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© PRONI Reference: CAB3/G/21/3

Death at Ballykelly

On 17 April 1942 a US Army convoy was travelling along the main road from Limavady to Londonderry. The convoy included some of the United States’ most important military and political figures. President Roosevelt’s personal adviser, Harry Hopkins, and his roving Lend-Lease ‘Ambassador’, Averall Harriman, both represented the President.

Also in the convoy was the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, America’s most important soldier, with the commander of all US troops in the UK, Lieutenant General Cheney, and commander of the US Army in Northern Ireland, Major General Russell Hartle.

Understandably the convoy was escorted closely and the soldiers guarding it had been warned of the possibility of attacks by the IRA. This seems to have been a general warning rather than a specific warning of a threat to the convoy.

As the convoy made its way from Limavady to Ballykelly the vehicles overtook a bus of the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board (NIRTB), driven by Albert Rodden of Dungiven. However, the final vehicle in the convoy, a scout car, was unable to pass. Several attempts were made to overtake the bus but the scout car driver, Private Thomas de Felice, later said that the driver seemed determined not to allow the scout car past.

After four unsuccessful attempts to pass, the scout car was at last able to move out to the other side of the road and begin overtaking the bus. However, as the scout car drew level with the bus it was forced off the road into the kerb. Private John J Fraula, a passenger in the scout car, said that he thought a crash was inevitable due to the speed of the two vehicles. He also said that the bus had obstructed the scout car for about a mile.

A motorcyclist escorting the convoy stated that he had drawn alongside the bus and asked the driver to let the scout car past. The driver had told him to ‘stay behind’ and made a gesture to emphasise this. The motorcyclist confirmed that the scout car had made four attempts to overtake and that the bus had moved out deliberately, forcing the scout car off the road. 

The soldier in charge of the scout car, Sergeant William V. Clipsham, said that he had waved with both hands at the bus driver trying to signal him to pull over. He was standing in the scout car doing this when the bus forced the car off the road.

When the scout car hit the kerb three rounds were discharged from its forward machine gun, killing Albert Rodden. Robert G. Nixon, one of two American war correspondents with the convoy, expressed surprise at the behaviour of the bus driver as the convoy was travelling at speeds between 40 and 45 mph. He also said that he later asked Sergeant Clipsham if there had been any shooting. Clipsham replied that a gun had gone off but he did not know where.

Subsequently, Sergeant Clipsham was court-martialled for shooting Albert Rodden. His second-in-command of the scout car, Corporal Looney, gave evidence that Clipsham had not been standing behind the forward machine gun, from which the shots had been fired.

The escort commander, Lieutenant P. C. Madeira, told the court martial that he had given orders for the machine gun to be ‘half-loaded’ which meant that the gunner would need to make at least one movement to fire the weapon.

A weapons instructor, Corporal Picariello, said that he had examined the gun on the Monday after the incident and discovered that, if half loaded, it would go off after being tapped a few times. He said that it was ‘normal practice to tap this make of gun to see if it was defective’. Picariello’s evidence was supported by a technical sergeant from the Ordnance Maintenance Department who had also examined the gun. He considered it to have been defective and that a sharp knock would have caused it to fire.

The prosecution argued that Clipsham was responsible for the weapon and that any negligence was his fault. Moreover, the evidence showed that he was the only one in the scout car who could have ‘touched the gun off’.

After an adjournment to consider the evidence and its verdict, the president of the court martial announced that all seven members were agreed that Sergeant Clipsham was not guilty of the charge against him.

William Clipsham earned the dubious distinction of being the first US serviceman to be court martialled in the UK. The court was held in public and it was reported in the press as the US authorities were anxious to overcome the bad image that Albert Rodden’s death had created.

The shooting had led to much ill feeling in the area and the city of Londonderry was declared out of bounds to all US servicemen for a time.