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Robert (Bob) Dawson Wright – VJ Day 2020

Robert (Bob) Dawson Wright – VJ Day 2020

To mark the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day later this week, we’re telling the story of Robert Dawson Wright who served in the Far East during the Second World War. Some might have known him better as Bob, our friendly and knowledgeable Museum Attendant for 27 years from 1988 until his retirement in 2015.

Bob receiving his retirement gift at our VJ Day commemoration in August 2015

Bob was born in Belfast on 23rd March 1923 and grew up with his four siblings on Hunter Street and attended Blythe Street School. He didn’t really enjoy school so he joined the army as a boy soldier in 1938. When we interviewed him, he stated ‘everybody was sort of talking about war and that there… my father was in the First World War and so I wanted to be a soldier and I enlisted.’ He had befriended a soldier from the Welch Regiment which was then serving in Belfast, so it was the Welch Regiment he joined.

Bob served in the British Expeditionary Force and was one of the many rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. In 1941 having risen to the rank of Sergeant, Bob volunteered to join the newly formed Special Service Brigade. After strenuous training at Achnacarry, the volunteers were organised into 12 commandos and Bob joined No.5 Commando taking part in many raids, mainly in Norway and France.

By 1944, Bob had served in India, Ceylon, Burma and Hong Kong and was Company Sergeant Major.  He took great pride in having been part of the campaign to drive the Japanese from Burma, particularly as the Japanese had been viewed as almost unbeatable in the hostile terrain. Bob recalled meeting ‘up with the 8th Belfast Heavy Anti-aircraft while we were out there… number twenty-three battery it was surrounded by the Japanese’ they held off the Japanese forces while the 8th recovered their guns, Bob stated ‘we lost a few men in our company and our troop commander, he had his arm blown off by a Japanese machinegun’.

They were then sent to Shang-Hai for a bit of break. While he was there Bob met his cousin Jackie Creighton. Sadly, he learnt that Jackie’s brother Sammy had been executed while working on the Burma railway for hitting a Japanese officer who was beating a fellow prisoner.

Bob never held any animosity towards those who had in wartime been his enemies. He understood that they too were soldiers fighting for their own countries.

Bob attending the annual Burma Star Association wreath laying ceremony at Belfast City Hall in 1994 (courtesy of Belfast Telegraph)

In 1945 he was posted to Hong Kong and one his first duties was to secure the camp recently vacated by the Japanese and establish the Allied camp. It was in Hong Kong that he met and later married Cheung Sui Ping. They met when she approached him asking if she could have a job. After some conversation through an interpreter it was agreed that for 10 Hong Kong dollars a week, she would clean his uniform. Bob referred his friends and ‘it ended up she was earning 40 dollars a week, so that was good money out there, so I thought, well I’ll marry her and I have never regretted a moment since’.

In 1947 Bob returned to Belfast with his wife and joined the Royal Army Service Corps, which was the only unit serving in Northern Ireland with a vacancy for a Company Sergeant Major. With his young family in mind, Bob resigned from service in 1949.

Bob (seated left) when he was with 602 RASC in Victoria Barracks in 1948

Sadly, Bob died in October 2015 at the age of 92, just three months after his retirement from the NIWM and his wife Cheung Sui Ping, who after coming to Northern Ireland became known as Joan, died soon after in February 2016.

Bob leading a tour in the museum

He is fondly remembered by many of the staff and trustees of the NIWM, who consider it a privilege to have known Bob and worked with him. Bob & Joan’s children, Ray & Irene, said that Bob always enjoyed his work and took great pride in every aspect of his job. Above all he loved meeting people and sharing his experiences, knowledge, and humour.

A heart-warming tribute to Bob from Fairview Primary School.
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We’re reopening!

We are delighted to announce that our museum will reopen on Tuesday 1st September.

While your visit may be a little different, we’re looking forward to welcoming you back.

We will be limiting the number of visitors to the museum and asking that all visitors wear face coverings. There is no need to pre book for a visit Monday-Friday, but we will be asking families to pre book a 30-minute family tour on Saturdays. We know you love creating with us, so we will be providing wartime crafts to go for kids.

