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Outbreak of the Second World War – 81st Anniversary

Outbreak of the Second World War – 81st Anniversary

Today marks the 81st anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Our ongoing oral history project has recorded over 100 accounts of Northern Irish people’s wartime experiences, with many recalling the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939.

Roy Henderson, who was 21 in 1939 and went on to serve in the Royal Air Force, very vividly remembers the build-up and outbreak of war. He states that in the months and years leading up to war, ‘Neville Chamberlain ran about signing bits of paper with Adolf Hitler, which guaranteed peace in our time but something seemed to go wrong, so it was war in our time’. When war was declared he was going into Belfast, recalling ‘I happened to be travelling on a bus from the top of the Cavehill Road to the city centre and the bus conductor informed us that a German aircraft was approaching London, well it wasn’t a German aircraft it was a British aircraft bringing the British ambassador from Berlin back to London. Then there was a phony war for six months or more… nothing happened, the two armies sat looking at each other, taking photographs… I think most people realized it could not go on like that forever, and it didn’t.

Unlike Roy, most of our interviewee’s were children at the time and many didn’t fully grasp the danger of war, Marion Kirkpatrick was thirteen when war started and she ‘thought nothing of it… I was playing, you used to be able to get a book of wee paper dolls and wee paper dresses and you clipped them on, I was sitting playing with those listening and the war meant nothing to me y’know’. Jean Spiers remembered very little about the start of the war as her parents tried to protect her and her siblings stating ‘we knew very little about the war starting because most of it comes from what my mother and father say happened… and my parents weren’t the type to make us frightened.’

It is understandable that parents wished to shield their children from the war, especially as many of their parents lived through and perhaps fought in the First World War.

This can be seen Harry Williamson’s interview when he states, ‘it made a great deal of difference to him [his father] and men like him you know because it was only what twenty odd years from the last time and well they didn’t feel good about it and of course all the wives and mothers were distraught about it and then men started joining up and going away to fight’.

Noel Mitchell was at church when ‘the minister announced we were at war and everybody just didn’t know what to say’, continuing that at the time he didn’t really consider the closeness of the First and Second World Wars, stating ‘it still amazes me looking back from my age now, you know at the time when you were young, you didn’t realise that there was only something like nineteen years between the two wars, which you know is nothing really when you get on in life… it seemed you know a hundred years ago and it didn’t mean the same to me of course as people who had gone through it.’

Do you remember the outbreak of war in September 1939? Or do you have other memories of the Second World War in Northern Ireland? If you’d like to share your story, please get in touch with our Oral History Coordinator at projects@niwarmemorial.org or on 07588 634847.

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Welcome back!

Welcome back!

We are delighted to open our doors and welcome you back to the museum.

We have been awarded the ‘We’re Good to Go’ industry mark, certifying that we have made our museum safe for you and our staff.

There is no need to pre-book a visit Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm but staff will be limiting the number of visitors into the museum at any one time and asking that all visitors wear face coverings. You can read more about our safety measures here: http://www.niwarmemorial.org/visitors/.

We know it’s difficult for schools and groups to visit at the moment, and that some families are continuing to learn together at home, so we have extended our opening hours to include EVERY Saturday from 12pm – 4pm.

Families and groups can visit the museum to learn about Northern Ireland during the Second World War by booking a free 30-minute Saturday Tour for up to 10 people in any one family group.

Kids can collect a ‘Crafts To Go’ bundle which includes some of our fantastic learning resources.

We hope that having the museum all to themselves will provide visitors with a safe and reassuring learning experience.

Pre-book a Saturday Tour now: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/niwm-saturday-tours-tickets-116937113053

It’s always free to visit, and there is no need to pre-book for a visit Monday – Friday.

Opening Hours: Monday – Friday, 10am to 4pm and Saturdays 12pm to 4pm.*

*Bookings required for Saturday visits only.

