WW1 & WW2 Casualties

Waves of War

During two world wars Portrush men volunteered to join the armed services and fight to defend their country. For political reasons conscription – compulsory enlistment for service in the armed forces – was never introduced into Ireland or Northern Ireland. Robert Thompson, a noted local historian, records in his excellent book, Portrush Heroes, the ultimate sacrifice of 78 men from the town during the First World War, also referred to as the Great War.

German mine washed ashore at Dhu Varren
German mine washed ashore at Dhu Varren

Ten of those men died in one day, 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The majority of the dead were soldiers from various regiments such as the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Irish Guards and the North Irish Horse. Given that the population of Portrush at that time was around 1,500 the contribution to the war effort was considerable.

On 18th January 1915 a German sea-mine was washed ashore among the rocks at Dhu Varren. It was made safe the following day by a naval bomb disposal expert and the, now empty, casing was exhibited on the grass in front of the Town Hall. The mine on display opposite the Town Hall is from 40 years later and is a collection box for a seamen’s charity.

The Metropole Hotel was taken over by the government and became a convalescent home for wounded servicemen. Their blue uniforms soon became a common sight around the town. A great variety of military uniforms were to be seen on the streets: men off duty from the many training camps in the area or home on leave from their regiments or ships. One advantage of wearing your uniform was that you could gain free admission to the Picture House (cinema) in the Skating Rink Pavilion.

Distant sounds of naval engagements could often be heard as U-boats were encountered either attacking merchant shipping or warships or being attacked in their turn by the Royal Navy. Many merchant ships and trawlers had guns fitted on their decks to help defend them from attacks or to assist in defending convoys. Occasional aeroplanes or airships would pass overhead, perhaps on their way to meet or join with convoys entering the Northern Approaches, the North Sea or the Irish Sea, all areas patrolled by U-boats seeking targets.

Coastal Watchers manned the lookout on Ramore Head, watching for U-boats and, when one was spotted, alerting the authorities by telephone and alerting nearby shipping by raising a warning flag on the nearby flagstaff. The harbour became a temporary home to warships of various types, principally armed trawlers and, often the outlines of transatlantic shipping in convoy could be seen on the horizon.

The fate of many ships and their crews was regularly brought home to the people of Portrush as debris from sunken ships washed up on the shores surrounding the town together with the occasional body. The German U-boats began unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 in an attempt to stop the essential supplies reaching the United Kingdom by sea from North America and the Commonwealth. In February 1918 rationing of sugar, meat, flour, butter, margarine, milk and bread was introduced as a result of shortages of these essential items.

Another constant reminder of the war was the blackout which was imposed on all towns. No lights were allowed to be shown during the hours of darkness and in coastal towns such as Portrush this would have been strictly enforced in view of the enemy activity at sea.

Gunnery at Limavady
Air Gunnery at Limavady

World War 1 ended in November 1918. An armistice between the opposing forces came into effect at 11 am on 11thNovember 1918 and all fighting stopped on land, on sea and in the air. Every year this time and date are remembered in cities, towns and villages all over the United Kingdom and in other allied countries when people remember those who fought and died, making the ultimate sacrifice, to protect their country, friends and families from armed aggression by others through two world wars and other conflicts of the 20th century. In 1922 a War Memorial was erected in front of the Town Hall with the names of the fallen inscribed on bronze plaques as a reminder to people of their sacrifice and as a focal point for services of remembrance.

Throughout the 1930’s German aggression increased under the Nazis and their leader, the dictator Adolf Hitler. A policy of appeasement by the British government failed to stop their demands for expansion and the clouds of war once again appeared on the horizon. To a nation still recovering from the horror and losses of the Great War the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939 came as a great shock. This would be war of a different kind to the Great War. It would be fast moving with weapons far superior to those of that earlier conflict and one in which the aeroplane would play a much greater role.

Once again Portrush men volunteered to serve in the navy, army and air force. This time many would serve far away from home in countries such as India, Burma, Egypt, Ceylon: places that heretofore they had only heard off in school or seen on maps. The War Memorial records the names of 31 men who died during the conflict but does not record the names of many Portrush civilians who died. Many men and women moved to other towns and cities to undertake vital war work and, with the widespread bombing by armadas of Nazi aircraft an unknown but probably considerable number were killed.

Air Raid Precautions (ARP) volunteers were recruited and trained by Capt. “Tiny” Shutt the local officer-in-charge. A total blackout was imposed across the country with all street lighting turned off, vehicle headlights being masked to reduce the chances of them being seen from the air and all windows having to be completely covered by blackout curtains so that not even a chink of light showed on the outside. Brick-built air raid shelters with flat concrete roofs were constructed near public buildings and schools. Concrete Pill-Boxes were constructed at strategic points: above the harbour, below Strandmore House on the East Strand and on the West Strand near the Blackrocks.