The Northern Ireland War Memorial has been awarded the ‘We’re Good to Go’ industry standard mark, certifying that we are adhering to the respective Government and public health guidance, that we have carried out a COVID-19 risk assessment and have the required processes in place.

Opening hours: Monday – Friday, 10am – 4pm

Saturdays 12pm – 4pm

Booking required for Saturday visits only

More info to follow.

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Magennis VC – 75th anniversary of Operation Struggle

Magennis VC – 75th anniversary of Operation Struggle

Last Friday 31st July 2020 was the 75th anniversary of Operation Struggle, the action in which James Magennis earned the Victoria Cross for his role in the attack on the Japanese cruiser, Takao.

Published in November 1945 his citation read;

‘Leading Seaman Magennis served as Diver in His Majesty’s Midget Submarine XE-3 for her attack on 31 July 1945, on a Japanese cruiser of the Atago class. The diver’s hatch could not be fully opened because XE-3 was tightly jammed under the target, and Magennis had to squeeze himself through the narrow space available. He experienced great difficulty in placing his limpets on the bottom of the cruiser owing both to the foul state of the bottom and to the pronounced slope upon which the limpets would not hold. Before a limpet could be placed therefore Magennis had thoroughly to scrape the area clear of barnacles, and in order to secure the limpets he had to tie them in pairs by a line passing under the cruiser keel. This was very tiring work for a diver, and he was moreover handicapped by a steady leakage of oxygen which was ascending in bubbles to the surface. A lesser man would have been content to place a few limpets and then to return to the craft. Magennis, however, persisted until he had placed his full outfit before returning to the craft in an exhausted condition. Shortly after withdrawing Lieutenant Fraser endeavoured to jettison his limpet carriers, but one of these would not release itself and fall clear of the craft. Despite his exhaustion, his oxygen leak and the fact that there was every probability of his being sighted, Magennis at once volunteered to leave the craft and free the carrier rather than allow a less experienced diver to undertake the job. After seven minutes of nerve-racking work he succeeded in releasing the carrier. Magennis displayed very great courage and devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety.’

A year later, his portrait in oils by Belfast artist Robert Taylor Carson was unveiled. After its display in the Ulster Academy of Art Exhibition it was purchased and donated to what is now the Northern Ireland War Memorial.

Pictured below, the painting of Northern Ireland’s only Second World War VC winner hangs proudly on display in the museum.

Portrait of James Magennis VC by Robert Taylor Carson

Head to our Learning Tab: http://www.niwarmemorial.org/learning-resources/ and have a go at our Colouring Challenge of James Magennis inspired by Robert Taylor Carson’s portrait. Remember to tag us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #niwarmemorial so we can see your wonderful work.

Magennis VC Learning Resource by NIWM
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We’re recruiting!

We’re recruiting!

The NIWM has an exciting opportunity for an enthusiastic person to join our museum front of house team as a Visitor Assistant.

The primary role of the Visitor Assistant will be to deliver first class customer service to all visitors, in line with the vision and values of the Northern Ireland War Memorial, ensuring that the story of Northern Ireland in the Second World War continues to enrich and inspire future generations.

This post is suited to a friendly, welcoming, and confident individual who can engage with visitors, ensuring their experience is enjoyable, informative, and safe.

As part of a highly motivated team it is important that the successful applicant embraces working in a positive, respectful, and team-focused environment.

Please see the Job Description for more information.

The post holder will be required to work 20 hours per week, 4 hours per day, normally worked Monday-Friday.

In line with our Flexible Working Policy the NIWM will agree a working pattern which is suitable for both the business and the successful applicant. Reasonable overtime may be expected. Holidays are 25 working days per annum with 14 additional statutory days (pro-rata). All other terms and conditions are available on request.

How to apply

Please download the Application for Employment, Visitor Assistant Job Description, Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form and NIWM Privacy Policy.

Please return a completed Application for Employment and Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form by 4pm on Tuesday 25th August 2020.

If submitting by email, please send both documents in PDF format with CONFIDENTIAL APPLICATION in the subject header to info@niwarmemorial.org

You will receive an email confirming receipt of the application.

