Land, sea and air – the role of our locally grown heroes

Harland and Wolff built V/1500 bombers for the war effort
Harland and Wolff built V/1500 bombers for the war effort

The main commemorative accounts throughout the week are about fighting on land, sea and in the air, and the role played by local men and women.

Here, as the men left home for the front, Ulster’s women went to work – as bus conductors, military nurses, drivers, munitions workers and in engineering.

Local textile and agricultural industries delivered a substantial output. Aircraft production and particularly shipbuilding played an immense role in the war effort.

In Londonderry around 2,000 men worked extended day and night shifts repairing and replacing Allied ships which had been damaged or virtually destroyed.

Nearby, much of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, including eight mighty battleships, were based in Lough Swilly, Co Donegal.

Belfast was used as a trawler base by the Royal Navy, to maintain and patrol the anti-submarine nets between Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre.

Larne provided some historic vessels for WWI’s cruel seas, one of them, the heroic Result, is currently in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Belfast-built ships and port facilities made an enormous impact on the Great War, when Harland and Wolff maintained six big slipways, three smaller ones, and two large dry docks.

With around 15,000 employees the yard launched about a dozen merchant ships, the light battle cruiser HMS Glorious, seven big monitors, three smaller monitors, the cruiser HMS Cavendish (converted into the seaplane carrier HMS Vindictive) and other wartime vessels.

Titanic’s heroic sister-ship, the hospital ship Britannic, was ready for duty on December 8 1915. Another of the iconic triplets, Olympic, was the war’s biggest and most famous troop ship.

The Belfast-built 8,000 -ton RMS Brecknockshire, launched in 1916, became the city’s second vessel after Titanic to sink on her maiden voyage. She was captured and blown up by a U-boat.

Meanwhile, Belfast’s ‘wee’ (which it wasn’t!) yard Workman Clark launched a substantial number of wartime merchant vessels, as well as two small monitors, three flower-class sloops, seven patrol boats and several boom defence vessels.

In their book ‘Shipbuilders To The World’ Michael Moss and John R Hume state unequivocally that Belfast’s two yards were “in the van” of Britain’s shipbuilding output and “Harland and Wolff provided more standard ships than any other (British) company.” WWI accelerated Lagan-built output to breathtaking pace. “Workman Clark, whose reputation for breaking riveting records was unchallenged, set up an incredible example.”

Moss and Hume tell of a ship that was fully fitted out with engines, machinery and ventilation, ready for sea, just three days after her virtually featureless hull had been launched.

Our railway system was as good as nationalised, with the different companies borrowing and exchanging engines, rolling stock and equipment. Belfast port had its own railway system which was ideally suited to embarking troops, who constantly arrived by train on the quays, and immediately transferred to awaiting troop ships.

Many Belfast-built vessels launched prior to war played a historic role in WWI, and will be highlighted here later in the week, as will the Birkenhead-built HMS Caroline, which came to Belfast when war ended and is still here in all her glory.

Local people and local industries regularly provided innovative services in other vital areas, such as Belfast-men Dr Thomas Houston and Dr John McCloy who discovered an early breakthrough in the fight against debilitating Trench Fever. Read more during the week.

In their book ‘Military Aviation in Northern Ireland’ Guy Warner and Ernie Cromie recount that in the run up to war, on September 1 1913, five BE2a planes and a sixth single Maurice Farman Longhorn plane from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC No 2 Squadron based at Montrose) flew from Scotland to Limerick to take part in manoeuvres.

The Longhorn refuelled for the journey – on the beach near the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle.

Later in September four more BE2a planes landed near Bryansford and Dundrum to attach floating gear to the aircraft.

Warner and Cromie’s book reveals “the airmen were ‘royally entertained’ to lunch in the clubhouse of the Royal County Down Golf Club.”

For afters, one of the pilots served up a flying display!

Between 1914 and 1918 almost two dozen airfields and airship bases were rolled out across Ireland, built for the soon to be established RAF when the RFC and the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) amalgamated. Some of the air bases were also used by the US Naval Air Service.

The north of Ireland’s first fully-operational wartime air facility was at Bentra, close to Whitehead in Co Antrim. Guy Warner and Ernie Cromie specify it as “an airship mooring-out station … provided by the RNAS, Luce Bay at Stranraer being its parent operating base for coastal patrol airships of the SS and later SSZ classes.”

A regular duty of the airships was escorting the Larne-Stranraer ferry, keeping lookout for enemy submarines.

The authors note “in the case of unfavourable weather, the facilities provided at Bentra included a 150-feet long portable airship shed which was used extensively during the last two years of the war”.

Meanwhile, accommodation for aircraft and airmen at Strathroy airfield near Omagh was mostly in tents. In Belfast Harland and Wolff was also building planes where, by 1917, 300 Avro fighters and seven V/1500 bombers had been completed.

Besides the immense human loss and trauma of war, such was its impact here that when armistice was declared on November 11 1918 the workforce on and around the River Lagan spontaneously downed tools “and took a week’s holiday to celebrate” according to Hume and Young.

This hugely contrasted with the four dark and tragic years that came before, an historic story continued in tomorrow’s News Letter.