A Wee Bit Of War returns for a second series. We've recently returned from We Have Ways Fest, where we met lots of new friends and answered lots of questions about the Second World War in Northern Ireland. After twenty episodes of the podcast, we thought it was now time to answer some of our most frequently asked queries. So, here is an overview of wartime life in Ulster including life during the Belfast Blitz, American GIs, the on and off-pitch heroics of Paddy Mayne, and H.M.S. Caroline.
Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode we are kicking off what we’re calling Series 2 of the podcast. We had never planned to do series but then again, I never thought, we’d still be going after 20 episodes.
Earlier this month, we attended We Have Ways Fest, run by historian James Holland and comedian Al Murray, a three-day festival of talks, reenactments, military hardware, and real ale. We met lots of people keen to chat about all things Second World War in Northern Ireland. By way of breaking into series 2, we’re going to use those conversations as a base to give you an introduction into wartime life in Ulster, covering five things that people wanted to know more about. So, here in no particular order are the five most frequently asked questions from the festival.
The short answer would be ‘What wasn’t Northern Ireland’s role in the Second World War?’ But to first address the elephant in the room. Most listeners will know this but there’s always someone who doesn’t. During the Second World, and still at time of recording, Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. While neighbouring Ireland – often referred to as Éire – was neutral, Northern Ireland along with Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Therefore, from 3rd September 1939, Northern Ireland was at war.
That day, Northern Ireland was plunged into blackout conditions. Textile businesses in every town and village began advertising blackout fabrics. Once purchased, home and business owners affixed to their windows. Accidents were much more commonplace, especially in the winter. William Moulds, a veteran of The Great War and a member of the Local Defence Volunteers died as a result of a traffic collision in 1940.
Along with the blackout came the introduction of rationing. Food items, petrol, clothing… The purchase of many items was restricted although Northern Ireland fared better than some other places in the U.K. as it was predominantly an agricultural landscape. Dairy products and eggs were easier to get hold of in rural areas, and of course, it was only a short journey – although an illegal one – across the border to Ireland for black market goods.
Farming in Northern Ireland remained a thriving industry. In fact, some farms, particularly those involved in the growing of flax increased in size. In consecutive years, help was sought from the British Army for help in bringing in the harvest, such was its size. Not all farms thrived, however, and some found themselves victims of requisitioning as military bases and airfields began to spring up.
One of the largest industries in wartime Northern Ireland was shipbuilding. By the Second World War, only one major shipyard remained in Belfast, that of Harland and Wolff, most famous for the building of R.M.S. Titanic. But many more impressive vessels rolled off the slipways in east Belfast, from little ships used in the evacuation of Dunkirk to landing craft used during the Allied invasion of Normandy. And, of course, H.M.S. Belfast but that’s a story for another podcast.
On Queen’s Island, close to the shipyard was the main aircraft manufacturing plant of Short Brothers. You may remember hearing how both industries formed wartime ice hockey teams back in Episode 20 of the podcast. When not on the ice, however, workers at Shorts were rolling out vast numbers of aircraft including the Sunderland flying boat and the Stirling bomber.
If you’re making a lot of ships, you’re going to need a lot of rope. Gustav Wolff, of Harland and Wolff, was also a director of the Belfast Rope Works. By the time of the Second World War, this site – now home to Connswater Shopping Centre in east Belfast – was the largest ropeworks anywhere in the world. The linen industry too saw something of a revival in wartime with Ulster linen used for millions of uniforms, parachutes, and the fabric coverings on the famed Hawker Hurricane fighter plane.
Societal changes were afoot across the world in wartime. Northern Ireland was no different and one major change saw an influx of women into workforces. Factories and mills that once served in other industries were given over to war work including the assembly of vehicles and the production of munitions. In Portadown, Co. Armagh, in one such factory worked my grandmother who often claimed she made the bullets and my grandfather fired them.
People’s stories are for me the most interesting aspect of this period. And across Northern Ireland, people arrived from around the world. In Millisle, Co. Down a farm was purchased by the Belfast Jewish Community with the aim of resettling Jewish people fleeing occupied Europe. Several hundred young people found a safe haven there from 1938, and following V.E. Day, orphaned survivors of concentration camps rehabilitated by the Northern Irish coast. Among them was Rachel Levy, who we had the great privilege of speaking to back in Episode 02 of the podcast.
