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16 October 2014
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On two occasions in it's history the city of Londonderry has played a pivotal part in the history of Europe. The first was the ‘great siege’ of 1689 when, over 105 days, the constitutional future of the British Isles and of Europe was decided in and around the city. The second occasion was even more important. In June 1940 the city became a naval base and was destined to become the Allies’ most important escort base in the Battle of the Atlantic. Not only did Europe’s future depend on this base but so also did the political shape of the post-war world.

Had the Allies lost the Battle of the Atlantic, the Nazi domination of Europe could not have been broken and Hitler’s dictatorship would have continued. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic allowed the western Allies to invade Europe and led to the final defeat of Nazism. The naval base at Derry – shared by the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the United States Navy – was vital to the protection of convoys in the Atlantic and, at one time, 140 Allied escort ships were based on the Foyle.

The Diamond, Londonderry

The Diamond, Londonderry
Photo courtesy of Richard Doherty

The service population of the city of Londonderry probably exceeded the pre-war civilian population with over 20,000 Royal Navy personnel, some 10,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders, over 6,000 Americans and men from many of the occupied nations to whom were added the soldiers and airmen defending the city and surrounding area. So important was the base that the Admiralty pressed for anti-aircraft (AA) defences that, proportionately, exceeded any other city in the UK, except London. A massive balloon barrage was added to twenty-eight heavy and twelve light AA guns, which could be supplemented by the firepower of HMS Foxglove, the Royal Navy’s AA guardship, and any ships that might have been in the harbour at the time of a raid.

Marines march out of their Beechill Base. Photo courtesey of US Marines.

Marines march out of their Beechill Base.
Photo courtesy of US Marines.

Hitler’s invasion of Russia saved Derry from destruction in the winter of 1941–2 and the city’s AA defences remained untested. But the civilian population carried on a fairly normal life in spite of rationing and the blackout, the two most obvious signs that a war was on. Indeed an almost surreal social life supervened with dances, social functions at which servicemen were guests and even visits to the skating rink set up by the Canadians. Romances flourished between local girls and servicemen with many marrying sailors from the Royal Navy and the US Navy and some marrying Canadians. A large proportion of children with English fathers at local schools in the 1950s bore testimony to the number of marriages.

Shipquay Street
Shipquay Street
Courtesy of Richard Doherty

While Allied servicemen were stationed in Derry many of the city’s sons and daughters were serving in uniform elsewhere. They served on ships of the Royal Navy from the Arctic to the Pacific, in tank and artillery regiments and infantry battalions of the Army from Norway to Burma and in aircraft of the Royal Air Force in the skies over Europe and farther afield. The largest proportion – over 500 men – served in 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, known as the ‘Derry Boys’, which fought in North Africa, the Sudan, Italy and the UK. Over 250 local men lost their lives on active service, some of them on ships of the Merchant Navy which sustained Britain throughout the war.

2425 Battery L'Derry heavy anti aircraft regiment, Alexandria

2425 Battery L'Derry heavy anti aircraft regiment, Alexandria.
Courtesy of Richard Doherty

While the city was the hub of this activity, outlying areas and other towns were also affected. Two major airfields were built in the vicinity of Limavady, one of which, Ballykelly, continued in RAF use until 1971; both played important parts in the Battle of the Atlantic. Other RAF airfields, at Eglinton and Maydown, were handed over to the Fleet Air Arm in May 1943 and became HMS Gannet and HMS Shrike respectively. These were also key bases in the Battle of the Atlantic with Eglinton playing a training role and Maydown providing the home base for the Fairey Swordfish aircraft that operated from the small aircraft carriers that escorted convoys from 1943 onwards. About 100 Swordfish from two squadrons, one of which was Dutch, were based at Maydown.

Fleet Air Arm, Eglinton. Courtsey of Nat McGlinchey

Fleet Air Arm, Eglinton.
Photo courtesy of Nat McGlinchey

The war years were also years of full employment in the city and the demands of the various bases for workers also provided employment for people from outlying areas. It is believed that about 1,000 individuals from across the border, principally County Donegal, worked in the city’s bases. The presence of the Allied navies on the Foyle had a direct effect on Moville; a tanker was based off the village to refuel escort ships and many sailors came ashore to spend time in the village; it was considered that leaving his hat on his ship meant that a sailor was not in uniform.

Wartime Moville - courtesy of Nat McGlinchey

Wartime Moville
Photo courtesy of Nat McGlinchey

There was much cross-border movement as civilians and service personnel took advantage of the availability of meat, butter and other rationed goods to indulge in a considerable amount of smuggling. Service veterans of those days even recall sending parcels of meat home to their families in Great Britain, or reminisce about the steaks they could have in restaurants across the border where butter was served in ‘dollops’ and not the thin slivers that wartime Britain witnessed.

Sailors on a US Navy Escort Ship. Photo courtesy of Richard Doherty

Although the American service presence was short – from January 1942 until August 1944 – memories of the ‘Yanks’ dominate most accounts of life in the city during the war. In part that was because the Americans were more colourful than their British and Canadian counterparts, had more money to spend than the British servicemen and were, of course, very different. Here was Hollywood come to the streets of a small town. Its people were bound to be impressed by the sights and the sounds of the ‘Yanks’ and the children were treated generously with candy and ice-cream and other treats that were not available in the wartime United Kingdom.

Almost sixty years later, the memories of the ‘Yanks’ are still strong but few citizens realise just how important their city was during the Second World War. Most would be surprised to learn how vital its role was.

Richard Doherty
September 2004

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The Diamond circa 1920

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