World War two was a much different affair for the people of Lurgan than the previous world conflict. There was no nationalistic fervour that made men rush to throw down their lives for a King and Country that resented them or at best ignored their very existence. This, unlike World War 1, would bring death and destruction to the very doorsteps of the homes they loved.
Following one of the worst depressions in recorded history, unemployment was high in Lurgan in these pre war years. When entitlement to unemployment benefit expired many were forced to turn to the Boards of Guardians who had traditionally provided assistance for the old, the sick and orphans for support. The attitude of the Boards was Victorian and they took the view that people should fend for themselves. Observers commented on the dreadful conditions of the poor and unemployed ‘…their appearance is of a people who have lost hope’. In rural areas matters were not much better. Farming methods were outmoded and the Depression caused a near collapse in agricultural prices. Despite a recruitment drive in May 1940, there seemed to be little popular enthusiasm and numbers enlisting fluctuated throughout the war. As in World War 1, when war finally came to Lurgan, men enlisted for financial reason rather than patriotic ones.
The Second World War had a huge impact on the people of Britain and Northern Ireland, even those who were not actually in the armed forces. Women, especially young women, found that the war brought dramatic changes to their lives. Many worked in jobs which were traditionally men’s jobs before the war. Many women served in the armed forces and other services. Gone was the preconception that war was men’s work.
In 1938 the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Lord Craigavon, said ‘Ulster is ready when we get the word and always will be’. These were courageous words but they disguised the fact that Belfast had made little preparation for war and was according to some commentators the ‘most unprotected major city in the UK.’ There were conflicting opinions regarding the likelihood of any attack on Northern Ireland and this gave rise to confusion among Northern Ireland government ministers. In fact Northern Ireland had not been included in the Westminster legislation regarding air raid precautions. The Northern Ireland government did not have the funds to adequately prepare themselves for an attack and Westminster decided that Northern Ireland had no military importance and was therefore unlikely to be targeted.
In 1939 the Warnock report, which was set up to assess Northern Irelands vulnerability to attack said:
“I am very strongly of the opinion that air raid precautions which cover the British Isles should no be applied here. The capital Belfast, is the most distant large city of the united kingdom from any possible enemy base. An attack on Northern Ireland would mean a flight of over a thousand miles, twice crossing the barrages and searchlight defenses of the British Isles. The attacking planes would pass over targets which would appear to be more attractive than anything the North of Ireland has to offer.”
After the fall of France in June 1940 Northern Ireland became over night the most important strategic bridgehead for the protection of the Atlantic shipping lanes. Trade with America was particularly exposed to attacks from ports and aerodromes in North Western France. Transatlantic traffic was therefore diverted round the North of Ireland, putting ships further away from enemy bases and speeding up the time when they would be under the protection of their own. This led to a large and unexpected increase in the use of Northern Ireland not only by the Royal and Merchant Navies but also by the Royal Air Force. Hundreds of escort vehicles, of every size, made their bases in Northern Irish ports, the merchant ships gathered in anchorages for the voyage or dispersed there after the successful crossing. It came as a surprise to both Government and Citizens when a squadron of German bombers raided Belfast on the night of 7-8 April 1941 and inflicted major damage on the docks. On their return the bomber crews reported that Belfast’s defenses were 'inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient'. This led to the Easter Tuesday bombing of 15 April, when 180 German bombers again attacked Belfast. This was the beginning of a sustained bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe on Ulster towns and cities second only to that experienced by London in the Blitz.
There are countless tails of the heroism of Lurgan’s fighting men and we hope to tell some of them in the records we will produce. Many Lurgan men are buried in foreign graveyards, so the Lurgan war memorial, is the only real ‘headstone’ they have. The War Memorial is in Church Place with the impressive Shankill Parish Church in the background. Behind the plain list of names on this memorial (as on others) there are many, many individual stories to be uncovered. Some of these men, for example, had emigrated to Canada, Australia or New Zealand before the war, then come back to Europe (though perhaps not to Lurgan) and now lie forever in France or Belgium. ‘Ruddell, S.’, is Sidford Ruddell, a corporal in the 28th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Manitoba Regiment), son of Nelson and Hannah Ruddell of Laurel Mount, Lurgan. ‘Leathem, J. B.’ is James Balfour Leathem, a private in the 42nd Battalion Australian Infantry, and ‘son of Joseph and Ellen Leathem from Garlan Avenue, Lurgan’.
Various contingents of British and American troops were stationed in Lurgan between 1939 and 1945 and when the United States forces were billeted in Brownlow House, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander is said to have spent at least one night there with his men. He no doubt was oblivious the cries of the Mothers, Wives and Daughters of all those brave Lurgan souls who laid down their lives if not perhaps for King, then certainly for country and the land that they loved.
Compiled by Ken Austin
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