Shortly after the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940, the first of the British troops began arriving in Gilford, most were to remain until the beginning of 1944, but other troops came and went for shorts periods only
The first troops to arrive were the advance parties from 582 and 583 Companies of Royal Engineers. These men arrived in Gilford having already fought in Holland, Belgium and France, and having survived the evacuation at Dunkirk. They were all based within the Gilford Castle demesne. Soon the Ordnance Corps and Pioneer Corps arrived and were based near the back gates of the Mill Yard, and also in the Orange Hall, the Masonic Hall and the Old British Legion Hall – all of which were along the Stramore Road. At that time the British Legion was based in a building on the present site of Stramore Park housing development.
Six weeks after these first troops arrived, 297 Coy. Royal Engineers arrived, as well as the remaining troops from 582 Coy, and 583 Coy. Together these engineers became affectionately known as Gilford’s “Home Guard,” as they spent more than three years in the town. They were basically the tradesmen of the army. After the bombing of Belfast in April and May 1941, at least ten to twelve army trucks a day left Gilford for Belfast, where they took down bombed and unsafe buildings, and helped with rescue operations.
The possibility of enemy invasion was uppermost in the minds of the army, and one of the first tasks of the engineers in Gilford, was to create a concealed room underneath the bridge in the town. When completed, the army sappers placed explosives in the room, where they remained for the rest of the war. The Canal Bridge in Scarva was similarly mined. The intention was to blow up all road and rail bridges over the Bann and the Newry Canal, and in the event of a German invasion to use the waterways as a defensive ditch. In Gilford, near the bottom of Whinney Hill, tunnels ran from both sides of the bridge to the underground room. Although the tunnels are now sealed up, the room still exists, located close to the mail-box at Bridge House.
These men arrived from Belfast by train at Madden Station. They arrived approximately six weeks ahead of the main group of engineers and marched the three miles from the station, via Whinney Hill to Gilford, and turned right to their camp which was situated at the “Blue Doors,” (the bottom of the Wall Road), now known as Loughbrickland Road. The camp ran from the junction of Tandragee Road, half-way up the hill to the gate-lodge. At this stage the men had no idea of their destination. When they had heard they were being posted to Northern Ireland, they had presumed they were going to Belfast, instead they found themselves in Gilford.
Six weeks later when the full complement of the Engineers arrived. The remainder of 582 Company moved into the newly built camp at the bottom of the Wall Road. Now that the Nissan huts were ready, the men slept on camp-beds, which were inspected daily. The huts had a stove for heat, but some officers deliberately did not allow them to be used, as they reckoned the soldiers needed toughening up for what might lie ahead. The men used their great-coats to help keep warm during the cold nights. Sometimes the soldiers were called out in the middle of the night to practice bridge-building. Often they had to work, standing in the middle of a river, in order to simulate anticipated conditions which they would later have to endure. On occasions the men would also be starved of rations, sometimes for a few days.
As one of the three Companies of Engineers in the town, they shared many of the facilities with the other engineers and troops, such as the showers which they had built alongside the mill race, near the bridge in the town.
582 Company left Gilford for Lambeg, Co Antrim, approximately one year ahead of the other engineers, and eventually moved to the South of England roughly six months prior to D Day. In England they were all placed in enormous camps, and allowed no outside contact with families or friends. The men suspected they were bound for France, but had no idea if this was correct, or when they would be leaving, for it was vital that there was no possibility of information being leaked to the enemy. Eventually with faces blackened, they left for France.
Some of the men, including Joe Milne from Cowie in Scotland was one of these engineers. He found himself attached to the Winnipeg Rifles for the invasion of France. Joe recalled that there were so many landing-craft there was barely room to disembark on the Normandy beaches. In the midst of the heavy air raids and naval bombardment the men made it ashore. Later they joined assault troops as they moved forward in their own armoured vehicles to lay pipelines, build roads and bridges across the Elbe and Rhine to take tanks across. When they eventually crossed the Rhine in landing craft they brought back with them many young German prisoners, most were only sixteen or seventeen years old and were absolutely terrified.
On coming to Northern Ireland later in 1940, the men from this advance-party also arrived at the Madden station. They had the luxury of being transported in army trucks, the three miles to their site at the top-end of the Wall Road, just above the gate-lodge in the grounds of Gilford Castle.
