. The 53rd Welsh Division later took part in the fighting to liberate Holland in 1944.
Situated on the Castlewellan Road, Chinauley House, a large family residence which was the home of the Bethel family, was taken over by the War Department. The house and out-buildings were surrounded by mature trees, and the area was an ideal camp site because of the natural camouflage already in existence. The first unit to move in was a battalion of the King’s Own Rifles, who set up its HQ in the house, while the remainder of the battalion was stationed in and around Morton’s House, ‘Moorlands’ (this site has been completely altered and much of it is now a modern housing complex). The need for sports facilities soon became apparent and some land was leased to the Army by neighbouring farmers.
Opposite Chinauley, a pontoon bridge was erected over the River Bann giving access to a ready made rifle range ‘The Nut Bank’ – a sloping embankment inhabited by scores of rabbits, some of whom must have become casualties. This embankment can still be clearly seen today.
The area also was converted into a small assault course, with overhead ropes slung across the fast flowing river as part of the course. Manoeuvres were a regular feature around the narrow country roads, and on returning to Chinauley, huge tailbacks of up to two miles would occur, with Military Police trying to direct drivers into their parking areas. Chinauley House is at present under renovation and is a listed building.
Unfortunately such intensive military activity led to many accidents involving the civilian population. A long list of incidents have been recorded on file for the period 1940-42.
A few examples are as such: Soldier killed in lorry accident at Kilmacrew – 22/3/1941; Soldier killed in a bomb explosion accident at Deer’s meadow – 5/4/1941; Four roadmen thrown into a hedge, hit by an Army lorry while they sat having their tea – 12/7/1941; Man of 35 killed when his car hit an unlit Army bus – 2/8/1941; Army lorry overturns, hits pillar at Ballyward – 23/8/1941. Soldier drowns in Newry Canal during manoeuvres – 20/9/1941. Bren Gun Carrier skids into bus – 10/10/1942. Bren Gun Carrier hits cart – 16/10/1942.
Fourteen days after leaving Halifax, Nova Scotia, Convoy NA-1, arrived off Lough Foyle. Two large transports detached themselves from the convoy, and two days later the ‘Strathaird’ and the ‘Chateau Thierry’ lay in Bangor Bay. Four tenders then proceeded to Pollock and Dufferin Docks in Belfast. Thus landed the first US troops in the north of Ireland.
They were part of the 34th Infantry (Mechanised) Division, nicknamed ‘The Red Bulls’. They were followed by three more convoys, arriving on March 3, May 12 and May 18, 1942. Deployment throughout Northern Ireland began, and V Army Corp, set up its HQ at Brownlow House, Lurgan, whilst the 34th Infantry deployed throughout counties Antrim and Tyrone. The 1st Armoured Division, ‘The Old Ironsides’, set up its HQ at Castlewellan, Co Down.
When the Americans arrived in the north of Ireland, the British Army already had several divisions deployed, and in July 1942, a large scale exercise took place called ‘Exercise Atlantic’ which included the recently arrived American Divisions along with the British 59th and 61stDivisions, and the 72nd British Brigade. The first Americans to arrive in and around Banbridge would have been in late March 1942, and would have been from 1st Armoured Division.
This first wave of Americans would have trained throughout the summer of 1942, being deployed for the battlefront of North Africa between September and October 1942. The second wave began to arrive in mid October 1943 when the 2nd US Infantry Division arrived, to be followed by the 5th Infantry Division, the ‘Red Diamonds’, and then the 82 Airborne Division, who arrived in December, having already been in action in Italy. Last to arrive were the 8th Infantry Division, ‘Golden Arrow Division’.
These men would be training along with British divisions (which included the 53rd Welsh Division who were based throughout the Banbridge area) for the invasion of Europe. XV Corp HQ, like V Corp. a year earlier was set up at Brownlow House, and as with the first wave, the troops were deployed throughout the North, bringing a total strength by February 1944 to 100,000.
The 5th Infantry Division were deployed in south and east Down, with its HQ at Donard Lodge in Newcastle, while the 2nd Infantry Division moved into the Armagh/Newry areas, with its HQ at Armagh. So it would be safe to say any Americans in and around Banbridge would have been part of either of these two divisons. The 5th Infantry Division went to the Fermanagh/south Tyrone areas, whilst the 82nd Airborne were based in the Cookstown/Castledawson areas.
Within a few months they were on the move again to the south of England to take part in the invasion. The 2nd Infantry Division, ‘The Indian Heads’, landed in France on June 7, 1944 (D+1), whilst the 5th Infantry Division joined the battle in July 1944.
After the liberation of Belgium in 1944, 25,000 Belgians – four Infantry Brigades – arrived inIreland for training, with the intention of returning to take part in the final battles against the Germans, but with the German surrender in May 1945 they were not destined for active service.
However, the brigades did return to Europe, not to fight in Germany but as the seed of a new post-war army of Belgium. It is in a way appropriate that Ireland should be the place that was chosen for this new army to take shape for it was the Irish Guards 2nd Battalion (then an armoured regiment) as part of 32 Brigade of the Guards Armoured Division who spearheaded the drive into Brussels of the Guards Division, being met by an overwhelming mass of deliriously happy Belgians.
The scene in Brussels that night of September 3, 1944, could probably only ever be appreciated or fully described by those who were there. In the drive for Brussels the previous day, the tanks of the Irish Guards 2nd Battalion had roared through the Belgian villages bringing Ireland with them. ‘St Patrick’, ‘Ulster’, ‘Leinster’, ‘Connaught’, and the names of some 67 other Irish towns rattled across the streets of Belgium.
Another Irish regiment, the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, as part of the 7th Armoured Division, had crossed into Belgium at Troufflers on August 31, 1944, and within six days had swept forward to liberate Ghent and in so doing took the surrender of a whole infantry regiment. So it was fitting that Ireland would continue its role in that liberation and play host to the new soldiers of Belgium.
When the Belgians first arrived in the north, several road signs were erected in French and Flemish to direct the soldiers to their respective camps. The 3rd Infantry Brigade moved into camps in south Antrim, whilst the 4th known as ‘Steenstraete’ was based in and around Banbridge. The 5th Infantry Brigade, ‘Mere Kems’, was deployed in Co Armagh.
The main contingent of the Brigade were based at Seapatrick on the Kilpike road. A private housing estate rests on the original campsite today. Another billet for the Belgian soldiers was Bells Hemstitching factory which was located at the bottom of the Five Lights Hill; it is presently being demolished. The Brigade’s repair shops were sited amongst a concentration of British Army installations on the Lurgan side of Burnhouse factory 2 miles from Lisburn.
Other units were stationed in Gilford Castle, and on the present site of Bannvale Adult Training Centre which at that time was very wooded, on the Stramore Road.
The Belgians left an indelible impression on the people of Banbridge. Several large parades took place in the town, one on the 9 May 1945 which saw some four thousand soldiers parade to celebrate VE Day. It was the first of a two day public holiday and for May it was a pretty overcast day.
At 3pm, 4,000 soldiers of the 4th Infantry Brigade having assembled at points on the Newry Road marched past a saluting base at the air raid shelter near the north of Bridge Street, the salute being taken by Colonel Louppe. The music was played by a local band, the Milltown Brass and Reed Band which was conducted by an elderly man, Mr William Clugston, who afterwards was thanked by Belgian officers.