Prince Michael of Kent was in Derry on Saturday to pay tribute to the 66,000 Allied merchant seamen, sailors and airmen lost in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The British Royal joined World War II veterans and merchant seamen from a host of nations in the city to mark the 70th anniversary of the ‘Turning of the Tide’ in the Battle of the Atlantic. At the height of the raging sea conflict, Derry was host to up to 20,000 British Navy personnel, 10,000 Canadian and Newfoundlanders, more than 6,000 US personnel as well as many from the Nazi occupied nations.
Prince Michael of Kent laid a wreath at the Diamond War Memorial on Sunday to mark the city’s unique contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic. A special remembrance service was also held at St Columb’s Cathedral.
On Saturday a bronze statue of an international sailor was unveiled in Ebrington Square as part of the commemorations.
The International Sailor statue is a replica of the Mariner statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada and pays tribute to the seamen from the 12 Allied nations who protected shipping convoys and thwarted the Nazi blockade of Britain while trying to evade the U-boat peril. Derry was of vital strategic importance to the battle.
Robert Buchanan, chairman of the Royal Naval Association in Ireland, said, “The weekend events were the culmination of a four year project and the unveiling of the International Sailor at Ebrington Square on Saturday had over 450 people in attendance, including veterans and youth organisations. There was great international support, with representatives from Canada, America Australia, Italy and Norway as well as those from Britain and Ireland.
“His Royal Highness, Prince Michael of Kent, who is the Commodore-in-Chief of the combined Maritime Reserve, was in attendance all weekend and it was befitting that a man of his stature unveiled the statue. The statue marks the end of the convoy across the Atlantic that the battle ships took during World War Two, with a similar statue marking their departure point in position in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
“The Royal Naval Association has been working on the project for over four years, so the weekend was a culmination of that hard work and it was well worth it, especially as it meant so much to the veterans, most of whom are in their late 80’s, early 90’s, and had made the trip over from Canada.
“The BBC also arranged a private viewing for the Canadian veterans of their forthcoming documentary series, ‘Dive WW2, Our Secret History’, which they thoroughly enjoyed.”
Local DUP councillor Gary Middleton said: “It’s good to see that people 70 years on are still commemorating what was a very historic event”.
Colr Middleton said the cathedral service was “jam-packed”.
“There were cadets and ex-servicemen and women from all over the world so it was great,” he said.
“Then when it finished we made our way to Bishop Street where his Royal Highness, Prince Michael of Kent, took the salute from the ex-servicemen and then laid a wreath at the war memorial.”
The Northern Ireland War Memorial was the major funder of the International Sailor statue. Chairman of the NIWM, Lieutenant Colonel, C T Hogg said after the ceremony said the memorial remembers the contribution made by all the people of Northern Ireland during the Second World War and particularly the part played by city.
“Londonderry played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic, which the War Memorial wished to acknowledge by contributing to this magnificent statue.”
The statue is of a sailor carrying his hammock on his right shoulder and kit bag in his left hand. There are, however, no naval insignia, as the statue is intended to reflect the contribution of the seamen from the many Allied nations which protected the shipping convoys during the war.
The statue was created by the distinguished Canadian sculptor Peter Bustin. It was cast in the Tanat Foundry in Oswestry, Wales, and stands on a plinth of granite.
The location of the statue in Ebrington is intended to reflect the vital role which the barracks played as a naval base as part of the HMS Ferret complex. The NIWM has also funded a large bookcase in Beech Hill Hotel to hold the archives of the US Marines who were based in Beech Hill during the war. In addition, the NIWM has published a pamphlet by the military historian, Richard Doherty entitled ‘The Battle of the Atlantic and the River Foyle’.
The pamphlet is graphic account of the Allied defeat of the German U-boat fleet with the author concluding, that “without the Londonderry Escort Base, the story might have been very different, and even more horrendous”.