If submitting by hard copy, please post both documents to:

The Monitoring Officer

Northern Ireland War Memorial

21 Talbot Street

Belfast

BT1 2LD

CV’s will not be accepted.

If you require further details about this post please call 028 9032 0392 extension 1 to leave a voicemail message or email manager@niwarmemorial.org

Interviews are expected to take place in the week commencing 7th September 2020.

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Sweet Rationing 1942

Sweet Rationing 1942

On the 26th July 1942, sweets were added to the growing list of foods on the ration. A 2oz weekly restriction applied to all chocolate and sugar confectionary including chewing gum.

Sweet rationing had an impact on many of our interviewees, most of whom were children during the war. Many have told us about their favourite sweets, explaining that they often opted for caramels, toffees, and boiled sweets as they lasted longer. Harriet Smyth (BBP16) told us that she enjoyed ‘billiard balls, all different colours of billiard balls, and you got about eight for a ha’penny… and then you went to the Grosvenor Hall to the pictures.’

Northern Ireland’s proximity to neutral Ireland meant that a trip ‘down south’ presented an opportunity to smuggle some sweets home. Richard Clarke (BBP2) remembered that sweet rationing meant that ‘you couldn’t get all the sweets we had been used to having… but in Northern Ireland we were always cushioned because food came up from Dublin, particularly sweets, and I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, who worked in Dublin and she would come up to us during holidays and always bring what she could… luxury food, particularly sweets and interesting cakes and so on.’

On the same day, the Belfast Telegraph also announced that a fresh shipment of oranges would be arriving in Northern Ireland. This shipment was to be reserved for five days for children, schools, hospitals, and invalids. Oranges were even more scarce than sweets, with many children growing up during the war never seeing an orange until years after. One such child was Alec Murray (BBP21) who states that ‘we never saw bananas or oranges, I remember the first time after the war I saw an orange, everybody was running up to Quinn’s on the Shankill Road to get the oranges, but you were only allowed one’. Yet, the American presence in Northern Ireland from 1942 meant that more unusual foodstuffs became available with generous Yanks giving away American candy, coca cola and oranges. Renee McAllister (US2) was evacuated to Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh from Belfast, she recalls ‘one day we were coming out of school and along came this patrol of Americans and one of the kids shouted ‘It’s the Yanks! It’s the Yanks!”… there were about ten or twelve Jeeps, they called them Jeeps I think and when they saw us, they started throwing out oranges and the kids were scrambling all over. Of course there was no traffic in those days, but the kids were scrambling all over the roads, fighting for these oranges for we hadn’t seen an orange for two or three years… when we came down the road our pockets and bags were bulging. We had oranges for weeks and weeks to come…that was our tea nearly every night, an orange, and a bit of home-baked bread.’

Although the war ended in 1945, rationing continued for years afterwards with sweet rationing lasting until 1953. Allan Kilgore (BBP28) recalls that this meant ‘there was quite a black market at school for confectionary… a large number of sweet coupons for a bar of confectionary which then you got at a discounted price so the entrepreneur who was doing the selling could use your sweet coupons to buy more and he would make homemade versions of things like wagon wheels and Mars bars’.

Do you or a loved one have memories of wartime sweet rationing? If you would 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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Interviewee of the Month – Betty McIlwaine

Interviewee of the Month – Betty McIlwaine

Once a month, we highlight a person who has contributed an important wartime story to our oral history collection.

Betty McIlwaine

Our first interviewee of the month is Elizabeth (Betty) McIlwaine who we met in 2017. Betty was born in London in 1923, and at the age of five was sent to live with her great aunt & uncle in Belfast. In September 1939, when the Second World War began, she was sixteen and living on Orby Drive in Castlereagh. Betty recalled that when she heard that war had been declared, she was ‘in the sitting room in Orby Drive, looking out. A storm had come up and it occurred to me how ominous that was on such a day.’

On the night of the first heavy air raid on Belfast in 1941, Betty sheltered under the stairs with her great aunt and uncle. She recalled the constant whining of bombs and how relieved she was when the all-clear sounded. Betty visited a friend who lived nearby and whose house had been hit by a bomb. Fortunately, the bomb didn’t go off until the next day when everyone had been safely evacuated. Betty recalled ‘her mummy had purchased a piano to teach her children how to play. The bomb exploded and of course the house and three others beside where blown up. The piano keys, I remember seeing them in the field opposite, there was nothing left but everyone’s life was saved, a very horrible time because they’d lost everything.’