In anticipation of air raids on Belfast or because their buildings were needed for war related purposes several government departments and educational establishments moved to Portrush. The Ulster Savings Branch of the Ministry of Finance moved into the Metropole Hotel (and remained there after the war until 1968 when they moved into a new Crown Building in Coleraine), Stranmillis Teacher Training College occupied Fawcett’s Royal Hotel and Campbell College took over the Northern Counties Hotel. After the 1941 air raids on Belfast the Ministry of Education, complete with all important documents and senior civil servants, moved into Castle Erin (originally the Golf & Hydropathic Hotel). Many children, evacuated from Belfast, arrived in Portrush to board with local families and joined local schools.

From the outbreak of war a military presence was evident in Portrush. The British Army 5th Division was based in Northern Ireland as a defence against German invasion. Part of the Middlesex Regiment was billeted in and around Portrush and used the surrounding area for Training Purposes. The North Irish Horse, a mechanised regiment also trained in the town. When the Americans came into the war after the Japanese aerial attack on their Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii their V Corps consisting of three infantry divisions and one armoured division were sent to Northern Ireland. The 5th Division moved out of Northern Ireland to free up accommodation for the Americans.

On 26thJanuary 1942 soldiers of the US 34th Infantry Division were, officially, the first Americans to land although some American military personnel and civilians had been in the Province much earlier setting up bases in Londonderry and on Lough Erne. Some of these soldiers were encamped outside Portstewart and became a regular and popular sight in Portrush. In turn these soldiers would be replaced by the US 82nd Airborne Division part of which, the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was billeted in Portrush. This Division slipped away quietly on 11th March 1944 on their way to Nottinham where they would prepare and train intensively for D-Day, the allied invasion of continental Europe on 6th June 1944.

Very much less evident was a group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) who worked in a nondescript building on Ramore Head, a “Y” Station, just behind the Coastguard Lookout. Their role was Top Secret as they were intercepting radio transmissions from German units and forwarding these to Bletchley Park, the Government Code Breaking Centre. They also operated Direction Finding (DF) equipment which, in conjunction with other similar stations could locate the source of the transmission.

The role of these WRENS and their little building on Ramore Head remained a secret for several decades after the war as did the work of Bletchley Park. Less well known even today were the radio amateurs recruited into the Radio Security Service (RSS) who were classified as Voluntary Interceptors (Vis). These were civilians who could read Morse Code and secretly provided a listening watch in their own homes on short wave radio bands, all intercepted messages being forwarded by them for decoding.

The seas around Portrush were used for target practice by aircraft of many types. Bombing Ranges were located in the seas just west of Ramore Head and off the Whiterocks. Large yellow floating targets would be towed out from Portrush harbour into these ranges by RAF marine craft and moored in specific locations. RAF Air Sea Rescue launches were also stationed at Portrush and provided a service for the many fighter, bomber and torpedo bomber aircraft stationed at airfields along the coast – Limavady, Eglinton, Mullaghmore, Ballykelly & Maydown. Throughout the war the harbour was used by warships of many types and was home to Royal navy motor launches and the RAF Air Sea Rescue Launches and Target Towing Pinnaces mentioned above. The Port of Londonderry was a major convoy assembly and escort base and many smaller vessels such as corvettes and armed trawlers would have used Portrush harbour as a temporary base.

Portrush War Memorial
Portrush War Memorial

World War 2 ended on two dates. The first, Tuesday 8th May 1945, was the end of the war in Europe but whilst this was widely celebrated the war in the east against the Japanese Empire continued. British & Commonwealth forces were advancing rapidly against the Japanese in Burma (Portrush men were part of this advance) whilst American forces were pushing back the Japanese island by island towards their home islands. It was evident that the Japanese were unlikely to surrender unconditionally as the Allies had demanded and that an invasion of mainland Japan would have to be mounted with consequent massive casualties expected.

The Americans had successfully developed atomic weapons and took the decision to use these against Japan in the hope that young American lives could be saved. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August respectively and the Japanese Empire surrendered on 14th August. Victory In Japan (VJ) day was celebrated in Portrush and all the allied nations on 15th August 1945. The war was over, soldiers would return home from across the globe and life would return to normal, albeit with continuing rationing and postwar austerity as the United Kingdom, virtually bankrupted by the war, tried to return the economy and life generally to what it had been six years previously.

For more information please see “1914-1918: The First Great War & 1939-1945: The Second Great War in “Portrush – The Port on the Promontory” by Hugh McGrattan

Hazlett Samuel Allinson

Hazlett Samuel Allison was the eldest son of Col Hazlett Allison and Mary Allison of the Shola, Portrush born in Madras, India where his father was stationed in January 1894. He entered Campbell College in Belfast in September 1904 and was known as an excellent rugby player and for his interest in the military, being one of the original members of Campbell College Officer Training Corps from early 1909. He was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge and graduated with a B.A. with Honours degree.

That same year, 4 days after war against Germany & Austria-Hungary was declared, he applied for a commission in the Special Reserve of Officers. By December 1916, at the age of 22, he was the youngest Major in the British Army and serving with the Royal Ulster Rifles. General Sir Douglas Haig mentioned him in his official despatches for his gallant and distinguished service in the field. He was killed on 9th August 1917 but has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, together with the 54,394 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found, in Holy Trinity Parish Church in Portrush and on the Portrush War Memorial.