Once again there was torrential rain in Gilford, and on arrival these engineers found an empty field, saturated with rain. The men had to live under canvas until they built their own camp, including a place for meals. It was only after these huts were ready that the men were able to get dried out, and the remainder of their Company arrived.
They also built wash rooms at the camp for personal washing, where they were able to have a basic top-and-tail wash. They usually had a weekly wash in the large vats (normally used for washing and bleaching yarn) which were situated at the back gates of Gilford Mill yard. Here the men bathed, with up to eight men sharing the large “baths.”
Freddie French, an English soldier, originally from Gravesend, Kent arrived in Gilford with this advance party. Freddie still lives in the town, and was trained as motor-cycle despatch rider with the army. Whilst here during the war he met and married Fleda Law, who lived close to the army camp at Wall Road. Freddie had also been part of the British Expeditionary Forces evacuated at Dunkirk, and had already endured fierce fighting – at times behind enemy lines – in Holland, Belgium and France.
He still remembers how all their clothes were damp from lying on the wet ground. Each week vest, pants, and shirts, which were all labelled with names, were sent to the Pioneer Corps at Gilford Mill Yard, where they were washed and returned. The soldiers had only one change of clothes. He recalls how when they returned to France after D Day they had only two tiny boxes of water every week to wash uniforms. They stripped, washed themselves, boiled the water, changed clothes and then used the same water to wash dirty garments, but by this time there was little time to worry about appearances.
Freddie also recalls how when the engineers were going up through Holland, they were destroying anything that could possibly be useful to the enemy (factories and petrol dumps etc) as the German paratroopers were closing in on them. They also managed to save nearly £10 million of gold from the banks in Rotterdam during heavy air raids.
297 Company arrived with the other engineers shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. Unlike the 582 and 583 Company troops who had arrived six weeks earlier, and who had been part of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, these men were seeing their first tour of duty.
Like the other engineers they were encamped in the Gilford Castle estate, although their camp was on the other side of the River Bann and situated at the front of the Castle grounds, at both sides of the main avenue. Their camp ran alongside the main Banbridge Road running back towards the Castle. The Castle itself, (a private residence), was not used by the troops although its owner Wing-Commander Michael Wright was himself away on duty with the R.A.F. Like all the other camps in Gilford there were sentry posts at the entrances, and deep grooves are still visible on the sandstone pillars at the front gates of the castle, where the sentries sharpened their bayonets.
Cyril Harley, an English soldier, was a driver with 297 Company. Whilst here he met and married Olive Whitten from Terry’s Row. Shortly after they married Cyril and some of 297 Company were sent to Egypt. Whilst there, Cyril was shot and spent a short time in hospital. After the war he returned to live with his family in Gilford. Frank Melville from Dundee, Scotland was another soldier with 297 Company. Whilst here he met Mary Mawhinney from Tullylish and when war ended they married and returned to live in Dundee.
The Commanding Officer of 297 Company was very friendly with the Managing Director of the mill, who lived in Dunbarton House, and an underground air-raid bunker was built at this private residence, which still exists.
Under the influence of this Commanding Officer, 297 Company also cleared out McCaugherty’s pond which was situated in the grounds of Dunbarton House, and converted it into a large swimming pool. The pond had previously been used as a reservoir for the mill. The nearby drying rooms were converted into changing facilities. The men dug out the mud with spades, later putting ladders down as the pool became deeper. Two human chains were formed and the mud was passed in hundreds of buckets along the fields, where it was carefully emptied. A high diving board, a low spring board, and a chute were positioned around the pool and seating surrounded the whole area. Later the pool was beautifully landscaped with rhododendrons, lilac, laburnum and various other shrubs.
Initially the pool was built for relaxation purposes for the army, but soon it was being used for training. After a while swimming galas were being held by the soldiers, with the Military hierarchy usually in attendance. Local troops challenged the Royal Air Force from Aldergrove or perhaps Greencastle, as well as other Army regiments in the area to 100 yards swimming, diving displays etc. The general public were always welcome at these events, and there was also the pleasure of listening to the various military bands. After the war ended, the pool was very widely used by the general public. People travelled from Belfast, Lisburn, and all over Northern Ireland to use the facilities. At the time the only other comparative pool, capable of holding international competitions was at the Grove Swimming baths in Belfast. In the early 1950’s, at one of the many swimming and international events that took place in the Gilford pool, a swimming display was given by Leading Seaman James Magennis V.C. – Northern Ireland’s only recipient of the Victoria Cross during the second world war.