Betty McIlwaine

Betty loved singing and dancing, attending many classes, and joining the Ulster Opera in her youth. Her talents were recognised when a local branch of the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA) recruited her. ENSA was set up in 1939 to provide entertainment for the British armed forces during the Second World War. Betty explained ‘They used the local people because the bone fide ENSA people were being used abroad and kept in England and nobody was coming here to entertain the services, the troops here, so we were all recruited… This was in about 1942 by the time things were set up and we went all over the North of Ireland, in the camouflage bus painted green and black.’ She recalled fondly travelling all over Northern Ireland entertaining the troops with the band of entertainers. There was Mr Millar, the compére and his daughter who was a Shirley Temple impersonator, a number of singers, a dancing couple Sammy & Jean as well as the local magician Billy McComb. Billy later found international fame, performing on the Royal Variety Show and in many films in the United States.

Sadly, Betty passed away in December 2018. Her recollections of ENSA all her talented friends have contributed greatly to our collection and our understanding of entertainment for the forces, cinemas, venues and businesses in Belfast in the 1940s.

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 the 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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NIWM Copper Frieze – Sections J & K

NIWM Copper Frieze – Sections J & K

The final sections of the hammered copper frieze (J & K) highlight the shipyards in Belfast during the Second World War. Harland and Wolff completed 147 naval vessels, including 4 aircraft carriers, 2 cruisers, 24 minesweepers, 9 frigates, 47 corvettes and 550 tanks which were assembled in Carrickfergus after the blitz. Nearby, 1,200 Stirling bombers and 130 Sunderland flying boats were made at Short and Harland and its 11 dispersal factories. In addition, 3,000 aircraft were repaired. The first Worker’s Playtime radio broadcast from Northern Ireland was from Short and Harland’s aircraft factory at Sydenham. Both industries suffered greatly during the Belfast Blitz, as the shipyards were a key target for Luftwaffe raids. Both were able to recover and continue wartime production.

Section J

McKendry explained that the first figure shown in this part of the frieze is a Harland and Wolff shipyard welder and that gas bottles and gauges can be seen nearby. Another dock worker is waving. James explained that when the frieze was displayed in two parts in the original War Memorial building on Waring Street, the shipyard worker was waving at a GI on the other part of the frieze which was on the opposite side of the room. Close to the waving dock worker is a cog or a wheel which has the added symbolism of stars and stripes, paying tribute again to the US presence.

Section K

The frieze ends with a countryside scene, highlighting the importance of agriculture and the Dig for Victory campaign once again. There is a round tower which James based on The Steeple in Antrim, a 10th century round tower which stands almost 30 metres high.

We hope you have enjoyed learning more about the hammered copper frieze by James McKendry. We look forward to reopening soon so that you can see it with your own eyes. Where possible, we will arrange for the cleaning conservation work to be completed during our opening hours so that visitors can learn more about that important process.

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NIWM Copper Frieze – Sections H & I

NIWM Copper Frieze – Sections H & I

Today we are highlighting Sections H and I of the hammered copper frieze by James McKendry. The first section shows the shell of a factory which has been destroyed in the air raids of 1941. Rubble can be seen in the foreground and a tree still stands. A mill and chimney with a barrage balloon tethered above can be seen in the background.

Section H

After a slow beginning, Northern Ireland’s war production steadily accelerated. There was extensive expansion in ship building and repair, aircraft production, munitions, engineering, linen and clothing manufacture and rope making. At the time, Belfast Ropeworks was the largest in the world. One third of the ropes required by the War Office were made at Belfast Ropeworks (250,000 tons of rope), and it manufactured parachutes and camouflage netting as well. This industrial output meant that industry in Belfast was a prime target for the Luftwaffe which attacked the ill-prepared city in April and May 1941.

