On Saturday 20th May 1944, newspapers in Northern Ireland announced that Ulster had hosted an important guest. Over the prior couple of days, General Dwight D. Eisenhower had visited Ulster. There, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Great Britain inspected United States Army troops.
Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force announced the visit to the press late on 19th May 1944. By then, Eisenhower had been and gone, pleased with what he saw of the troops and the training facilities.
At 1230hrs on 17th May 1944, the brand new B-17 of the Supreme Commander took off from R.A.F. Burtonwood, Lancashire, England. An hour later, it landed at Greencastle Airfield, Kilkeel, Co. Down. There, Eisenhower met with General Stafford LeRoy Irwin.
While in Co. Down, the Supreme Allied Commander inspected troops of 10th Infantry Regiment and Divisional Artillery of 5th (Red Diamond) Infantry Division. The regiment had bases nearby at Ballyedmond Castle, Rostrevor, Co. Down, and in the towns of Kilkeel and Newcastle, Co. Down.
A document by Lieutenant Colonel James Gault referred to the Greencastle inspection:
This was a very impressive ceremony. It would be difficult to see a more uniformly well-turned out and fit looking body of men.
From this inspection, Eisenhower travelled onward to Newcastle, Co. Down. There he inspected an Amphibious School and 28th Infantry Field Battalion. At nearby Dundrum, Co. Down, the Supreme Commander observed a simulated attack by an infantry battalion with support from a tank platoon. The last stop in the county was at Ballykinler, Co. Down where small unit training took place in front of the Supreme Allied Commander.
The U.S. Army General then drove to the Headquarters of XV Corps at Brownlow House, Lurgan, Co. Armagh. There he dined with General Stafford LeRoy Irwin, General William Claude McMahon, and Alan Cunningham, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland. Documents relating to Eisenhower’s visit to Northern Ireland remained classified until September 1970.
On 18th May 1944, General William Claude McMahon travelled with Eisenhower to inspect 8th Infantry Division in Co. Fermanagh and Co. Tyrone. An early stop was to the camp at Celtic Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. There, Eisenhower and McMahon addressed soldiers of 28th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division. Having spoken to the soldiers who were preparing for the invasion of Normandy, he made his way by foot across the road to the camp at Breandrum.
General Eisenhower then continued on to Castle Coole where he observed more troops in training before enjoying lunch at the Royal Hotel, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh.
At Portora School, Eisenhower reviewed around 2,000 troops of 28th Infantry Division on the playing fields. As with all the General’s visits on this tour of Northern Ireland, the stop was brief, lasting only around 25 minutes. In 2009, Vice Principal Robert Northridge confirmed the school held a copy of a letter of thanks from the American General. In the years following, the school renamed their sporting facilities to the Eisenhower Playing Fields in honour of the historic occasion.
In 1944, Mr. Ed Rowelette was on the teaching staff of the well-known Co. Fermanagh school. He recalled watching Eisenhower’s arrival along Derrygonnelly Road from a vantage point on the hill above the old Gloucester House.
I remember him passing the Portora gate and of course, it was very well protected. Everyone was forbidden from going near the pitches themselves. The Headmaster, Ian Stuart, thought he would show off his important position and went down to the back hill, dressed in his academic gown. But he was stopped by the military police and sent back with his tail between his legs. The security was tremendous; we just couldn’t get near it.
In 2009, former pupil Ian Scales recalled his father – Captain Henry Scales’ involvement in the visit.
Dad was more closely involved than he intended to be. He had set up a field exercise, not knowing that Eisenhower was coming – they were not telling people. His lads were approaching the hedge along the top when the military police stood up and confronted them with unusable guns. They were creeping towards Eisenhower and were lucky nobody got shot. Dad stood up and said; “Look, we didn’t know. Sorry, we’ll back off”, which they duly did.
Records suggest other inspections took place at Florence Court, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, Carrickawick, Co. Fermanagh, and Gortin, Co. Tyrone.
The next stop on the Supreme Commander’s itinerary was Bangor, Co. Down. There, he inspected the crew of U.S.S. Quincy in Belfast Lough. Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk (Commander Western Task Force), Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo (Commander of Task Force 129), Admiral H.L. Bevan (Flag Officer in Command Northern Ireland), and Major General Hastings accompanied Eisenhower during his visit to several vessels in the Bangor area.
The deck logs on U.S.S. Quincy tell of Eisenhower’s visit on 19th May 1944. He boarded at 1020hrs and the inspection lasted just over an hour. Afterward, officers and crew assembled and the General gave a brief address.
Officers and men of the Quincy, I am proud to be on this ship today. I have been in the European area for a year and a half and during that period I have been on British men-of-war several times where I have been received with greatest courtesy and expressions of goodwill. Although I enjoyed those visits, I have looked forward with eagerness to the time when I could be on board one of the warships of our own fleet. Today I have that opportunity for the first time. I am more than proud to visit your magnificent ship.
Perhaps you would like to know something about our operations in the Mediterranean, at least insofar as combined operations are concerned. Each branch of the service knows what it could do, but the army and the air force have found that they could not get along without the navy. We had discovered that each branch reaches maximum efficiency when cooperating with the others. The army and the air force are more than glad to have the navy on the team, and we know the navy is glad to be part of it.
I congratulate you again on this magnificent ship. As I walked her decks today, I found myself wishing that I had earlier in my career decided to follow the sea. I am looking forward to the day when we can be together again and have a big party in some port deep in the Baltic or North Sea – some port which the enemy now claims his own. Good luck to you all.
Later the same day, Kirk and Deyo accompanied Eisenhower on board U.S.S. Tuscaloosa where he gave another address. The vessels gathered in Belfast Lough off the coast of Bangor, Co. Down would soon be on their way to Normandy. Eisenhower and his accompanying Admirals circled U.S.S. Arkansas and U.S.S. Nevada on board U.S.S. Baldwin before the General gave one final address to the crew of U.S.S. Texas. Back on shore, he observed military exercises at Ballyholme Bay.
The visit of General Eisenhower to Bangor, Co. Down in 1944 made a lasting impact on the town. In 2005, the General’s granddaughter Mary Jean Eisenhower visited for a ceremony to rename the North Pier in honour of her grandfather.
The final stop in Northern Ireland on this visit for General Eisenhower was Ballyhalbert Airfield, Co. Down. He departed from there in the evening bound for R.A.F. Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, England.
The intensive training of service personnel of the United States Army did not halt during the visit. Eisenhower carried out informal inspections with no parades, no speeches, and no guards of honour. Training took precedence over formal ceremony and the General met and talked with small groups of both air and land forces. They discussed the training, discipline, and wellbeing of the troops. Eisenhower even enquired about the food in the camps.
At one training ground, Eisenhower paused to chat with a GI sporting a black eye. When asked how he got it, the American soldier stated: “I was talking when I should have been listening”.
News of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to Northern Ireland would boost morale among members of the U.S. forces as well as locals.
The visit stresses once again the importance of the Province as an Allied base. Here, as in other parts of the United Kingdom, many men have trained for the vital days ahead. Ulster has been proud to place every facility at their disposal. Ulster’s best wishes – and Ulster’s weapons – will go with them.
Before departing Ulster, Eisenhower dined with Brigadier General Leroy P. Collins (Commanding General Northern Ireland Base Section) and other high ranking officers. After a whistlestop visit to Northern Ireland, the American General returned to London. As preparations for the Normandy invasion gathered pace, Eisenhower would not forget the role played by Ulster.