297 Company, whilst in Gilford, had in its ranks at least two footballers of international standing who regularly played or refereed games at the various local football fields. One such field was the site of the present Castle Meadows, opposite their camp at Banbridge Road. Another was in a field near Banford pump, at the end of Parkstown Lane, Tullylish. A third pitch was at the Tandragee Road end of Park Lane in what was then Billy White’s field. Billy’s barn was used as their changing room. Teams came from various Army or R.A.F. camps around the country. Portadown Juniors sometimes played too, and at other times the opposition was purely civilian.
Incidentally, the football players stationed in Gilford with 297 Company were Jack Lowden who played for Newcastle United, and Bobby Cairns who came from Methil and played for East Fife. Another well-known German football player who was here was Bert Trautman. He was actually in Gilford as a prisoner-of-war. After the war he played as goalkeeper for Manchester City. He is particularly remembered for the 1956 F.A. Cup Match against Birmingham City, during which he broke his neck, but continued on playing for the final fifteen minutes of the game. After the war Bert took up English Citizenship and played as goalkeeper for the England International football team.
297 Company had also a number of highly talented musicians in their ranks, many of whom had played with bands before being conscripted. While they were in Gilford the men formed their own regimental band. Although unofficial, the band paraded the town each Sunday morning, followed by the troops on their way to the various Churches. It also played at various army events.
One of the bandsmen was Raymond Griffiths from England who played a trumpet in the band. Whilst here he met his future wife Maria Adamson, and after the war endedthey moved to England. Brendan Kennedy’s sister Peggy also married one of these bandsmen. Peggy’s husband Eric Fancett, was a professional saxophone player and played with the famous Henry Hall Orchestra. Brendan thinks while he was here he also played with the Albert Wilson dance-band from Portadown.
Whilst in Gilford, 297 Company were initially training for raids on Italy and North Africa, but both were cancelled. In 1943 they moved to England to prepare for the invasion of France. There they trained, constructed floating bailey bridges over large rivers. Later they moved to the Southampton area where they built pontoons. These were then moved by sea to the Invasion beaches to construct floating piers.
In France and Germany the Corps built the large floating bridges as trained. The longest was the Sparrow Bridge over the Rhine – 1700 feet. They also opened up the route across the Emms Canal so food and materials could be moved into Central Germany.
PIONEER CORPS AND ORDNANCE CORPS
These men built the Elmfield P.O.W. camp. Like the Engineers they came to Gilford early in 1940 to prepare the camps. The Ordnance Corps were billeted in the old Orange Hall, the Masonic Hall, and the old British Legion Hall on the Stramore Road.
Sergeant Major Johnston of the Ordnance Corps was based in the Orange Hall. He was a red-faced, grey-haired man who went daily to Hannah Robert’s local shop for the papers, always carrying his cane under his arm.
Jimmy Woolrich who married Minnie Curran from Whinney Hill came here with the Ordnance Corps. Fred Robinson (known affectionately as Tojo) who married Minnie McAdam also worked in the laundry at the Mill Yard and Len Whimpanny was another soldier with the R.A.O.C. who came to Gilford from England, met and married May Roberts and eventually settled in the town.
The Ordnance and Pioneer Corps ran the laundry. They took over the drying room in the mill to dry laundry for the Engineers and the Service Corps. All washing was done in the mill yard, where the Pioneer Corps worked from the red roofed huts – known as the Californian sheds, still visible alongside the main Stramore Road. There was always lots of steam and it is believed that they were probably responsible for all the army laundry in the South Down District.
Their cookhouse was situated in an old red-brick building which still partially stands in the mill-yard beside Billy Richie’s house. Alongside the cookhouse, at the back entrance gates to the mill, there was always a sentry on duty. One particular sentry called Albert Sloan was of great interest to local children on the Stramore Road, who swam in a place nearby called Sandy Bottom in the River Bann. They were fascinated to watch him pass his idle moments firing a catapult at birds in the nearby trees. The catapult was kept in his pocket and local boys longed for him to give it away.
It is believed that many of the Ordnance Corps left Gilford to fight in North Africa. On leaving, Sergeant Johnston gave one of his canes to Johnny Williamson. Like many other young boys in the town, Johnny was always trying to cadge badges or other souvenirs from the various regiments.