In Co. Down, Co. Antrim, and Co. Londonderry from 1944, evacuees began to arrive from Gibraltar. Distinct from refugees, these were not people fleeing combat but rather those evicted from The Rock by the British military establishing a garrison there. Several thousand evacuees lived in tin huts that had recently housed American GIs and while the locals offered a warm welcome to their new neighbours, the weather was less to their liking.
Perhaps not many listeners are well-acquainted with the Belgian infantry, however, the new army reformed after 1945 all bore a shamrock on their crests. This was a nod to Northern Ireland where 5 brigades formed and trained in the aftermath of the Second World War, at first wearing hand-me-down British uniforms as their country began its post-war recovery after occupation.
In the latter days of the Second World War, German boots walked on Northern Irish soil. These men were prisoners of war, captured by Allied forces and brought to Ulster to be held in camps. Around 13,000 P.O.Ws came to Northern Ireland. Camps were mostly in more rural areas, occupying former military camps. Some Germans died in Ulster and were buried in Belfast. Others staged daring escape plots. You can find out more about them in episode 11 of the podcast.
The military camps occupied by German and – in some cases – Italian prisoners of war had seen use usually by both British and American forces. British Troops in Northern Ireland served in a defensive role but were gradually replaced by Americans from January 1942. Camps usually took the form of Nissen huts in areas well-suited for the transport of men, and the training thereof. Officers mostly stayed in large houses and stately homes.
There were airfields too in Northern Ireland. Despite its small size, there were more than twenty of them operational at times throughout the Second World War. In fact, only Co. Armagh did not have a dedicated airfield in use by either the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, or United States Army Air Force. The remnants of many airfields remain today and some in Belfast, Derry~Londonderry, and Co. Antrim remain in use as civilian airports.
Northern Ireland’s key strategic position on the Atlantic Ocean made it an ideal base for Allied navies. Both the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy operated from Belfast and Derry~Londonderry. The latter was such a key port in the Battle of the Atlantic that it was there where many U-Boats met their ultimate fate, scuttled during Operation DEADLIGHT after the Kriegsmarine surrender.
In a moment or two, I’ll talk more about the Belfast Blitz but for now, it’s important to know that the city wasn’t the only Luftwaffe target during the Second World War. In fact, the first bombs to fall on Ulster hit the coastal town – now city – of Bangor, Co. Down. A lone Luftwaffe bomber attacked on 13th September 1940 causing damage to houses and businesses having diverted from an unsuccessful raid on shipping targets.
Newtownards too fell victim to Luftwaffe bombs. The war diary of 7th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers describes the events:
At 2255hrs the siren was sounded. At 2330hrs, explosions heard from the area beyond Scrabo Tower became progressively louder, and by midnight enemy planes were dropping a large number of parachute flares and incendiary bombs on Scrabo Hill and the vicinity of the aerodrome. The whole town was now brightly illuminated and the H.E. was dropped. The enemy planes made off at approximately 0330hrs. Our fighters were in action, but only two or three A.A. shells were fired in the neighbourhood of Newtownards. The All Clear was sounded at about 0500hrs.
The Luftwaffe also attacked the strategically important city of Derry~Londonderry. A pair of parachute mines caused death and destruction in Messines Park in the city, perhaps intended to fall closer to the port and docks area on the River Foyle.
Luftwaffe bombs did not discriminate, falling on both Unionist and Nationalist dominated areas in the towns and cities that came under attack. While Northern Ireland remained segregated in terms of religion and politics as it does to an extent today, black American soldiers found it refreshing that no colour bar was in place when they arrived in 1942. It would be white American officers that caused the most problems in this area.
