Photograph of the first American troops arriving in Belfast aboard the Chateau Thierry and Strathaird, both of which docked at Dufferin Quay. Three million US forces personnel passed through the United Kingdom between 1942-45.
1942

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Photograph of the first American troops arriving in Belfast aboard the Chateau Thierry and Strathaird, both of which docked at Dufferin Quay. Three million US forces personnel passed through the United Kingdom between 1942-45. 1942 © PRONI Reference: INF/7B/8/25

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The Americans

In the course of the Second World War many American service personnel spent some time in Northern Ireland. While the best known are probably the naval personnel in the north-west, almost everywhere has some story to tell of ‘its’ Americans.

In County Down the most significant element of the US forces was 1st Armored Division, a formation of the US Army that was to fight in Tunisia and, later, in Italy. The division – not to be confused with 1st Infantry Division which is known as ‘Big Red One’ – arrived in the UK in May 1942 having been brought across the Atlantic in the Cunard liner Queen Mary. Along with 34th (Red Bull) Infantry Division, which was already in Northern Ireland, the tankmen would form the reinforced V Corps. Other formations due to follow them were 32nd and 37th Infantry Divisions. A change of plans meant that these, and 45th Division, did not come to Northern Ireland.    

Divisional headquarters (HQ) was set up in Castlewellan Castle where the divisional commander, Major General Orlando ‘Pink’ Ward, and his staff were based. Elsewhere in the county elements of the division could be found in Abercorn Barracks (Ballykinlar Camp), Downpatrick Racecourse, Downpatrick gaol, Newcastle, Tollymore, Dundrum and Spa. The latter two locations were bases for the divisional reconnaissance (‘recon’ in US military parlance) unit, 81st Reconnaissance Squadron. 

Both 1st Armored and 34th Divisions carried out intensive training with the British troops stationed in Northern Ireland. The training had included Exercise ATLANTIC, a ten-day scheme in which 1st Armored and 59th (Staffordshire) Divisions, with 79 Independent Brigade, were matched against a force that included 34th (Red Bull) and the British 61st Divisions. Major General Hartle, commander of V (US) Corps, commanded the first group while Major General Majendie, GOC British Troops Northern Ireland (BTNI) commanded the second.

The Americans learned much from such training and both divisions were allocated as part of the Allied force for Operation TORCH, the landings in French north-west Africa in November 1942. Thus, after some five months, 1st Armored Division left Northern Ireland for North Africa where it joined US forces that had taken part in the initial operations.

Unfortunately the training that 1st Armored Division had undergone did not include fighting other tanks. They received a bitter lesson in such combat from Field Marshal Rommel’s German and Italian armoured formations in February 1943. The Division suffered heavily at Sidi Bou Zid on 14–15 February and then at Kasserine Pass on 20–22 February. Many men and tanks were lost but the situation was saved by the courage of many American soldiers and the support of British troops.

‘Pink’ Ward was relieved of his command after these battles. His men had learned many lessons that would be applied in future battles. The division showed that it had learned these lessons as the campaign continued until 12 May 1943.      
 
Following the Tunisian campaign, 1st Armored remained in North Africa until being called forward to Italy to join Fifth (US) Army. There was little scope for mobile, armoured operations until Operation CRAFTSMAN began on 12 April 1945. In the fluid fighting that followed on the Lombardy plain the division performed well. At noon on 2 May all German forces in Italy surrendered to Field Marshal Alexander and the war in the Mediterranean was over.