We’re looking forward to welcoming you into the museum.

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Interviewee of the Month – Alec Murray

Interviewee of the Month – Alec Murray

Once a month we highlight a person who has contributed an important wartime story to our oral history collection. Our August interviewee of the month is Alec Murray who was born in March 1931. Alec was interviewed in 2016 when he vividly recalled the Belfast Blitz.

Alec Murray

Alec remembered the Easter Tuesday raid of 1941, recalling that the sirens went off and then ‘all of a sudden we heard these thuds and I went out to the door and all the children of the street were out, we thought it was great saying “look it’s like fairyland all lit up” little did we know that the German planes were dropping flares down you see… well everybody caught it running to the hills and the Shankill Road was packed with people walking up to the Glencairn to safety’. He recalls hearing about the nearby Percy Street shelter being destroyed and states that his family knew quite a few people who died such as the Swann family, ‘There were six in the family and five of them went into the air-raid shelter but the other one was in a wheelchair and she opted to stay under the stairs where people said was the safest place in the house, but anyway the bomb fell and all her people, the air-raid shelter was totally destroyed’.

Children on Percy Street with a shelter sign behind them. This picture was taken before the Belfast Blitz in April 1941.

The next day he remembered seeing the devastation, ‘the next morning it wasn’t like now when something occurs, they seal it off, people were just walking about, and the place was totally destroyed… I saw a woman holding a baby and there was a piece of plate glass stuck through the two of them, stuck to the wall’. Yet amid all the destruction and death Alec remembers there was lighter side recalling Salvation Army volunteers chasing ‘a dog round and round down North Street because there was a head in its teeth, in its mouth but it was a head of a dummy from one of the shops’.

Thankfully the only casualty in Alec’s family was their cat Snowball, however their house was damaged and so along with his grandmother, aunt, cousins, mother, and sister Alec was evacuated to Ballyalton near Newtownards to live in a big farmhouse with a lady called Mrs Skillen. They were only there for about 6 months when Alec was glad to get back to Belfast as he didn’t like country life at all, ‘it was a culture shock, I didn’t like it , it was alright during the war, but you get homesick…we thought it was million miles away, now I can go down and it takes only ten minutes to go down the back road’. At the end of the war, Alec recalls the sense of relief stating ‘I was in the BB at Townsend Street and it was the annual party… and the Captain of the BB came in and he says “Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing announcement to make… the Nazis have surrendered”. Everybody jumped up and cheered and that was the end of the party, you grabbed the nearest girl guide and people were walking from all over the country down to the City Hall and bands were playing and marching’.

We began interviewing people in 2016 and it is always a privilege to meet people who lived through the war years, and to hear and record their stories for future generations. Our aim is to record, while it is still possible, as many of these vivid stories of Second World War as possible. Do you have memories of the Second World War in Northern Ireland? Please get in touch with us via email at projects@niwarmemorial.org or you can give us a call on 07588634847.

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Museums and Me 2020

Museums and Me 2020

We’re thrilled to be nominated as ‘Best for Family’ with Museums and Me 2020. 

Museums and Me was created to highlight Ireland’s most family friendly museums and cultural spots, so it’s an honour to be nominated alongside some fantastic places.

If you have visited or enjoyed some of our online learning resources, please head over and give us a vote! 

Vote for us by following the link: https://pitterpatterpaint.org/museums-and-me/nominate/ and typing ‘NI War Memorial’ under the ‘Best for Family’ category. 

You can vote as many times as you like. Nominations close ‪on Monday 7th September‬ and the top 3 from each category will enter another round of voting before the winners are announced later in September.

Thank you and good luck to all the other nominees! We look forward to seeing you all again when we reopen ‪on 1st September‬.

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Saturday Tours

Saturday Tours

We are delighted to be reopening our museum on Tuesday 1st September. 

We’ve been awarded the ‘We’re Good to Go’ industry standard mark, certifying that we have everything in place to ensure the museum is safe for staff and visitors. 