By now, you will, of course, realise the short answer to this question is yes, there were certainly American GIs in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. In fact, around 300,000 men and women from the United States of America passed through Ulster on their way to North Africa and Normandy and onwards. In previous episodes of this podcast, we have looked in depth at the experiences of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland, as well as the formation of the 1st U.S. Ranger Battalion in the coastal Co. Antrim town of Carrickfergus. The first Americans to arrive were not, in fact, soldiers but civilian technicians. Even before the United States officially entered the Second World War, technicians worked alongside their Northern Irish equivalents constructing military facilities. These included ports, docks, and airfields. Other Americans trained British airmen in the use of lend-lease aircraft such as the Catalina. One such person was Leonard “Tuck” Smith, who while on a training flight from Co. Fermanagh spotted the German vessel Bismarck alerting the Royal Navy to the battleship’s location. While kept secret at the time, Tuck Smith’s actions later earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
It was 26th January 1942 when the first GIs arrived officially in Belfast as part of MAGNET Force. The first official soldier to step ashore was Private First Class Milburn Henke from Hutchinson, Minnesota. In reality, there were probably several hundred GIs on the docks in Belfast but as far as the world’s media was concerned, the smiling all-American – though of German ancestry – Henke was the first man in the European Theater of Operations. Around 4,000 troops had made the 11-day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, most part of 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division. As well as infantry, field artillery, and signals, there were American nurses, and even some members of the British Forces. Some were returning from distant battlefronts, or making their way home after surviving the loss of a ship in the Battle of the Atlantic. En route, the Americans and British mixed. The Americans found out a little about the ways of life in the United Kingdom; about the girls, the food, the weather, and the ways of the British Army. It did not take them long to learn about the weather. On arrival, Belfast was cold and grey. It was winter, and soon Americans learned saying such as “if you can’t see Cavehill, it’s raining; and if you can see Cavehill, it’s about to rain”.
Back in episode 3 of the podcast, we spoke at length to Dr. Simon Topping about the experiences of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland. For the most part, it was a positive time in their military careers. Those who served in Northern Ireland were mainly in quartermaster regiments, cooking, providing transport, carrying out the logistical work that keeps an army on the move. More than that, though, for many it was the first time in their lives they felt treated as equals. There were some negative stories. Private William C. Jenkins was killed as racial tensions boiled over in the streets of Antrim. In Belfast, a black soldier named Wiley Harris fatally stabbed a local pimp in a dispute over payment in an air raid shelter in the Sailortown area of the city. Overall, however, the experience of black American soldiers in Northern Ireland was a good one. One letter-writer noted the warm welcome received in Carrickfergus while others delighted at being called ‘sir’ or made for the first time to feel like an equal American.
It wasn’t just American soldiers based in Northern Ireland between 1942 and 1944. The newspapers of the time took great delight in reporting on the arrival of American women serving as nurses who arrived on board the ships, daringly wearing slacks for their comfort. The second largest contingent of American forces, however, was the United States Army Air Force who operated from a number of airfields across Ulster. Most notable were the airfields at Toome and at Cluntoe. Today, it is still possible to view some of the outbuildings, parts of perimeter tracking, and even segments of the runways of these airfields. They cover a large area and it is an indication of the number of airmen and ground crew who served at the time. Many of the Americans formed Combat Crew Replacement Centres where they trained in flying as well as other aspects of the role such as navigation and gunnery before going on to serve in the 8th and 9th Air Forces in Europe. Many of those taking part in training exercises but also some on ferry flights from the United States died while on service in Northern Ireland. Their burials initially took place in an American military cemetery in the hills overlooking east Belfast.
The original burial ground for U.S. troops in Belfast was a 1/6th of an acre plot in Belfast City Cemetery. This was in use from 12th March 1942 until 7th October 1942 by which time it had already reached capacity. The Lisnabreeny American Cemetery in Castlereagh occupied a 10.5-acre site. After Belfast City Cemetery reached capacity, the new site opened in December 1943. Lisnabreeny was the final resting place for a total of 147 service personnel. Of those, 41 were reinterred from Belfast City Cemetery between 23rd May and 1st June 1944. Access to the cemetery was through a red brick entrance with cast iron gates that still stand today. A white gravel path lined with cherry trees lead to a mast where the Stars and Stripes was daily hoisted. Graves lay in rows of 25 with crosses and Stars of David marking religious affiliation. Name, rank, and date of death marked each gravestone. In 1948, the US Government exhumed and repatriated all men buried at Lisnabreeny. Reburial took place in each man’s hometown or at the American Cemetery in Cambridge, UK. The site closed down and the US military decommissioned Lisnabreeny later the same year.
