THE WAR YEARS

Those of the Strand Congregation whose memories carry them back to the the days of the Second World War will remember Londonderry as a city virtually taken over by the Forces, but more particularly by the Navies of Britain, Canada and America. From 1941 American technicians and local contractors worked to create the conditions in which the Services could maximise their efforts, and from that time on the quaysides and roads of the city and the airfields adjacent to it carried a vast traffic and the city was brought on to the world stage in a demanding and fulfilling role. Day and night for four long years the waterfront was to be a hive of activity. Day and night through those years corvettes, destroyers and frigates limped in to the shelter of Lough Foyle and the Derry quays for sorely needed repairs after savage encounters with the cruel sea and a remorseless enemy in the shape of the U-boat packs. Geography had placed Ulster and Derry in particular in the front line of the ocean war in the 1940's and Strand Church by virtue of its central position on the quayside road was to be witness to much life generated by the global conflict.

The congregation of those days, ably led by the Rev. (later Dr.) W. A. Montgomery, M.A. played a full part in the life of a city at war. The church and hall were open to all servicemen as havens for rest and prayer, and many officers and sailors, naval and merchant marine, were seen at services and the uniforms worn would have included those of the American, Canadian, Dutch and Norwegian Navies as well as those of the Royal Navy. Many of the congregation extended hospitality to servicemen in their homes, or gave the matelots short-stay accommodation which enabled them to rest properly after long periods spent at sea in perilous convoy duties.

There were not a few canteens throughout the city. One of the largest of these was sited in the Y.M.C.A. building on East Wall, and it was staffed and supported by volunteers from fourteen Protestant churches working on a rota system. Men and women from Strand organised by Rev. and Mrs. W. A. Montgomery, Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Crockett and others took turns to help, and soldiers, sailors and airmen could enjoy a meal and a break from duty in these surroundings. Mr. J. A. Crockett was secretary of this venture and it is estimated that some 250,000 service personnel passed through the doors of this particular canteen. The volunteer helpers often had to make their way home late at night on foot in the blackout, a hazardous enough proceeding in itself.

Before the outbreak of war in 1939 members had enrolled in the A.R.P. services, others in the Auxiliary Fire Service. With the introduction of the L.D.V's in 1940 (later called the Home Guard), another avenue of service opened up and several church members joined this force. In April, 1941 the designation of this force was altered to Ulster Home Guard and it then included Ulster Special Constabulary units as well as the former L.D.V. Another uniform on view was the dark green of the W.V.S., later to be called the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. They undertook a great variety of duties - one congregational member received the B.E.M. and another was selected to represent the W.V.S in the Victory Parade in London after the war. Yet others brought their energies and skills to bear in the nursing and ambulance services, and in the work of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade.

It can be seen therefore that the minister and congregation of· Strand Presbyterian Church were very much involved in the dramatic and harrowing struggle going on around them. By 1943 the tempo of that struggle had increased to the stage where Londonderry was the largest escort base of the United Kingdom. In the words of Professor J. W. Blake, carrying nearly 20,000 personnel on the books of H.M.S. Ferret, Londonderry was supporting an escort force of 139 British and Canadian and 10 American warships, a force more than twice the size of that at Liverpool and ten times larger than the Greenock escort force. With |British and American army units in the surrounding countryside and the city covered by barrage balloons whose sites were staffed by R.A.F. crews, the location was an armed camp and the the citizens including our own members wether belonging to one of the auxiliary forces or simply carrying on with their own work and firewatching at night - were making an important and vital contribution to what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

Such was the vital work undertaken by the Home Front during 1939-45, but there were other trials to be endured too and throughout the war years volunteers from Strand left to take their place in the various service branches in many different theatres of war. The Memorial Tablet lists the names of ninety-seven men and twenty-two women. Not unnaturally the largest proportion served in what we think of as the local regiment and it can be said that approximately twenty-five Strand men were to be found in the ranks of the 9th (Londonderry) H,A.A. Regiment, R.A. This regiment - 550 officers and men of two batteries - left the city on Saturday afternoon, 4th November, 1939, and they were not to return home until 1944. They carried the main burden of the A.A. defence of Alexandria for some eighteen months and one battery was for a time the sole A.A. defence of Port Sudan; a centre of the East African campaign. Batteries also served in the Holy Land in 1942 before joining Montgomery's Eighth Army; later they were to be deployed for the defence of Tripoli Harbour. On D-day + 6 at Salerno they were rushed into the front line as infantry at
a critical moment, an incident mentioned by the eminent archaeologist, the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler, in a book of his reminiscences. The Fifth Army advance through Italy saw the Derrymen reverting to their normal role as artillerymen. Other church members were to be found in the ranks of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the North Irish Horse.

On Sunday morning, 1st May, 1949 the Rev. J. H. R. Gibson, M.A., D.D., then Clerk to Assembly and later a Moderator of the General Assembly, unveiled and dedicated the Memorial Window commemorating the Sacrifice of all from the Congregation who served, and particularly of the Three Members who were Faithful unto death in the World War 1939-1945. During the service there was a roll-call of the names of those who gave their lives -

WILLIAM BERT BOARDMAN, Royal Navy, aged 17½ years, lost at sea when the aircraft-carrier H.M.S. Glorious was sunk by the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau after the withdrawal from Narvik in 1940.

MARSHALL WILSON, Royal Navy, lost at sea when H.M.S. Itchen went down with all hands in the Atlantic.

ROBERT GILMOUR YOUNG, Royal Air Force, sergeant-observer, 144 Squadron, Bomber Command, lost during the Battle of Britain.

Of those who returned two who were commissioned in the Royal Air Force were to play a prominent part in the life of the Province some years later. The Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Porter: Q.C. became Minister of Home Affairs in the Northern Ireland government and subsequently a county court judge and Recorder of the City of Londonderry, while Dr. James Kincade was headmaster of the Royal School, Dungannon before becoming head of Ulster's largest grammar school, Methodist College Belfast.
Captain R. W. Cunningham. R.A.M,C. - 'Doctor Ronnie' to many in the Congregation and the city - served first with the Derry regiment and later was awarded the Commander-in-Chief's Certificate, North-West Europe, December 1944 and mentioned in Despatches, North-West Europe, April 1946.  T. F. Glass who came to the church with his uncle, the late Mr. Harry S.  Robinson, then Congregational Secretary, became a colonel and was awarded the O.B.E.  J. W. Stevenson, who won a Military Medal in the First World War in an action in which he was wounded, joined up again and was to serve throughout the 1939-45 war in the Pioneer Corps as a C.S.M.  Robert A. Mitchell, joining up in 1914 at sixteen years of age, served in the North Irish Horse and the Royal Irish Fusiliers before being gassed and taken prisoner, but this did not deter him from enlisting in 1939 and subsequently he found himself in North Africa and Italy with the R.A.S.C.  During these long years some were wounded and others had to endure the rigours of life in distant P.O.W. camps before  being able to return home to family and friends. And one imagines that almost all, whatever their experience, would have echoed the words of the Psalmist in saying:

'if that the Lord had not our cause maintained,
if that the Lord had not our right sustained,'
then 'cruel men' might indeed have had their way.

 As a postscript it is interesting to note that the connection of our church with the Services is maintained today by our minister, the Rev. Maurice Bolton, B.A., presently A chaplain with the 4th (V) Battalion Royal Irish Rangers. Mr. Bolton, who holds the Territorial Decoration award, has served on tours of duty in the United Kingdom, Cyprus and Germany.

Acknowledgement is made to Professor J. W. Blake, C.B.E., D.Litt, for permission to quote from NORTHERN IRELAND IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR (HMSO, 1956)