We know it’s difficult for schools and groups to visit at the moment, and that some families are continuing to learn together at home, so we have extended our opening hours to include EVERY Saturday from 12pm-4pm.

Families and groups can visit the museum to learn about Northern Ireland during the Second World War by booking a free 30-minute Saturday Tour for up to 10 people. Kids can collect a ‘Crafts To Go’ bundle which includes some of our fantastic learning resources. We hope that having the museum all to themselves will provide families with a safe and reassuring learning experience.

** Pre-book your visit now: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/niwm-saturday-tours-tickets-116937113053 **

It’s always free to visit, and there is no need to pre-book for a visit Monday – Friday.

Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 10am – 4pm. Saturdays 12pm – 4pm.*

*Booking required for Saturday visits only.

We’re looking forward to seeing you again! 

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On this day… 19th August 1945

On this day… 19th August 1945

Following VJ Day, Sunday 19th August 1945 was declared a day of prayer and thanksgiving and services were held across the United Kingdom to mark the occasion.

A Service of Thanksgiving for Victory was held at Belfast City Hall with a reported 10,00 people in attendance (Picture courtesy of Belfast Telegraph).

The Governor, representing the King, was present along with the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet, chiefs of the services and the heads of the Protestant churches who shared in conducting the service.

Within the NIWM collection is a copy of the programme (NIWM:2020.2572) also pictured below.

NIWM:2020.2572

A further service for British and Belgian forces was held at St. Patrick’s Church and memorial prayers were recited at Belfast Synagogue led by Rabbi J. Shachter.

Across Northern Ireland, similar services were held. A united service was held at St. Macartin’s Cathedral in Enniskillen, a drumhead service was held in Barracks Square, Omagh, followed by a parade led by the band of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Ulster Rifles.

And in Larne a united service was preceded by a parade of council members, members of the Armed Services, Civil Defence and youth organisations to the town park.

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VJ Day 75 – 15th August 2020

VJ Day 75 – 15th August 2020

On Saturday we observed VJ Day 75 with a small closed ceremony in the museum.

Veterans of the Far East, who often considered themselves as the ‘forgotten army’, were at the heart of the commemoration.

Austin and Mandy Harper, son and daughter of Hugh Harper (1918-2000) attended to lay the wreath in memory of their father. Hugh Harper served with the RAF during the Second World War and was a Prisoner of War of the Japanese from 1942-45.

Hugh Harper (1918 -2000)

Hugh was born in April 1918 and after leaving school at the age of 14, began to serve his time as an apprentice fitter in Jennymount Mill, Belfast. On 20 July 1938 he joined the RAF at the Recruiting Office in Ann Street as a fitter.

After a number of postings in England, he was finally sent overseas arriving in Singapore early in March 1941, where he was posted to No.100 Squadron at RAF Seletar. As the surrender of Singapore became inevitable, he escaped to Java on board the SS Empire Star on 13 February 1942. Despite plans to wage a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, Hugh and other British troops were forced to surrender on 8 March 1942.

After having to carry out manual labour on a damaged airfield he was shipped back to Singapore, where after a few days in the infamous Changi Prison, he was transported to Southern Japan with many other servicemen crammed in the holds of what became known as the Death Ship, the Dianichi Maru.

The survivors of that voyage arrived there on 23 November 1942 and despite rising death toll in their camp Hugh and some 100 other airmen were used as forced labour in a shipyard, some 20 miles north of Hiroshima.

As the war progressed repair work on Japanese ships dropped off considerably and as American air raids increased, they were put to work tunnelling air raid shelters into the hillsides of the surrounding countryside.

On the morning of 6 August 1945 what he thought to be yet another earthquake was in fact the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The war for Hugh and his companions ended 2 days later though it wasn’t until the end of November that they finally got home.

