American troops arrive in Northern Ireland

On 26th January 1942, Private First Class Milburn H Henke became the first American GI on European soil in World War Two but is this story all it seems?

On 10th January a convoy of American vessels departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two weeks later, on 24th January, convoy NA-1 arrived at Lough Foyle, Co. Londonderry.

Two large transport craft full of US troops detached from the main convoy. On 26th January 1942, the Strathaird and the Chateau Thierry made for Belfast Lough and dropped anchor in Bangor Bay.

For smaller tenders left the docks in Belfast at the same time. The Canterbury, the Princess Maud, the Maid of Orleans and the Royal Daffodil arrived in Bangor to pick up their cargo. Soon they returned to Belfast’s Pollock Dock and Dufferin Dock laden with American troops.

A distinguished group awaited at Dufferin Dock. Mr JM Andrews (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland), The Duke of Abercorn (Governor of Northern Ireland), Sir Archibald Sinclair (Secretary of State for Air) stood alongside the heads of the armed services. This was a momentous occasion. This dockside in Belfast would see the official arrival of the first US troops to the European Theatre of Operations.

It was there the dignitaries extended an official greeting to Major General Russel P Hartle. Hartle was Acting Commander of the United States Army Northern Ireland Force (USANIF). The following year, the Duke of Abercorn unveiled a stone column commemorating the event. This still stands in the grounds of Belfast’s City Hall.

US Army Remembered in Belfast

The first wave of US army troops arrived in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 26th January 1942. The event is commemorated still on a stone monument to the front of City Hall. Photo taken on 15th April 2016. Copyright Scott Edgar – World War Two Northern Ireland.

The arrival of Milburn H Henke

As the gangplank of one of the tenders lowered, the band of the Royal Ulster Rifles struck up The Star Spangled Banner. A young man smiled with some nerves as he stepped ashore. That man was Private First Class Milburn H Henke of Hutchinson, Minnesota, USA. Official reports would remember Henke as the first American GI to set foot on European soil.

This, of course, was untrue for several reasons. First, the tender vessels arriving at Pollock Dock had already offloaded their troops. Without pomp or ceremony, several hundred Americans had already landed. Several hundred uniformed GIs marched past the welcoming party as Private First Class Henke landed.

Unknown to most in January 1942, was that the American military had been operating in Northern Ireland for some time. It was no accident that this part of the United Kingdom saw the arrival of these convoys of American troops.

Undercover Operations

Since the fall of France, Northern Ireland had become vital for transatlantic movement. Allied shipping travelled around Ireland’s north coast. Defence was essential as the Battle of the Atlantic intensified.

In late December 1941, President Roosevelt hosted Winston Churchill in Washington, DC. There, the first phases of Operation Magnet were drawn up. One of the conclusions from this meeting was that US troops would take over defence of Northern Ireland. In effect, this was signing a deal that had been a long time in the making.

Months earlier, the United States of America was a neutral entity in World War Two. Despite neutrality, they wished to protect their American convoys and lend-lease agreements. If America was to enter the war they would need adequate air and sea bases from which to operate. Northern Ireland was the ideal location. In March 1941, Britain agreed to permit the USA use of naval bases in Londonderry and on Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh.

American bases established in Londonderry and Fermanagh

The US government was responsible for their construction. US contractors under the supervision of US engineers completed the work. In the event of America entering the conflict, these bases would operate under full United States control.

In June 1941, 362 American “technicians” arrived in secret and work commenced in Londonderry. They were of course military engineers rather than civilian and by October the number reached almost 1,000. In December 1941, the US entered World War Two. By then, work on the Northern Irish bases was almost complete.

Military camps sprung up across Londonderry at Lisahally, Beech Hill, Springtown and Clooney Park. A magazine was set up at Fincairn Glen and a field hospital at the border at Creevagh.

In the south-west of the country, Fermanagh readied itself for the arrival of the Americans too. Ely Lodge became a base, as did Killadeas. An ammunition depot was set up in Kiltierney Deer Park and a military hospital at Necarne Castle.

By the time Milburn H Henke stepped ashore in Belfast in January 1942, Northern Ireland was more than ready to welcome its American guests.