To this day, only one U.S. Army unit has been activated outside of the United States of America. That’s 1st U.S. Ranger Battalion formed in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim on 19th June 1942. U.S. Army Captain William Orlando Darby became the commanding officer of the new battalion. He had been in Northern Ireland since the first U.S. troops arrived and during that time, he developed an interest in the British Commando units and their tactics. He was a graduate of West Point Military Academy and already an experienced commander. With an impeccable record and experience in amphibious training, he was an ideal choice. Over 1,500 men across the U.S. Army in Northern Ireland volunteered for the new Rangers battalion. A rigorous selection process took place at Sunnylands Camp on the outskirts of Carrickfergus. By the end of this process, Darby had hand-picked 600 men, over 80% of whom came from 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division. Soon after activation, the battalion traveled to Achnacarry, Scotland to train with British Commandos. After training under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan, around 500 of Darby’s men made the grade. Only 87 of those 500 men would survive the war.
The Americans who spent a brief time in Northern Ireland, some for only weeks or months, left a lasting impact on the people and places. The former cemetery at Lisnabreeny is now home to a beautiful granite obelisk, listing the names of all those who were once buried there. There are, however, other memorials across Northern Ireland and not just the reminisces of the descendants of those who met and made friends with the Americans. In Enniskillen and Bangor, rugby playing fields and a pier now bear the name of Eisenhower. The former headquarters of XV Corps at Brownlow House in Lurgan, Co. Armagh now houses a wonderful museum full of artefacts from the time including a 48-star U.S. flag, another of which hangs in Belfast Cathedral. The activation of Darby’s Rangers is recalled at a visitor’s centre in Carrickfergus and for those who only have time to visit Belfast, there are memorials at both Belfast Zoo and Belfast City Hall, the former to the crew of a B-17 bomber that crashed on the slopes of Cavehill in 1944, the latter to commemorate all those from the U.S. Forces based in Northern Ireland.
The Luftwaffe attacks on Northern Ireland, known as the Belfast Blitz are also to the fore of people’s memories when it comes to the Second World War in Northern Ireland. Over the course of four nights in April and May 1941, German Heinkels and Dorniers dropped hundreds of thousands of high explosives bombs, incendiary bombs, and parachute mines on the city of Belfast. As mentioned earlier, other towns and cities also felt some of the force of these devastating attacks. Bombs caused the most damage to the north and east of the city where industrial targets stood cheek by jowl with terraces of working-class housing. Some streets were wiped from the map. In other areas, wasteland still remains where housing once stood. Across the city, you will now find memorial plaques marking the sites of some of the worst attacks as well as the locations of temporary morgues. For many outside of Northern Ireland, the Blitz may only conjure up images of 1940s London. However, with almost 1,000 people killed and over 50% of the housing stock of the city wiped out, the blitz on Belfast was not something locals would forget in a hurry.
Although Northern Ireland had been at war along with the rest of the United Kingdom since 3rd September 1939, the early years were very much those of the phoney war. In Belfast and the surrounding areas, there was a notion that the war was something happening elsewhere. Diarists described the city as pleasant and remarked at the laid-back way of life where lunches would last hours and people would lounge on the grass lawns of the city hall. Government rhetoric was that Ulster would remain loyal to Great Britain in its time of need. Public rhetoric was that it’ll never happen here. The shared notion of both was that Northern Ireland lay too far away from mainland Europe for Luftwaffe bombers to reach. While at first, this may have had an element of truth, all that would chance with the fall of France, the low countries, and Norway in 1940. From all three newly occupied areas, Belfast, Derry~Londonderry and other key targets in Northern Ireland were within easy reach. The first reconnaissance flights by Luftwaffe planes over Ulster were noted as early as November 1940.