Hugh passed away in 2000 and was remembered on VJ Day 75 by his son and daughter and their families.

Austin Harper laid a poppy wreath on a granite plinth which contains a Roll of Honour for the fallen in the First and Second World War. The Rolls of Honour stand in front of a memorial wall which bears the following inscription ‘Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten’.

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VJ Day – 15th August 1945

VJ Day – 15th August 1945

On the eve of the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, we are looking at how the occasion was marked across Northern Ireland.

The coverage in newspapers was much less than that of VE Day earlier that year. On VJ Day itself (15th August 1945) the Northern Whig carried the headline ‘PEACE’ and reported that the day and the next were holidays.

On the 16th the Belfast Telegraph described the night of revelry as ‘unforgettable’ as thousands of men, women and children sang, danced and played games in the glow of bonfires which encircled the city. Just as on VE Day, City Hall was the centre of the party.

A British sailor was reported to be conducting the singing from atop the statue of Queen Victoria before he was persuaded to climb down for fear of causing damage. He was then immediately replaced by an American soldier, who in turn was joined by the sailor and they were only convinced to come down under threat that the music would cease until they did so!

The first photo below shows some of the crowd, including servicemen dancing in the grounds of City Hall on VJ Day (credit @BelTel_Archives).

The paper continues to state that nowhere was the day celebrated more enthusiastically than in the American Red Cross Club in Chichester St where a victory dance was held with a broadcast sent back to the States.

Parties, with music from pianos or gramophones, were arranged for children who received treats such as lemonade, ice cream and tomatoes and ice cream vendors are reported as having done a ‘roaring trade from morning till dusk’.

The Northern Whig carried the below photo (second photo) of one such street party, an image that today is often confused for VE Day, on Battenburg Street.

The caption reads: ‘With tables laden with home-made apple-tarts, cakes and other good things to eat, in what better way could these kiddies rejoice in and remember VJ Day? The party was held in Battenburg Street, Belfast, and was organized by Mrs R. Averell and Mrs. E. Ball, assisted by the neighbours who baked and waited on the children.’

The day is also remembered by participants from our ongoing oral history project.

Harriet Smyth recalled that ‘it wasn’t as big as the VE Day just, I remember there was street parties as well as that but not on as big a scale as the other one like y’know’.

Whereas William Guiney had fonder memories; ‘It was the same again, but we were comparing how many got the most kisses on VJ day. Aye it was the same kind and it was around the City Hall it was, but then of course the best one was all the pastry and all they cooked and baked and whatnot and everything. And we had a nice time that day.’

Eileen Taylor was on holidays in Portstewart at the time and remembers ‘lots of people celebrating out along the promenade including Belgian sailors. My mother had a bit of a French so she was able to talk to them a little bit which I think made them feel a wee bit more at home to have somebody to talk to’.

In Bangor, Colin Walker remembered vividly the VJ Day celebrations; ‘I remember going with my father round to a bonfire at Luke’s Point in Bangor where there’s a huge bonfire to celebrate the ending of the hostilities of the war entirely and on top of the bonfire was they put an effigy of General Tojo who was the commander, a very notorious commander, of the Japanese forces‘.

Tomorrow, Saturday 15th August the Northern Ireland War Memorial (NIWM) will commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ Day.

A small closed ceremony will be attended by Austin and Mandy Harper, son and daughter of Hugh Harper (1918-2000) who served with the RAF during the Second World War and was a Prisoner of War of the Japanese. They will be joined by Trustees of the NIWM and Reverend Albin Rankin from Stormont Presbyterian Church.

Austin Harper will lay a poppy wreath on a granite plinth within the museum which contains a Roll of Honour for the fallen in the First and Second World War. The Rolls of Honour stand in front of a memorial wall which bears the following inscription ‘Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten’.

A 2 minute silence will be observed at 11.00am. The silence will then be broken by a Piper performing ‘Battle’s O’er’. The performance will take place outside the museum owing to the current pandemic restrictions and we hope to share footage of this with you tomorrow.

