Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

When the American Army Invaded Ireland


US soldiers in North Ireland, February, 1942
Photo from US Army Signal Corps
and Wikimedia Commons




















By Adrian McGrath

The American Army "invaded" Ireland in 1942. Well, it was a friendly invasion; and it was Northern Ireland. But technically speaking, at least a part of the island of Ireland was under the control of a foreign power -- the United States of America.

But unlike the other armed and dangerous men who sailed to Ireland over the many centuries -- the Vikings, the Normans, and the forces of the British Empire -- the Americans were greatly welcomed by the Irish ... and, of course, by the British too. That combination in itself was remarkable.

The American invasion was welcomed because the United States Army had come to prevent Adolf Hitler from invading Ireland with Nazi troops and to prepare for the eventual Allied liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany.

The American invasion of Ireland was so popular that some Irish actually fell in love with the American soldiers. Yes, they got married too. About 1,800 marriages occurred between Irish women and American soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland. 

Many couples sailed off to the USA after the war to take up  new lives. Some had other fates. We do not know exactly how many of these young American husbands died fighting the Germans. The average age of a US soldier in Northern Ireland was about 24 years old. (About 400,000 American soldiers died in all of World War 2.)

A dance and party on St. Patrick's Day,
March 17, 1942 in North Ireland
Irish women in uniform and American GIs
Photo from US Army Signal Corps
and Wikimedia Commons
Note the warning poster on the bulletin board
with instructions in case of a poison gas attack.

The Americans built military camps in N. Ireland for training and for preparations for battles and campaigns against the Germans, and they eventually saw combat in North Africa, Italy, the D-Day Invasion, and the Liberation of Europe.

Additionally, the US had a major Army Air Force base at Langford Lodge, east of Lough Neagh near the city of Belfast. Literally thousands of US aircraft gathered or passed through Langford for the air war against Nazi Germany. (See more here at the Ulster Aviation Society. And see American Air Museum Britain.) 

A type of American aircraft used at Langford Lodge,
a P38 Lightning, fighter bomber. The Lockheed
Company, which made the P38, helped run the base.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons
The Americans eventually came to N. Ireland in tremendous numbers; and although they could occasionally cause trouble and be a nuisance, there is no doubt that they were welcomed. One reason was the Germans actually had a plan to invade Ireland early in the war. It was called Operation Green (Fall Gruen). It was to occur in conjunction with the German plan to amphibiously invade Britain called Operation Sealion (Unternehmen Seeloewe). 

Operation Green never occurred because Sealion was prevented mainly because the Royal Air Force (British RAF) stopped the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) in the Battle of Britain in 1940, two years before the Americans arrived. But no one really knew for sure if the Germans would or could invade Britain or Ireland. 

Northern Ireland was controlled by Great Britain then and militarily active during the war, while the south of Ireland -- today called the Republic of Ireland -- was neutral. (How the island of Ireland got divided in two is another long, long story. Read about that at my article on the Easter Rising.)

Hitler's main attention was on an eventual war against the Soviet Union, a desire for Lebensraum or living space. The Germans, however, certainly remained a threat to Britain and N. Ireland with air power and later in the war with special "wonder weapons" like long range rockets -- the V1 buzzbomb and the very futuristic V2. 

Indeed in April and May of 1941 there was something called the Belfast Blitz where Nazi airplanes bombed the city and other parts of N. Ireland. About 1000 people were killed; and over 1,500 people were wounded -- primarily civilians. It should be added that, although a neutral state, Ireland (the South) was also hit be a few German bombs, and there were casualties and property damage and a some deaths, under 100. The typical explanation was navigational error, but it could also have been a Nazi warning to the Irish in the south not to aid the people in the north. 

The terrible results of a German air raid in Belfast,
N. Ireland in 1941. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The name of the American invasion of N. Ireland was called Operation Magnet. Magnet was first devised by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when Churchill visited Washington DC in late December of 1941. 

US troops on special secret missions had been coming to N. Ireland even before the official American entry into World War 2, before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Specialists came to plan and to assist in the Lend-Lease mission. (Lend Lease was a plan of President Franklin Roosevelt's to help supply Britain with needed war equipment.) The placement of US troops into N. Ireland was actually the first overseas deployment of American troops in force in World War 2.

American soldiers being transported
to Ireland in January, 1942
Photo from US Army Signal Corps, photo #145230
Also see history.army.mil
N. Ireland was seen as critical for the Battle of the Atlantic. This was a sea campaign to keep to supply lines open from the United States to Britain. Ships would land in N. Ireland. German U-Boats (submarines) and some German surface ships, like the infamous Bismarck, threatened these sea lanes.

It is believed that eventually about 300,000 American soldiers came to N. Ireland during the war. This represented about 10 percent of the population of N. Ireland. So, Northern Ireland was becoming Americanized to some extent. The American soldiers guarded the country, so that that the British troops could leave and be deployed to various places around the globe. Britain would eventually fight the Japanese in the Far East as well as the Germans and Benito Mussolini's Fascist army.

