My father Norman ran away from home pre WWII and joined the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers at Omagh in 1936. On the same day he met George Boone from Draperstown, also joining R.I.F. at Omagh.
Dad’s home was at No.5 Red Row, Gilford. On joining the army he first went to Aldershot for training, and was then sent to Palestine and the Holy Lands, in a peace-keeping role between the Jews and Arabs. He also spent some time in Egypt. When World War II was declared dad was posted to Malta. On the way there, in the Mediterranean going towards Malta, there was a very large convoy of enemy troopships in the vicinity. A torpedo was launched, missed my dad’s ship, but it crossed over and hit a massive ship alongside. It was too dangerous and my dad’s ship was unable to stop to help. Within minutes the other ship sank and thousands died.
In Malta the 2nd Battalion stayed nearly five years. Malta was very heavily bombed and much of their work entailed filling in bomb holes in the airstrip, etc. It was a very exposed site to work – still regularly under air attack, and dad and his colleagues were sitting ducks, with no place to take cover.
After Malta the 2nd Battalion was shipped to Leros, Greece. Leros was a very tiny island, very desirable to Germany, who wanted it as a possible landing strip to fill the need of a fuelling point for planes.
The Island was attacked and bombed for six days and six nights. Only three-hundred of the Regiment survived the heavy assault, and were taken prisoner. Within the ranks of that three-hundred were my dad, his mate George Boone (from Draperstown) and Gilford men Gerald McManus and Paddy Byrne (Tiny). These four men were not together in Leros, nor when taken prisoner). After a six day assault, there were thousands of bodies, dreadful stench, flies, etc. The British were brought into the Port of Pyreas, (the main port of Athens), and marched through it to a railway station. There they were packed like the Jews onto cattle wagons. They were kept in these wagons for eleven days, each carriage packed solid with men – no room to lie down – no let up. There was only one tiny window, high in the ceiling, covered with wire across the top. Dad and the other prisoners were fed once daily – one slice of bread and one drink. Their only toilet was a tin in the corner of the carriage, surrounded by fellow prisoners. Eventually the men arrived at their internment camp in Bavaria.
On the way there, their train had travelled through Munich and Berlin. British Bombers flew overhead continuing to bomb these cities. When the Germans guards heard the bombers they took cover, leaving the train and prisoners totally exposed to any danger.
When the prisoners eventually arrived in the internment camp, they were made to tramp fifteen kilometres each day to carry out hard physical work such as fencing, etc. The weather was atrocious, with severe snow blizzards. Often the men could scarcely see one another. After about eighteen months the camp was liberated by Americans, and prisoners were released.
Dad told me how a nearby bombed BMW factory was looted during the jubilations. Paddy Burns, who had been a despatch rider, helped himself to a high-powered BMW motorbike. Most of the men had accumulated some items of memorabilia. They wanted something to bring home, but the Americans insisted souvenirs be dumped and Paddy’s motorbike had to be left behind. Dad did manage to return home with six silver coloured drinking goblets in a case, made and given to him by one of the Germans.
On returning to England my dad was placed on guard duties at St James’s Palace, London. After the liberation he met up again with George Boone and both were issued with demob suits and came home to Gilford. During the war neither was aware if the other one had survived. Both were normally big, well-built men. Now they weighed only about eight stone.
My dad met up again with Belle McAdam from Gilford, whom he had known before the war. George met dad’s sister Anna Greenfield and decided to stay on in Gilford. He never did go home to Draperstown. On one occasion, having discovered George’s whereabouts, George’s father cycled from Draperstown, Co. Derry to see him. That same evening he left to cycle back to Draperstown. George Boone married Anna Greenfield in September 1946 and on that same day dad married my mother Belle McAdam. All spent the rest of their days in Gilford.
As for the demob suit, I’m sure Dad would be pleased to know, that over sixty years later, my son Myles continues to wear the black jacket as his Bowling Club blazer.