1943… the Battle of the Atlantic rages between the Allied Forces and the Nazis as both fight to control vital shipping routes. And one small city at the edge of Europe becomes the secret weapon that gives the Allies the tactical advantage they need to win. Seventy years later, Derry-Londonderry is remembering its World War II past.
As sailors and submariners waged war on the high seas and the Allied codebreakers struggled to crack the Germans’ fabled Enigma code, Derry-Londonderry was playing its part in the war effort by hosting not one but two Allied naval bases; ‘Base One Europe’, built in great secrecy by the Americans in 1941 and later called the US Naval Operating Base, Londonderry, and the Royal Naval Base, HMS Ferret.
At the height of the war, Derry-Londonderry was home to thousands of US and British naval personnel, charged with servicing escort vessels that protected Allied merchant ships on their hazardous Atlantic crossings. It also provided respite to the US, British and Canadian crews of those ships. And in May, the city will remember its wartime history by commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in a series of events.
Honouring the past
The Royal Naval Association plans to unveil a statue of 'The International Sailor' in Ebrington, once part of HMS Ferret, which will be dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. It mirrors the statue overlooking the harbour in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the convoys used to gather before heading out to the North Atlantic. There will also be a wreath-laying ceremony and a Royal Navy ship will visit the city, harking back to the years when warships were a common sight on the river Foyle.
Views of the city
Also in May, check out an exhibition about the work of Dwight Shepler, US naval officer and ‘combat artist’, who produced a series of water colours and charcoals on life in Derry-Londonderry for the US Navy. Combat artists depicted the war as they lived it – both the heat of battle and banality of everyday life. Shepler experienced both, serving in the South Pacific before being sent to Northern Ireland in 1943, in the build-up to the D-Day landings.
He captured the daily routine of a city at war in his water colours… from the naval destroyer in the repair yard to a US Navy Bluejacket and a US Marine strolling down a Bogside street. Shepler went on to take part in the Normandy landing but his paintings from this time are a unique glimpse of a bygone era.
Derry-Londonderry had its fair share of morale-boosting wartime visits from Hollywood stars including Bob Hope and Merle Oberon. But a glamorous, Irish-American, actress-turned-war correspondent called Peggy Diggins really set the city on fire (metaphorically, of course) when she arrived on assignment in 1943 to photograph Marines stationed at the Beech Hill Camp. Peggy had been a member of the all-girl Navy Blues Sextet, appearing in the 1940 film Navy Blues before she joined the Women’s Army Corps and put her training as a photographer to use.
Beech Hill Camp
The Beech Hill Camp where Peggy wowed the troops was one of the main accommodation camps for the US Naval Operating Base in Derry-Londonderry, housing some 2,000 personnel during the war. But this wasn’t the first time the house has featured in the history of Derry-Londonderry. Once owned by a prince of the O’Cahan clan, it has been destroyed twice by retreating armies after each of the city’s sieges, was rebuilt in the 18th century and then during World War II, was transformed into an accommodation camp for the so-called ‘Irish’ Marines, who had been ordered to guard the US Naval base.
Beech Hill is now a luxury hotel whose past guests include former US President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as actor Will Ferrell. But its owners haven’t forgotten the house’s past and they’re determined to preserve its history and build a lasting memorial to the US Naval personnel and Marines who were stationed there.
If you visit the hotel, don’t miss the Base One Europe-Beech Hill Camp museum, which tells the story of the base and the camp using photographs, documents, and memorabilia. And outside, you can wander along the woodland trails and see the imprints left by the camp, a reminder of a time 70 years ago when Derry-Londonderry played its part in world events.
Today serving and veteran Marines and their families still visit the Beech Hill to carve their initials on the Marine Memory Tree, a tribute to their predecessors who found some tranquillity in these woodland camps before going on to fight harder fights in Europe and the Pacific.