Ahead of D-Day we look back at the local contribution to World War Two

Ahead of D-Day we look back at the local contribution to World War Two

Date: 05/06/2015 11:07

On the eve of D-Day, we delve into the Digital Film Archive's World War Two collection and examine Northern Ireland's role in the conflict. The region's participation in the Second World War was substantial and complex. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, there was no enforced conscription to the British Army for those in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, many men and women - from both Northern Ireland and the south - enlisted voluntarily into the Allied forces.

The numbers were not insignificent, with 38,000 volunteering from Northern Ireland - at least 7,000 of whom were women. Remarkably,  some 43,000 people from - the ostensibly neutral - Éire also joined the British Armed forces during the war. Volunteers from Ireland - north and south - and from both the Unionist and Nationalist communities would play their part in some of the most brutal campaigns, from the Battle of The Atlantic to the D-Day landings. 

However, Northern Ireland's contribution was not confined to the men and women who enlisted in the British Armed forces. Those at  home had their own part to play, with many joining the Ulster Home Guard, a civilian army that supported the work of the regular army.  Meanwhile Northern Ireland's industries and agriculture were also being adapted for the war effort. In terms of miltary output, Northern Ireland provided some 143 warships, a similar number of merchant ships and converted, or repaired, thousands more vessels. No wonder that the workforce of Harland & Wolff tripled between 1939 and 1945.

Elsewhere, Shorts produced 1,200 Stirling Bombers and 125 Sunderland Flying Boats, whilst the famed Northern Irish linen industry was put to work making cloth that would be utilised in everything from uniforms to parachutes. The efforts of Northern Ireland's agriculture sector was also hugely important, the country becoming a war-time larder from which some 17,000 gallons of milk a day were exported to the mainland.

For many of those at home, life during war-time was relatively untainted by the events that were happening elsewhere, birthdays, weddings and the other milestones of life were marked as usual, though the effects of food rationing were keenly felt. Nonetheless, any sense that the region was at a remove from the destruction that had decimated much of the rest of Europe was shattered by the events of April and May 1941, the Belfast Blitz seeing terrible loss of life and damage visited upon the city and its residents.

Another way in which Northern Ireland's involvement in World War Two proved pivotal was in its use as a training camp and staging post for large numbers of Allied troops, not least the estimated 300,000 American servicemen who passed through the country during the conflict. Notably, many of the second wave of American troops who were stationed and trained here would take part in the decisive D-Day landings.