McKendry included a collapsed factory alongside an operational mill to make the point that ‘somebody is working back there… even though this area has been bombed… there’s a mill carrying on and a barrage balloon above it’. This reminds us that industry had to recover quickly after the air raids. Some, like Short and Harland Ltd dispersed aircraft production away from the city to rural sites.

Section I

In Section I James has included a reference to Belfast’s ship building industry, with a dockside scene and a crane ‘which is also reminiscent of a gun’. This nods to the various munition factories across Northern Ireland such as the Frazer & Haughton in Cullybackey and Ewart’s Mill on the Crumlin road. A cargo ship can be seen in the background, making the point that many dangerous journeys were made under the threat of German U-boats.

With all of this, McKendry intended to encapsulate that blitz spirit… ‘you can come and bomb our factories, but we’re going to carry on!’.

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Tea Rationing – 9th July 1940

Tea Rationing – 9th July 1940

During the Second World War, food shortages led to the introduction of rationing. In January 1940 everyone received a ration book containing coupons which they had to present every time they bought bacon, butter and sugar. This new way of shopping ensured that everyone got their fair share. As time went on more foods such as meat, tea, lard, cheese, biscuits, and dried fruits were rationed and the amounts available per person fluctuated. On 9th July 1940 (exactly 80 years ago today), the Belfast Telegraph reported that tea was rationed to 2 oz. weekly.

Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday 9th July 1940

In March 1941 John Potter added to his scrapbook, a short newspaper article announcing that jam had also been rationed.

Newspaper clipping from John Potter’s scrapbook

Our oral history collection contains many stories about food and rationing across Northern Ireland. On many accounts, rationing was not experienced as severely in NI than in the rest of the UK. Farmers were able to produce extra for their families and neighbours, while still contributing to government orders and some people crossed the border to smuggle food home on the train or by bicycle. We have heard some of the inventive approaches people adopted to ensure they got away with it and did not have to surrender their smuggled goods.

Joe O’Loughlin (W&M19) recalls that tea was plentiful here compared to the Republic of Ireland while in Northern Ireland it was difficult to get whiskey, he told us of ‘an old lady from Tyrone whose family had a pub in Bundoran and she used to travel by train up to Dungannon to see her family and the poor dear liked to keep herself warm in the wintertime, so she had one of those crockery hot water bottles to keep warm’. This meant that ‘of course she got all the sympathy of the customs man and that sort of thing… but up to Dungannon her hot water bottle was full of whiskey and then it was emptied out, dried out and filled with tea leaves for the return journey’.

Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday 9th July 1940

Tins of dried eggs became available as they took up less space on ships, and we have recorded mixed reviews of them. Mabel Williams (BBP 29) enjoyed mock banana sandwiches; ‘it was a wonderful one, towards the end of the war they got a little something like essence of vanilla but it was essence of banana and I think you used it on mashed turnip or something, it was called mock banana and people tried to use it for sandwiches.’

Many interviewees mention that they had small allotments or back gardens converted into vegetable patches, which was greatly encouraged by the government’s Dig for Victory campaign. This made food supplies more sustainable and therefore the country was less reliant on imports, which were under threat from U-Boats.

American food became a novelty to many due to the volume of American troops stationed across Northern Ireland. For many the war years mark the first time they tasted Coca-Cola or chewing gum. Maureen McAllister (US75 1) recalls going to Langford Lodge for a party as a member of the Women’s Junior Air Corps (WJAC) and vividly remembers the food. ‘The tables were there and everything was on them… fruit, chocolate cake and there was all the different cakes on it… all sweet stuff, all the things we couldn’t get… oranges… other different biscuits… it was lovely and it was amazing to have the things that we didn’t have, not because the war was on but because you didn’t get them, they weren’t in any of our shops.’

The American presence also offered opportunities to local entrepreneurs. James Connolly Stewart (US16) recalls Americans were keen on whiskey especially ‘Old Comber Whiskey’ as he states ‘’Old Comber’ was still being distilled and the local entrepreneurs gave them (the GIs) little sampers of ‘Old Comber’ and they said (imitating American accent) “Boy, this is really good stuff”. Then they sold them full bottles of Old Comber but it was actually cold tea, so I would think that that led to some punch-ups as well.’

Do you or a loved one have memories of wartime food and rationing? If you would 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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