ROYAL ARMY SERVICE CORPS
The Royal Army Service Corps was encamped at the opposite end of the town, on the site of the present Woodlands housing estate, at that time the grounds of Bannvale, which was owned by the Uprichard family.
Once again, the site had an abundance of trees which provided plenty of natural camouflage for the troops. As in the Gilford Castle grounds, the river runs alongside the site. At least one thousand men were encamped at this site. The main entrance to the camp was at the present entrance to Woodlands, where there were sentries on duty. The back entrance was on the Portadown Road, also with sentries on duty.
Most troops slept in Nissan huts, but a few of the servicemen slept in the main house at Bannvale, and also in the adjoining large private residence of Woodbank, where outbuildings had also been requisitioned, and were used by two lots of the R.A.S.C. as workshops. Initially until the camp cookhouse was built the Service Corps used the old Dunbarton Mill School (now the present parochial hall of St Paul’s Church of Ireland) as a cookhouse and canteen. They also paraded with towels to bathe at the newly build race-bank showers, near the present War Memorial, until their own showers were built close to the existing wall at Woodlands.
Andy Gallogly (who married Bridget McConville and later moved to New York) worked for a Londonderry building firm who helped erect the Nissan huts at the Bannvale Camp. Andy helped build the army cookhouse at the site. It was built close to the present entrance to Woodlands. A small portion of the cookhouse wall still remains in the back garden of number 35 Woodlands.
The Service Corps were responsible for general stores and petrol supplies for the army. It is believed locally that Gilford was the main depot for the whole of South Ulster, and thus if was feared that it could be a possible target for attack. Often hundreds of vehicles could be seen leaving the depot, perhaps taking up to two hours to complete the entire convoy, taking supplies all over the province. Despatch riders escorted the convoy to ensure distance between the vehicles and also to alert the convoy to any hazards along the route. Sidney Roache, brother-in-law of Raymond Barrett of Woodlands, came to Gilford with the Service Corps soon after the beginning of the war. Sid was from Teddington, Middlesex, and whilst here met local girl Ethel McKenzie. They married in St Paul’s Church and later in the war the couple returned to Teddington for a short period, but eventually came back to live in Gilford.
Another Service Corps soldier was Jock Wallace from Edinburgh who met and married local girl Eileen Livingstone, returning to live in Gilford after the war ended. Jock told Eileen how some of the Service Corps often stayed overnight at different locations. On one occasion, the men were staying overnight in a large building in Hillsborough, Co Down. During the night when the fire siren went off the troops made their way outside, only to discover it was their own building which was on fire. Next morning at roll call, an odd assortment of soldiers was in the line up, for many of their clothes had been burnt in the overnight fire.
ROYAL ELECTRICAL AND MECHANICAL ENGINEERS
The Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E’s) were stationed in outbuildings at Stramore Farm. The farm buildings, situated roughly one mile from the town, were the main service depots for the many army vehicles in the area. The garages were in the large sheds close to the main road. At the opposite side of the road, wooden sheds were initially used by the soldiers as sleeping quarters.
The R.E.M.E’s built a large concrete water butt in one of the fields and constructed a pipeline to carry water to it from the town’s supply. The vat is still in use by the farmer and can be clearly seen behind the wall at the farm. The R.E.M.E’s were also responsible for extending the electricity supply from the town, out as far as the camp.
One of the R.E.M.E’s based at this camp was Fred Clarke (Nobby), who came from England. Whilst here he met and married Elsie Allister, and returned to live in Gilford after the war ended.
Harry McAdam worked at the N.A.A.F.I. at this camp, where food could be bought by the soldiers for approximately half the price of the local shops. Kinley’s butcher’s shop delivered meat to the N.A.A.F.I. and R.E.M.E. camp as well as to the 297 Engineers camp at Gilford Castle, and the Prisoner of War Camp on the Portadown Road.
The R.E.M.E’s were still based at Stramore Farm when the Belgian soldiers arrived in Gilford. Some of the Belgians were based directly across the road in huts on land belonging to the Gilpin family, at Stramore Lodge. They had previously been resistance fighters and were now being restructured into the new Belgian Army. Whilst here the young Belgians received much of their training from the Gilford based R.E.M.E’s.