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VJ Day 75 – NIWM Collection items relating to the Far East

VJ Day 75 – NIWM Collection items relating to the Far East

Further to our previous post looking at the Lennon Collection, our accredited museum collection contains hundreds of items relating to the war in the Far East.

Notably is this Blood Chit – a piece of silk with the Union flag at the top that carried a message in 16 languages including English, French, Tamil, Sumatra, Thai, E. Shan & N. Thai, W. Shan, Jawi, Chinese, Haka Chin, Kachin, Malay, Laizo Chin, Bengali, Annamite, Karen and Burmese. It was to be given to locals in the event of being shot down over enemy lines. The message reads;

‘Dear Friend, I am an Allied fighter, I did not come here to do any harm to you who are my friends. I only want to do harm to the Japanese and chase them away from this country as quickly as possible. If you will assist me, my Government will sufficiently reward you when the Japanese are driven away.’

It was issued to Henry McCreery from Dublin as he was en route to Singapore in early 1942. Henry studied law at Trinity College, Dublin and after graduating joined the RAF in Belfast. He was selected to go to Singapore to interview Japanese POWs due to his degree but en route, the city fell and he was reposted.

A further, much larger collection, donated in 2019 belonged to a man called Stanley Scott (pictured). Although born in Belfast, Stanley grew up in Scotland before joining the Royal Navy. After training he was posted to the Belfast built carrier, HMS Glory which then set sail for Australia just as the war was ending.

Although too late to see combat in the Far East, HMS Glory was selected as the ship to take the surrender of Japanese forces at Rabaul in September 1945.

Over the course of the next month or so we will share some more of this collection and highlight Stanley’s experiences at the tail end of the Second World War.

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VJ Day 75 – Jim Lennon and the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment

VJ Day 75 – Jim Lennon and the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment

As the 75th anniversary of VJ Day approaches we are showcasing items in the museum collection relating to the war in the Far East.

The first collection belonged to the late Jim Lennon and his comrades who served in the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

After its establishment and training the 8th HAA joined the British Expeditionary Force in northern France before Christmas 1939. Subsequently the men were evacuated back to England following the Fall of France. The regiment then saw action during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz before it was ordered to the Far East in the spring of 1942.

They spent the remainder of the war in action in the Arakan Campaigns where they gained the nickname ‘The Twelve Mile Snipers’ due to their accuracy at long range whilst fighting against the Imperial Japanese forces in the air and on the ground.

In 2012, the NIWM were pleased to accept a donation of items from Jim and his comrades from their time spent in the Far East.

Pictured below is a bush hat with the insignia of the 8th as worn by regimental members.

Jim played the bagpipes and the flute and the collection includes musical related items such as a chanter, drumsticks and silk pipe bannerrettes (pictured). These were hand embroidered in Kashmir with Jim’s Battery, the 22nd, featured.

The next picture is of a handmade sash that belonged to Gunner R Boyd, 23rd Battery, 8th Belfast HAA.

Naturally during their time in the Far East the men picked up souvenirs and spoils of war along the way. The fourth picture shows propaganda leaflets dropped from planes, prayer tablets, Japanese currency, a pennant and even a Japanese officers shaving kit all of which were found in Japanese dug outs.

The model gun on the wooden plinth is that of a 7.2 inch howitzer that was hand made in Burma in 1943 using pieces of scrap metal. The engraving reads

‘Made in the “Arakan” for Maj. A.H. Bates (RA) by Gnr. R. McMillen’

Lastly, the final picture is that of the Roll of Honour, held by NIWM showing the names of the 50 men of the regiment that did not return.

For more info on the 8th (Belfast) HAA please visit our publication page where our short booklet, ‘The Twelve Mile Snipers’ is available to download for free: http://www.niwarmemorial.org/publications/.

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