Americans Abroad: US Troops in County Down during the Second World War

The stars and stripes flies on the battlefield as the GIs advance at the 2016 GI Jive Festival in Kilkeel, Co. Down. Photo taken on 30th July 2016.

The stars and stripes flies on the battlefield as the GIs advance at the 2016 GI Jive Festival in Kilkeel, Co. Down. Photo taken on 30th July 2016.

Many of our guests here at Dufferin Coaching Inn, coming from both near and far, are fascinated by the rich history that Killyleagh and its surrounding areas have to offer. From tracing their family’s lineage, to setting their sights on one of Ireland’s oldest inhabited castles and uncovering local links to World War Two, Killyleagh is the perfect setting for any history buff.

Delving further into the latter, known as one of the most destructive global conflicts in history, we caught up with Scott Edgar of Wartime NI who gave us a special insight into American soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland during that time, including interesting snippets of their thoughts on our ‘wonderful’ climate and local hospitality!

Northern Ireland has long been a favourite holiday destination with American visitors. County Down in particular, with its ocean views, rolling hills, and unspoilt scenery, draws tourists from across the world. In May 1942, Americans arrived en masse in County Down, but their visit was more for duty than pleasure.

American GIs on a training exercise somewhere in Northern Ireland in the snow of late winter 1942. Copyright unknown. Photo from Irish Central.

American GIs on a training exercise somewhere in Northern Ireland in the snow of late winter 1942. Copyright unknown. Photo from Irish Central.

"The Old Ironsides" - 1st Armored Division of the US Army - arrived in County Down in May 1942. They sailed on board the Cunard liner Queen Mary on 10th May 1942, making the journey from New York City to Belfast via Greenock. Under the command of Major General Orlando Ward, they set up their headquarters at Castlewellan Castle. Other elements of the division set up at Ballykinler, Downpatrick Racecourse, Downpatrick Gaol, Newcastle, Tollymore Forest, Dundrum, and Spa.

Before their arrival, each member of the US military received a pocket guidebook explaining the people, culture, and history of Northern Ireland along with tips on how to behave and interact with the locals. It even included weather warnings:

Washington County Free Library Photo WCRH019. Part of the General Russell P Hartle Collection. An American GI struggles to make head nor tail of British currency after the US Army’s first payday in Northern Ireland. Photo taken on 16th March 1942. Copyright United States Signal Corps.

Washington County Free Library Photo WCRH019. Part of the General Russell P Hartle Collection. An American GI struggles to make head nor tail of British currency after the US Army’s first payday in Northern Ireland. Photo taken on 16th March 1942. Copyright United States Signal Corps.

“First off you may not like the Irish climate. It is damp, chilly, rainy. If you are from the Southwest or from Cali­fornia you may find yourself homesick for sunshine. The sun is only an occasional visitor in Ireland; there are about 200 rainy days a year. The rains, however, come usually as gentle drizzles, not as thundershowers.

It may be news to you that Ireland is farther north than the United States. For this reason the day is very short in winter and long in summer. In late June and July there is little darkness and you will be able to read a newspaper at 9 o’clock at night. In late December daylight lasts less than 7 hours, and darkness closes in by mid-afternoon.”

In the weeks and months following their arrival, locals in County Down grew accustomed to the sights and sounds of tanks, jeeps, and half-track trucks on their roads and in their fields. Thousands of troops spent their days in Northern Ireland preparing to enter World War Two. A common misconception in Ulster is that all the US Army based in the country were bound for D-Day in Normandy. North Africa, however, was the destination for 1st Armored Division.

Along with the excitement and drama of war, the American military introduced rural Irish communities to chewing gum, coffee, and the big band sounds of Glenn Miller.

As the pocket guidebook explained, the locals responded with a good cup of tea:

“Ulster is a most hospitable place. If you pause at a farmer’s house, you are likely to be invited in for a cup of tea. Tea is now rationed, but recently an American soldier speaking on a short-wave broadcast said he had drunk more tea during his first 2 weeks in Ireland than he had in his whole life before.”

Imperial War Museum Photo: (EA 2304) (Part of the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department (PID) Second World War Photograph Library: Classified Print Collection). First Sergeant Christopher McGuire (centre) and other men of the US 5th Infantry Division listen to an address by Lieutenant General George S Patton while on manoeuvres in Northern Ireland on 30th March 1944.