On 5th April 1941, a Luftwaffe briefing took place at an airfield in Cambrai in northern France. Among the targets outlined and crudely drawn in sand was Belfast. Two nights later on 7th-8th April 1941, over 500 planes took off from France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Norway. Poor weather saw crews head off in search of secondary targets including Belfast. Conditions over the city were near perfect for a bombing run. Royal Navy reports suggest that small groups of less than 8 Heinkel bombers attacked the city in 7 distinct assaults lead by Pathfinder Kampfgruppe 26. R.A.F. No. 968 Barrage Balloon Squadron reported the raid beginning at one minute past midnight. The first bombs fell less than 5 minutes later. Thousands of incendiaries lit the way for further bombers and fires spread in the docks area engulfing timber yards and other businesses. A parachute mine destroyed the Alexandra Works Aeroplane Fuselage Factory on Queen’s Island, killing 6 night shift workers. Among the dead that night were Archie MacDonald and Brice Harkness; two Auxiliary Fire Service volunteers sent out to tackle the blazes before the all-clear sounded shortly after 0500hrs.
The second raid came on 15th-16th April 1941, Easter Tuesday. What became known as the Easter Raid was a much larger attack with devastating consequences for the people of Belfast and beyond. I have already mentioned the attacks on Bangor, Newtownards, and Derry~Londonderry. But, it was Northern Ireland’s capital that bore the brunt of the bombing. Earlier in the day, a crowd gathered at Windsor Park, now the National Football Stadium. They watched the home team Linfield F.C. slump to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Distillery F.C. A lone Junkers JU-88 circled overhead. Few in the crowd would have foreseen what was to come. That evening around 150 Heinkels, Junkers, and Dorniers left France and the Netherlands. This time, all were bound for Belfast, the primary target with the codename Etappe. The first sirens wailed at 2245hrs but Belfast was inadequately prepared. The sole R.A.F. fighter squadron was stood down amid fears of friendly fire. They were not a night fighter squadron anyway. Of the insufficient 22 anti-aircraft guns dotted around the city, only 7 were manned by the military as the first bombs of the night fell. Throughout the night, around 200 tons of high explosive bombs, incendiary bombs, and parachute mines rained down on the north and east of the city. Primary targets in the east were once again the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the Short and Harland aircraft factory, and other industries. In the north, a focused Luftwaffe effort was to take out the waterworks. Destruction of this would leave little to no water pressure with which to fight the rapidly spreading fires. Fire crews, medical facilities, and mortuaries were overwhelmed. A.R.P. Posts floundered, doing their best in the hellscape that surrounded them. Residents who made it to shelters were not necessarily much safer there. Shoddy construction led many of them to collapse as explosive blasts created a vacuum sucking the walls outward and causing the thick concrete roofs to collapse. In some cases, up to 30 people died having taken shelter. The total number of fatalities in the city was between 600-700, making it – at the time – one of the most devastating raids to take place outside the city of London. And there was more to come for the battered city.
On the night of 4th-5th May 1941, the Luftwaffe returned again to Belfast in what became known as the Fire Raid. Incendiary bombs were the main weapon of the bombers and large fires spread across the north and east of the city again. These areas were still reeling from the previous raid, the waterworks still suffered from damage inflicted. The number of fatalities and casualties brought about by the Fire Raid was much lower than the Easter Raid. This was due to many thousands of people having fled the city for quieter more rural areas. There was also an element of people being better prepared, doing the right things, making it to shelters. So too was there an increase in organisation of civil defence services. Business and residential properties bore the brunt of the Fire Raid. By the time of the Luftwaffe’s final attack on the city, around 50% of Belfast’s housing stock had been destroyed. The shipyards sustained further damages as did many businesses even in the city centre where roads remained closed for some weeks afterward. The recovery would be a long, slow process and some buildings still bear the scars of 1941.
The Belfast Blitz brought great change to Northern Ireland. No longer was the war against Nazi Germany something that happened somewhere else. Gone was the attitude of ‘it’ll never happen here’ – it had. In the days and weeks that followed, Ulster buried its dead, around 1,000 people. Some remained unidentified and mass funerals took place to Belfast City Cemetery and Milltown Cemetery in the west of the city. Memorials commemorate those unknown victims at both cemeteries. In some parts of the city, entire streets were wiped from the map. Some churches, schools, and commercial buildings that were once the heart of communities were never rebuilt. But Belfast carried on. The shipyard and aircraft factory continued production and at Clifton Street Recruitment Centre, queues of men lined the road eager to sign up for the services. The Luftwaffe attacks had brought the reality of war to the streets of Northern Ireland and in some ways brought Nationalist and Unionist communities together. They suffered together, sheltered together, sang and prayed together, and died together. Over 80 years later, there is still no single permanent memorial in the city to those who died as a result of the air raids but many organisations do their part in ensuring their stories are not forgotten.
