Derry during the second world war years

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During 1941, precious anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons were sent to Derry to protect it against expected attacks. By the end of the year, the city was, in comparative terms, the most heavily defended in the British Isles.

This factor alone demonstrates the city’s strategic importance - something that is often not appreciated by its own people.

In the initial days of the conflict, war-awareness in the North was significantly less than in other regions of the British Isles. The absence of conscription undoubtedly contributed to this attitude.

In part, it accounts for the fact that, in Derry, while blackout procedures were strictly enforced, many people had not yet been issued with gas masks.

In September, 1940, Hermann Goering assumed supreme command of the German air offensive against Britain. In the following months, London and several other British cities, north and south, were mercilessly blitzed.

In addition, many of the ports in the south of England had been destroyed and, as a result, Derry became an increasingly important naval base.

However, despite Derry’s growing strategic involvement, the city’s only defences against a lethal Luftwaffe in the first months of the war were four anti-aircraft guns and sixteen barrage balloons.

Local fears were confirmed when, in April 1941, Messines Park, in Pennyburn, was bombed, resulting in the single most tragic episode of the war years in Derry.

A couple of rotten wooden jetties crumbling into the river Foyle at Lisahally are among the few remaining indications of Derry’s crucial role in World War II.

Such was the scale of the war effort in Derry that it became not only the largest convoy base in the British Isles but also the main American communications base in Europe.

With the onset of war in September 1939, safety measures were immediately put into operation in Derry.

Densely populated areas were at risk from anticipated night-time air-raids and Derry’s heavy naval presence made the city a particularly attractive target.

The blackout procedure had to be strictly observed. No streetlights burned, no familiar signs or clockfaces were visible. In every home, the light burning within had to be concealed.

Some residents draped their windows with heavy black cloth - others used sheets of black paper attached to strips of wood that fitted into the window frame.

Air-raid precaution (ARP) regulations were taken very seriously in the early months of the war, when even lighting a cigarette in the street was considered an offence.

White bands were painted on lampposts, pillar boxes and tree trunks to prevent people running into them.

Rationing was another wartime necessity for the civilian population. Everyone was issued with a monthly ration book containing coupons. Two coupons were allocated for meat per person per week, with one coupon for sugar, butter, cooking oil,

bacon and ham per week.

Due to its location on the border, Derry was an important wartime centre for smuggling items such as meat, butter and sugar which were plentiful in the Republic.

Nearly everyone had some sort of involvement in smuggling. Every trick in the book was used to try to fool the customs.

While the United States didn’t enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, a large contingent of US servicemen and technicians had arrived unannounced in the North more than five months earlier when the US was officially still neutral.

Evidently the US administration had an anticipated involvement in the war and construction of military camps at Springtown, Creevagh and Clooney was well underway by the time Roosevelt officially declared war on the Axis forces.

Preparations for the war actually began on June 30, 1941, when 400 US technicians sailed into Derry to lay the groundwork for the arrival of the US Navy.

The “Yanks” were only part of the multinational military melting pot that was Derry during WWII. Free French, Dutch, Norwegians, Canadians and Russians all had a presence in the city during the war.

Sometimes rivalry between the different groups erupted in violence.

However, relations between the US troops and the local female population were much more amicable. Local women often found themselves showered with gifts from GIs who had easy access to such “luxuries” as cigarettes, sweets and the all-important nylon stockings.

Not surprisingly, however, Derry’s proud male population was none too pleased at this added and, at times, grossly unfair competition for the affections of the city’s womenfolk.

To maintain good relations between the Derry population and the US forces, assessors were appointed to pay compensation to local people whose property had been damaged by the high-spirited and often rowdy Yanks.

These men would quietly approach the owner of the premises and generously cover the expenses, perhaps of a broken window or damage done to a bar during a fight.

Throughout the war years, statesmen, military dignitaries and film stars visited troops stationed around the world. These appearances boosted morale among the soldiers and encouraged the local population to maintain the war effort.

The huge naval presence in Derry attracted several notable visitors - Eleanor Roosevelt, the Mountbattens, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and from the entertainment world, Bob Hope, Merle Oberon and Al Jolson among others.

On the afternoon of May 7, 1945, business life in Derry’s city centre ground to a halt as hundreds of people congregated at Guildhall Square. A ship’s loud speaker was erected to relay Churchill’s official announcement that Germany had surrendered unconditionally and that the war was finally over.

The declaration was followed by a fanfare of sirens, ships’ horns and church bells amid the cheering of an elated crowd.

As news of Germany’s surrender was released, all U-boats at sea were instructed by Admiral Donitz, who succeeded Hitler as German Head of State, to surface, report their positions and fly black flags. They were then escorted by British, US and Canadian warships to designated ports.

During the following day, a total of 43 German warships docked at Lisahally.

Although there was genuine relief that the war had ended, for many people this was mixed with a real concern for the future.

These fears were well-founded as the city quickly slipped back into the economically-depressed state that had characterised it in the pre-war years.