US Entry into the Second World War
John Quinn investigates how Northern Ireland was first in Europe to host US Army Air Force Personnel
With the United States entry into the war, the north was to host the first US troops to land on British or Irish soil, when on January 24, 1942, two large transports from convoy NA-1, which had sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia on January 10, detached themselves at Lough Foyle, Derry.
The first United States Army Air Force (USAAF) personnel disembarked at Larne, Co Antrim, before making the short trip to Belfast in July of the same year. The same month, on July 6, a USAAF C-47 transport (serial number 41-7764) of the 60th Troop Carrier Group landed at Rineanna (now Shannon) airport at 17:50 hrs.
The aircraft was on a ferry flight from the United States to Prestwick in Scotland via Labrador and Iceland. On board were aircrew of the 29th Bombardment Squadron, the first batch of bomber crews for Britain.
Having left Iceland at 10:00 that morning, the pilot mistook the north for Scotland and headed south, landing at Rineanna low on fuel. Once refueled, the aircraft took off at 11:45 hrs the following morning and later landed at St Angelo airfield, Co Fermanagh, in the north.
Original plans for the USAAF to take over the air-defence of the north were laid out in the summer of 1942, with a scheme known as ‘Shadow 82’ involving the 2nd Pursuit Group, with the aim of understudying the RAF and then relieving them at the three fighter stations: Eglinton in Co Londonderry and Ballyhalbert and Kirkistown in Co Down.
Numbers 2, 4 and 5 Squadrons of the 52nd Pursuit Group arrived at Eglinton on July 13, 1942, for Spitfire training and later the 82nd Pursuit Group in the form of Numbers 95 and 96 Squadrons, with 97 Squadron going to Maydown, on the outskirts of Derry.
An early casualty of Spitfire familiarisation came on August 14, 1942, when 2nd Lieutenant Earl Sharpe of the 4th Fighter Squadron, 52nd Group was killed when his Spitfire crashed near Portrush, Co Antrim. Lieutenant Sharpe was buried in Belfast City Cemetery and later exhumed to the transit US cemetery at Lisnabreeney outside Belfast on May 27, 1944.
The demands however for air support for the ‘Torch’ landings in North Africa meant that the USAAF fighter squadrons would be sent there and in October it was decided that air defence would remain with the RAF, whilst the US squadrons re-equipped with P38 Lightnings, two of which crashed in the south in December 1942 whilst in the first phase of being ferried to North Africa. Both pilots survived.
On September 12, 1942, the HQ of the 8th USAAF command set up HQ at Long Kesh, as the north was to be used both for training and an initial assembly area.
Shortly afterwards, USAAF HQ moved to Kircassock House, Lurgan, Co Armagh. The US already had personnel in the north prior to its entry into the war as it was anticipated it was only a matter of time before America became involved.
Airfield construction had already been in progress and this now accelerated to facilitate the Americans. Airfields allocated were as follows: Long Kesh (which later became an RAF Operational Training Unit), Langford Lodge, Toome, Greencastle, Cluntoe, Maghaberry and Mullaghmore. Langford Lodge, which opened on August 5, 1942, was the second biggest Base Air Depot next to Burtonwood, which was in England.
It cost £0.5 million to construct and housed 2,600 civilian employees of the Lockheed Overseas Corporation. It also provided work to the local population and ensured that the bombardment of Europe from the forward airfields of Norfolk and East Anglia could continue. Toome, Cluntoe, Greencastle and Mullaghmore became Combat Crew Replacement Centres where new crews trained as a team and familiarised themselves on bombing techniques over northwestern Europe before moving to operational units in England.
The instructors at the bases already mentioned were veterans from operational squadrons who had already done at least one tour of operations. In June 1944, there were 2,000 airmen based at Toome and 1,200 at Maghaberry, with all told some 20,000 USAAF personnel in the north at pre-D-Day peak. After D-Day this number would rapidly decrease, and on August 7, 1944, Langford gave up its 8th Air Force role.
It is worth noting that Cluntoe came under 9th Air Force control. Greencastle in Co Down was the last American base to close. This 350-acre base, whose runways had enough concrete in them to lay a 9-foot roadway from Belfast to Derry, closed on May 21, 1945.
The north had its share of VIP visitors. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, paid a two-day visit on November 10, 1942, to the Red Cross Centre - formerly the Plaza Ballroom in Belfast. Prior to D-Day, General Dwight D. Eisenhower flew into Greencastle on a three-day visit on May 17, 1944, to inspect American troops who were waiting to depart for the port bases in southern England. General Patton had previously inspected troops during their training in Co Down and Co Armagh in March. Music celebrities had also visited the north. Both Glen Miller and Al Jolson entertained at Langford Lodge. Unfortunately the theatre in which they performed is no longer there.