Let’s get this out of the way. Paddy Mayne is a complex character who divides opinions, and creates as many talking points today as ever. For the purposes of this podcast, I’m mostly going to deal in straight up facts although to answer a couple of quick questions; Paddy probably did deserve the Victoria Cross but I agree with the person who stated it would make little different to award it now posthumously. I think S.A.S. Rogue Heroes, while not entirely accurate in its history or depictions, was a great piece of television. If it helps a new generation get into Second World War history like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan did for mine, then that’s a good thing. And yes, I think Jack O’Connell did an O.K. job. David Caves, star of B.B.C. show Silent Witness would be a left-field choice for sure.
So who was the real Paddy Mayne? Born on 11th January 1915, Robert Blair Mayne was the son of William Mayne and Margaret Boyle Mayne (née Vance) of Mount Pleasant, Newtownards, Co. Down. Mayne took his name from his mother’s side of the family, specifically from a cousin, Captain Robert Blair who served in 5th Battalion, Border Regiment. Captain Blair had received a posthumous Distinguished Service Order for his service in The Great War. On his father’s side, Paddy was a descendant of Gordon Turnbull who led the famous “Scotland Forever” charge at Waterloo. He attended Regent House Grammar School in his hometown of Newtownards, Co. Down. There, his talent for rugby union shone through. By the age of 16 years old, he was playing for both the Regent House 1st XV and the local Ards R.F.C. team. He also showed a natural ability for cricket and golf. Not surprisingly given his later career, he showed great promise as a marksman in the school rifle club.
After school, Mayne studied law at Queen’s University, Belfast, planning to become a solicitor. While studying, he took up boxing and once again excelled. By August 1936, he was the Irish Universities Heavyweight Champion. In 1937, he won his first international rugby union cap in a game against Wales. He would go on to win five more caps for Ireland as a lock forward before selection for the famed British Lions tour of South Africa in 1938. On his return to Belfast, he joined Malone Rugby Football Club. During the 1938 tour, Mayne’s antics became the stuff of legend much to the despair of the team’s management.
Harry McKibben who played centre in the team, told stories of how Mayne would smash up hotel rooms, leaving them barely more than a pile of kindling. When not causing mayhem in hotels, Mayne was often found in pubs around the docks in Durban. There, he and Welsh hooker Bunner Travers would dress as sailors, drink, and pick fights with the local longshoremen. At the Ellis Park stadium, new stands were under construction. Convicts from a nearby prison were hard and work. Mayne and Travers befriended them. One of them had received a seven-year sentence for stealing chickens. The jovial pair nicknamed their new friend “Rooster” and later returned with a set of clothes and a pair of bolt-cutters to set him free. When re-apprehended the following day, Rooster was still sporting a jacket with Mayne’s name stitched inside.
The Lions’ management then paired Paddy with fly-half George Cromey, a Presbyterian minister. Even the preacher couldn’t calm the Ulsterman, however. Paddy snuck off in the middle of the night armed with a rifle and a lamplight for a late-night hunting trip. At 0300hrs, an excited Mayne broke down Cromey’s hotel room door, still in his tux and cummerbund, with a dead antelope draped over his shoulders. Mayne decided to deposit the animal outside the South African manager’s room, with a note: “a gift of fresh meat from the British Isles touring team.”
In March 1939, he enlisted in the Territorial Army in Newtownards, Co. Down and so began the military career of one of the British Army’s most decorated soldiers. Mayne was a member of the Officer Training Corps during his time at Queen’s University, Belfast. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he was commissioned to 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery. In April 1940, Mayne transferred to the Royal Ulster Rifles. Following the fall of France in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a call to form a “butcher and bolt” raiding force. 11th (Scottish) Commando formed, and Mayne joined the new unit. He saw action as a Lieutenant, leading commandos against the Vichy French at Litani River, Lebanon. The battle was brutal and bloody. Around a third of the strike force, more than 130 officers and soldiers, sustained injuries, were captured or killed. Mayne placed the blame on the ineptitude of his commanding officer. Reports suggest the fiery Lieutenant struck his superior. Locked up, perhaps awaiting court martial, Mayne’s career trajectory was to take an unexpected turn.
