General Eisenhower inspects US Army Infantry and Airborne troops in Northern Ireland

Between 17th-19th May 1944, General Dwight D Eisenhower visited Northern Ireland to inspect Infantry and Airborne troops as they prepared for Normandy.

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 Northern Ireland. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Great Britain inspected US 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.

US Army Camp at Ballyedmund, Co. Down

Newry and Mourne Museum Photo: United States Army Nissen Huts at a training camp in the gounds of Ballyedmund Castle, Rostrevor, Co. Down. This camp housed troops of 10th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division, United States Army in 1943-1944. Copyright Newry and Mourne Museum.

17th May 1944

On 17th May 1944, the brand new B-17 of the Supreme Commander landed at Greencastle Airfield, Kilkeel, Co. Down. The crew took off from RAF Burtonwood, Lancashire at 1230hrs. An hour later, the plane touched down in Co. Down. There, he met with General Stafford LeRoy Irwin. While in Co. Down, Eisenhower inspected troops of 10th Infantry Regiment and Divisional Artillery. These US Army GIs were part of 5th 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 US 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.

Brownlow House, Lurgan, Co. Armagh

Brownlow House overlooks the public park in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. During the Second World War, it was a headquarters of the United States Army as they prepared for war. Photo taken at Brownlow House, Lurgan, Co. Armagh on Saturday 22nd September 2018. Copyright Scott Edgar - WartimeNI.

18th May 1944

On 18th May 1944, 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 met with General William Claude McMahon and 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.

Silent video footage made available by the US Army Heritage and Education Center shows Eisenhower on the visit. He stops briefly to inspect the uniform and respirator of a soldier before watching troops on the rifle range. The General 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 school 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.

Eisenhower in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh

General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Great Britain inspects US Army troops from an Infantry Division at Celtic Park, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. Copyright unknown.

19th May 1944

The next stop on the Supreme Commander’s itinerary was Bangor, Co. Down. There, he inspected the crew of USS Quincy, docked in Belfast Lough. Rear Admiral Alan G Kirk (Commander Western Task Force), Rear Admiral Morton L Deyo (Commander of Task Force 129), Admiral HL 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 USS 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.

General Dwight D Eisenhower on the USS Quincy – 19th May 1944.

Later the same day, Kirk, and Deyo accompanied Eisenhower on board USS 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 USS Arkansas and USS Nevada on board USS Baldwin before the General gave one final address to the crew of USS Texas. Back on shore, he observed military exercises on the shore 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 Bangor, Co. Down for a ceremony to rename the North Pier in honour of her grandfather.

Mosaic on the Eisenhower Pier

WartimeNI Photo: On the Eisenhower Pier, Bangor, Co. Down, a mosaic mural remembers the events of May 1944 as the US Navy prepared for D-Day in and around Belfast Lough. Photo taken in February 2014. Copyright Scott Edgar - WartimeNI.

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 RAF Bovingdon, Hertfordshire.

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 US 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.

The Northern Whig, Saturday 20th May 1944.

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.