ROYAL ARMY CORPS OF SIGNALS
The Royal Army Corps of Signals were also stationed in Gilford. They were billeted in the Polo Field, at the top of Dixon’s Hill on the Portadown Road. The large field had hundreds of Nissan huts and lookout posts, for these men were soon to be given the task of guarding up to eighteen-hundred German and Italian prisoners.
This field ran the whole way through to the Lurgan Road and two roads ran through the camp. The camp did have water and electricity, as it needed to be well illuminated for security reasons. These Signal Corps troops would often be seen taking prisoners to work in local quarries, and on farms, where they would be strictly guarded. Colonel Norrish was the top man in the Corps, and the Adjutant – Captain Charles Chitterbuck.
ROYAL IRISH FUSILIERS
Almost all of the 5th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers came to Gilford in 1940. Initially they had trained at Ballykinlar for approximately six months before coming here. In Gilford they were encamped in fields at the back gates of Gilford Castle on the Banbridge Road. They were an infantry unit, but spent only about five months in Gilford during the late summer of 1940.
It was the ideal location for their physical training. There were plenty of high hills and quarries in the area, and together with the River Bann, the countryside provided an ideal environment for various field-crafts.
The men lived under canvas during their entire stay in Gilford. Their bell-tents held five men per tent. The regimental band of the Royal Irish Fusiliers was with the Battalion.
After the summer of 1940 the R.I.F. returned to Ballykinlar before moving to Kent, and eventually on to North Africa.
Whilst in Gilford, Victor Thompson, one of the R.I.F. soldiers, met and married Una Davison from Tullylish. The couple still reside in Lurgan. Victor finished his war service with the Sherwood Foresters.
NORTH AND SOUTH STAFFORDSHIRE REGIMENTS
After the Royal Engineers left the Wall Road camps for England, to prepare for the invasion of France, they were replaced by the North and South Staffordshire Regiments.
The North Staffordshires moved into the camp which already existed at the top of the Wall Road. The South Staffordshire Regiment moved into the lower camp at the bottom of the hill, known as the “Blue Doors”.
Like the Engineers they shared facilities with one another, and soon a set of steps was cut into the hillside between the two camps, which can still be clearly seen today.
The Staffordshire Regiments are particularly remembered in the town for the quality of their Military Band. It is believed that initially they borrowed instruments from Milltown Silver Band and led their troops to the various Churches on Sunday mornings as well as playing at various military events.
DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY
The Durham Light Infantry came to Gilford in the later years of the war, having already spent time in Europe. They were billeted in the Elmfield Prisoner of War Camp at the Portadown Road, although at no time guarding the prisoners.
The regiment came to Gilford having already spent some time in Kilkeel. One of the D.L.I. soldiers – Johnnie Howie – met his future wife Maggie Harper from Gilford. Maggie, like many of the young women from the town, worked in the mill and also worked in the ticket office of the Dunbarton Picture House, which was situated in what today is the Presbyterian Church Hall in Mill Street.
After the war Johnnie and the Durham Light Infantry were sent back to Hemur in Germany. There they were billeted near Isalon, in the Black Forest area. At that time they were guarding Stalag 17, which was near the village. Johnny was eventually demobbed early in 1947 and came back to live in Gilford.
The Royal Artillery was in Gilford on a few occasions between the end of 1941 and 1944. Each time they stayed no more than six weeks before moving on to another location.
Stan Jeynes was one of these soldiers. He had already endured the ordeal of Dunkirk with the Warwickshire regiment, before transferring to the Royal Artillery. Whilst here he met and married Annie Burns from Gilford. Unfortunately soon after the wedding he was shipped out and served in Egypt until he was demobbed in 1946. He then returned to live in Gilford.
SEARCHLIGHT BATTERY UNIT
On the Home Front it was anticipated that any German air attack on Belfast or indeed Northern Ireland, would most likely come in over Newcastle, County Down and follow the tracks of the Dublin Railway line to Belfast. In Gilford, on the high ground around Kernan Lough and also at Shanes Hill, Ballydougan, searchlight beams could be seen scanning and lighting up the night sky.
Buildings still remain at Kernan Lough, which during the war housed members of a Searchlight Battery Unit. Until recently another building stood in an opposite field, which actually housed the searchlights.
There were only a few of these men at any one time, and their was to light up any invading enemy aircraft so they could be attacked by the anti aircraft guns of the ground forces. The men also had the task of guarding Kernan Lough, against a possible sea-plane landing of enemy forces.