As a founding member of the Special Air Service, from November 1941 to the end of 1942, Paddy took part in and led night raids behind enemy lines in the desert. The S.A.S. became a scourge of Axis forces, destroying hundreds of planes in airfields around Egypt and Libya. Mayne took command of 1st S.A.S. Regiment in 1942 following the capture of founder and leader David Stirling. A later split of the S.A.S. saw Mayne take command of the Special Raiding Squadron (S.R.S.), a unit he led through the Italian campaign of 1943. January 1944, saw the Ulsterman promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. From then, Paddy led the S.A.S. through the final brutal campaigns of the war, fighting alongside Allied troops and resistance fighters. Victories in France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Norway followed.
Mayne cultivated a reputation for fearless leadership and the use of pioneering tactics. Among these was using Jeeps in hit-and-run raids in the desert. The proof of his success lay in the impressive tally of destroyed aircraft, with some reports suggesting he personally took out 130 enemy planes. During the Second World War, Mayne became one of the most decorated soldiers in the British Army. As a Lieutenant in the Middle East on 24th February 1942, he received the Distinguished Service Order. Over the next three years, he received three bars to the award, first as Captain (Temporary Major) in Sicily on 21st October 1943, again in Normandy on 29th March 1945, and finally as a Lieutenant Colonel in northwest Europe on 11th October 1945. The British Army issued Paddy with the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star with 8th Army Bar, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal, and the War Medal. An Oak Leaf added to the War Medal indicated he was Mentioned in Dispatches during Operation Exporter on the Litani River with 11th (Scottish) Commando in the summer of 1941.
Following the end of the war in Europe, the French government awarded the Ulsterman the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. Mayne also received a citation for the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded by the British. This came after he single-handedly rescued a squadron in 1945. King George VI was among many people surprised that Mayne never received the prestigious award. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had signed off on the recommendation.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne died aged 40 in a road traffic collision. The incident occurred on Mill Street in his hometown on Newtownards, Co. Down on 14th December 1955. He had been drinking and playing poker in a local pub with friends. He left and went to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Bangor, Co. Down, drinking more and leaving shortly after 0400hrs. On his way home he crashed his Riley sports car, known locally as “the big red fire engine”. As news of his death spread, the town came to a standstill. Thousands of mourners attended the funeral on 16th December 1955. His death was mourned throughout Northern Ireland and beyond. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Blair Mayne’s grave is in the family plot at Movilla Cemetery, Newtownards, Co. Down.
H.M.S. Caroline is indeed in Belfast, and is once again open to visitors, having reopened this year following the COVID pandemic. The decommissioned C-class light cruiser is now a museum ship that saw combat action in The Great War – famously at the Battle of Jutland – and also as an administrative Royal Navy centre in Belfast during the Second World War. Caroline holds several records. Firstly, as the last remaining British First World War light cruiser in service, and also as the last surviving vessel of the Battle of Jutland still afloat. In fact, Caroline is one of only three surviving Royal Navy vessels still in existence along with H.M.S. M33 in Portsmouth, Hampshire, and H.M.S. President in Chatham, Kent. If that’s not impressive enough, at time of decommissioning in 2011, Caroline was the second-oldest ship in Royal Navy service, second only to H.M.S. Victory. Laid down on 28th January 1914, Caroline was constructed by workers at Cammell Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead near Liverpool. The cruiser was launched on 29th September 1914 and completed a few months later. It is worth noting that as part of the early sub-set of C-class light cruisers, Caroline was built without geared turbines. Caparisons with later vessels in the C-class showed that geared propulsion was superior but more than a hundred years later, Caroline’s machinery remains intact and in place although not in full working order. Commissioned on 4th December 1914 shortly after completion, H.M.S. Caroline joined the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Caroline served as leader of 4th Destroyer Flotilla and would remain serving in the North Sea throughout the First World War.