Imperial War Museum Photo: (EA 2304) (Part of the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department (PID) Second World War Photograph Library: Classified Print Collection). First Sergeant Christopher McGuire (centre) and other men of the US 5th Infantry Division listen to an address by Lieutenant General George S Patton while on manoeuvres in Northern Ireland on 30th March 1944.

1st Armored Division at War

Between October 1942 and December 1942, elements of "The Old Ironsides" began to leave County Down. Locals said fond farewells as the young men departed. By Christmas of 1942, they would be in the heat of battle in Algeria and Tunisia.

The 1st Armored Division played a major role in Operation Torch, the offensive in North Africa leading to a German and Italian surrender on 9th May 1943. From there, it was onwards to Italy, and to the famous beachheads at Anzio on 28th January 1944. Determined German defences including the machine gun "Anzio Annie" pinned the troops down. They fought back and broke out, heading north through the Appenines and on to the Po Valley.

As the men of 1st Armored Division fought and died across Africa and Europe, many young ladies in Ulster awaited news of their return. They had fallen for the good looks, wealth, and charm of the American visitors and the men had been warned in advance with their guidebook stating:

“Irish girls are friendly. They will stop on the country road and pass the time of day. Don’t think, on that account, that they are falling for you in a big way. Quite probably the young lady you’re interested in must ask her family’s per­mission before she can go out with you. In the old days when a girl was seen in the company of a young man more than two or three times, it was as much as announcing an engagement. Or nearly as much. The couple was said to be “clicking,” and the unwritten code demanded that the rest of the girls turn their eyes elsewhere.”

In more recent years, many veterans of 1st Armored Division have revisited County Down. With them, come their families, who hear about life in 1940s Northern Ireland as well as enjoying the wonderful Northern Irish hospitality. Amongst other places, American visitors have visited Ballykinler Camp, Killyleagh, Downpatrick, Castlewellan, Newcastle, Kilkeel, and Dundrum.

"Way back then people were kinda curious about us guys and I guess we were curious about them too."

US Army in County Down: 1942 – 1944

Ballykinler

18th May 1942 - 9th December 1942 13th Armor (less 1st Battalion) (1st Armored Division)
1942 Headquarters Company and Company C, Tank Destroyer Battalion (1st Armored Division)
1942 Service Company (1st Armored Division)
11th June 1942 - 9th December 1942 Maintenance Battalion (less Company A and Company B) (1st Armored Division)
1942 106th Coast Artillery Battalion
11th October 1943 - 8th May 1944 3440th Ordnance Medium Automotive Maintenance Company
October 1943 11th Infantry (5th Infantry Division)
29th November 1943 - 4th July 1944 Depot O-602

Crossgar

1942 Headquarters and Combat Command A (1st Armored Division)
13th June 1942 - 9th December 1942 81st Armored Reconnaissance Battalion (1st Armored Division)
15th September 1942 - 20th October 1942 839th Signal Service Company
17th December 1942 - 22nd November 1943       General Depot G-10-10
23rd November 1943 - August 1944 Quartermaster Depot Q-111C
21st January 1944 - July 1944 Detachment of 106th Signal Inspection and Maintenance Team

Downpatrick

1942 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry (less two Companies) (1st Armored Division)
1942 Company B, Maintenance Battalion (1st Armored Division)

Downpatrick Racecourse

1942 1st Battalion, 1st Armor (1st Armored Division)
1942 Maintenance Company, 1st Armor (1st Armored Division)
1942 Service Company, 1st Armor (1st Armored Division)
1942 Reconnaissance Company, 1st Armor (1st Armored Division)
1942 Company B, Tank Destroyer Battalion (1st Armored Division)

Killough

1942 3rd Battalion, 6th Armored Infantry (1st Armored Division)

Killylea

20th May 1942 - 9th December 1942 68th Armored Field Artillery Battalion (1st Armored Division)

Seaforde House

June 1942 Headquarters, 1st Armor (1st Armored Division)
1942 Supply Battalion (less two Truck Companies) (1st Armored Division)

Seaforde

25th October 1943 5th Reconnaissance Troop, Mechanized (5th Infantry Division)

Shrigley Mills

1942 Company D, 13th Armored Engineer Battalion (1st Armored Division)

 

For more information on Northern Ireland’s links to the Second World War visit Wartime NI online or follow Scott and his team on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.