One of the interesting and positive facts of the US deployment of soldiers in N. Ireland concerns African American servicemen. Although there was still much discrimination and indeed legalized segregation in the USA, the African American soldiers stationed in N. Ireland were welcomed by the Irish and treated properly without discrimination. 

An example of this is the friendly treatment of sailors from the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer. Its crew was mainly African American -- only one of two US Navy ships with mainly African American crews. It was originally from Boston, Massachusetts but based in Belfast. The USS Mason saw action in the North Atlantic protecting supply convoys. 

Reportedly, some of the USS Mason African American sailors once had liberty (a day off) in the city of Derry. They went into town apprehensive about how they would be treated. They discovered that they were respected and treated politely and well by the Irish people, with far better treatment than they often received at home in the segregated USA.

Discrimination existed in the segregated US military, and African Americans were typically assigned to menial work. The skilled positions on the USS Mason (and the USS PC-1264, a submarine chaser) were exceptions to the rule and even experimental.

USS Mason (DE 529), a US Navy destroyer escort which protected
Allied supply ships in the North Atlantic from Boston
to Belfast among other duties. It and one other ship
were the only US Navy ships which had largely
African American crews.
Photo from the US Navy and Wikimedia Commons
Famous American generals came to N. Ireland as well. Among the important leaders who came were George S. Patton, "old blood and guts," and, of course, the man who would lead all of the Allied troops at the D-Day Normandy Invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ("Ike"), who later became a US president.

American leaders in the European Theater
of Operations in World War 2, 1945, many of whom, including
Eisenhower and Patton were in Ireland in 1942.
Photo from US Army, National Archives, and Wikimedia
Commons. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower is seated in the middle
of the first row. Gen. George S. Patton, wearing a helmet, is on the
first row, second from the left. 


Ike went to Enniskillen in Fermanagh in May of 1944. The General visited US soldiers who were about to invade the German Atlantic Wall on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Many of the US troops were stationed at a place called Celtic Park in Enniskillen and at Portora Royal School. (A playing field there, where US soldiers once marched and drilled, was later named after General Eisenhower. See more here.)


The first US Army unit to arrive in force was the 34th Division, called "Red Bull Division." It came in January, 1942 from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York to Belfast. Reportedly a German U-Boat attempted to attack the American transport ship, but it was defeated by a US Navy ship. The Americans were met by cheering Irish people and a musical band as the GIs disembarked from the transport vessel called the Chateau Tierry and a sister ship called the Stratford.
American soldiers building a steel hut
in Ireland in 1942 for US soldiers
Photo 138660 from US Army Signal Corps,
from army.mil


The first American officially to enter N. Ireland was a soldier from Minnesota named Milburn H. Henke. The first official American unit was Company B, 133rd Infantry Regiment from the 34 Division of the Minnesota National Guard.

It is interesting to note that the US government issued US soldiers booklets about how to behave in N. Ireland. These were called US War Office Pocket Guides. The booklets told the Americans not to brag and boast, how to behave and not to behave towards the locals -- and towards Irish women too -- and what to talk about and what not to talk about. The guides also mentioned the special relationship America had (and still has with Ireland) since many Americans have an Irish ancestry -- from North and South Irish, and Catholic and Protestant Irish.

The guide booklets ended with two pieces of simple and very sage advice, emphasizing this applied especially to Ireland: 1. do not argue religion, 2. do not argue politics.  Yes, some very good advice from the US War Office from back in 1942.

US Army Signal Corps Photo 132954
US soldiers in Northern Ireland on
maneuvers, preparing for war, 1942


An interesting footnote for military history buffs is this. The American soldiers could have been given the newer style steel helmet used throughout most of World War 2 by the American

military, but they were deliberately issued the old World War 1 style American "tin hats" which, in fact, resemble British helmets. The reason was that it was feared that the local civilians and the home guard in N. Ireland would not recognize the newer American helmets and think the American soldiers were invading German soldiers, since the newer helmets looked more like German helmets than the British helmets or the World War 1 "tin hats." 


Ultimately, this is what the American soldiers
in N. Ireland were preparing for, and things like this --
D-Day, June 6, 1944 at Normandy, France.
Photo "Into the Jaws of Death" taken by US Coast Guard
Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargent in a LCVP
landing craft (Higgin's Boat) -- Company E, 16th Infantry,
1st Infantry Division, Big Red One, US Army -- Fox Green, Omaha Beach.
Omaha Beach was the most heavily defended invasion beach on D-Day.
The well experienced German 352 Division was dug in. The Americans
suffered over 2,000 casualties on Omaha Beach on D-Day, but they prevailed.




Sources and Further Reading: US government documents on the Irish mission, see this; "The Yanks are Coming" from irelandseye.com; "American Troops Arrive in Northern Ireland" -- article at wartimeni.com; US Army website about the Irish in the US army. About the USAAF in N. Ireland at the Ulster Aviation Society .



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