From February to November 1915, H.M.S. Caroline made up part of the Grand Fleet’s 1st Light Cruiser Squadron. In early 1916, it joined 4th Light Cruiser Squadron, where it remained for the duration of The Great War. Caroline saw plenty of action during its time with the Grand Fleet but most notably, fought as part of the Battle of Jutland. This large naval battle took place between British forces under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe and the German forces of Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer between 31st May and 1st June 1916. Captain Henry R. Crooke commanded Caroline during the Battle of Jutland and remained in command until the war’s end in November 1918. During this time, Caroline became something of an innovative Royal Navy vessel, carrying a flying-off platform enabling fighter planes of both the Royal Air Force and Royal Naval Air Service to launch from the ship and intercept German airships operating over the North Sea. Following the end of the First World War, H.M.S. Caroline remained with 4th Light Cruiser Squadron. In June 1919, the crew sailed with the squadron to serve in the East Indies before being placed in reserve in February 1922. Two years later, the ship came out of reserve and was bound for Belfast where it has remained since. In February 1924, H.M.S. Caroline became the headquarters and training vessel for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Ulster Division in Northern Ireland. The first stop in Belfast was the famous Harland and Wolff Ltd. shipyard, where Caroline was stripped of all weaponry and some of its boilers. On 1st April that year, Caroline began its new role.
Having survived service in The Great War, H.M.S Caroline would go on to serve in a non-combat role in the Second World War, still docked in Belfast and miraculously escaping the Luftwaffe bombs that fell heavily around the docks area in April and May 1941. Belfast Harbour was an incredibly busy hub from 1939 to 1945. It became a home base for many warships escorting convoys across the North Atlantic and in the Arctic. Among those spending time in Belfast were the Captain-class frigates of 3rd Escort Group. Docked in the harbour, H.M.S. Caroline became the Royal Navy’s headquarters in the city. As Belfast’s importance in naval affairs continued to grow, so too did the scale of the Royal Navy’s headquarters. By the end of the Second World War, several thousand ratings sported H.M.S. Caroline cap tallies. The size of the crew had long outgrown the confines of the ship and had gone on to occupy other establishments across the city. These included the Custom House at Queen’s Square and Belfast Castle in the north of the city, both of which remain standing today. At the castle, WRNS operated radio equipment while other facilities such as depth charge pistol workshops and hedgehog repair workshops were based along the quays of Milewater Basin where Caroline was docked for the duration of the conflict. Following the end of the Second World War, the Royal Navy returned H.M.S. Caroline to the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve where it resumed its role as a training establishment, the last floating training establishment operated by the R.N.V.R.
Today H.M.S. Caroline is part of the National Historic Fleet in the care of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. No longer capable of seafaring, the ship will remain in position at Alexandra Dock in Belfast for the foreseeable future. Caroline opened to the public as a museum in 2016 and was soon in the dry dock for a hull inspection, clean, and repaint. Now, the famous vessel had survived two World Wars, severe funding cuts, and a global pandemic. The museum reopened on 1st April 2023 and current plans indicate the ship will remain in Belfast’s historic Titanic Quarter until 2038.
By now, you will realise that there is a lot of Second World War history in Northern Ireland. Visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to exploring heritage sites and new museums. And even more is on the way. A new combined Irish regiments museum is set to open in Belfast in 2024, in a city that already boasts the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum, H.M.S. Caroline, S.S. Nomadic, Belfast Castle, and a host of commemorative murals and plaques. Further afield, War Years Remembered although currently on hiatus as a museum has thousands of artefacts including an impressive Paddy Mayne archive. In Carrickfergus, a new visitor centre marks the formation of the 1st U.S. Ranger Battalion and the former headquarters of XV Corps at Brownlow House in Co. Armagh boasts an impressive collection of U.S. Army memorabilia. Add to that airfields, pillboxes, and all manner of extant defensive structures, and there’s something for everyone. If I talked with you at We Have Ways fest, I’m sure I welcomed you to come and visit. If you’re only hearing this for the first time now, then you too should book a trip. I’ll be happy to show you around and bend your ear with even more stories of the Second World War in Northern Ireland.
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