Irish History Live

Northern Ireland and World War II

QUB Book of Remembrance

Conscription and the Home Front, 1939-41

The process of conscripting men into the armed forces had been utilised by several European countries during the First World War. Irishmen were not ultimately conscripted into the British Army, in spite of governmental attempts to extend legislation to Ireland, although conscription was utilised in Great Britain from 1916 until 1919 under the terms of the Military Service Act. In May 1939, with war again looming, Britain's Conservative government revived conscription legislation in a limited form. In September 1939, the more comprehensive National Service (Armed Forces) Act was enacted, enforcing full conscription on all men between the ages of eighteen and forty one, except those exempted under grounds such as employment in crucial war work or conscientious objection. Conscription was extended even further in 1942, to include women between the ages of twenty and thirty.

However, despite remaining part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was not subject to conscription legislation during the course of the Second World War. This seems surprising at first, given the presence of a Unionist government at Stormont. In fact, the desires of the Unionist leadership to be fully involved in the British war effort can clearly be seen in the comments of the Prime Minister Lord Craigavon to the House of Commons on the 4th of September 1939. In a statement steeped in the time tested rhetoric of loyalty to crown and empire he declared that, ‘We here today are in a state of war and we are prepared with the rest of the United Kingdom and Empire to face all the responsibilities that imposes on the Ulster people’.[1]

Political opposition to conscription proved fierce. In particular, many northern Nationalists, the Catholic Church hierarchy and some of Belfast's trade unionists strongly questioned the legitimacy of the British government extending conscription legislation to Northern Ireland. Subsequently, those opposing conscription from within Northern Ireland also enjoyed a measure of international support from the governments of Éire, the United States of America, Canada and Australia. Faced with mass political demonstrations from within Northern Ireland, and the prospect of damaging relations with their allies, the British government ultimately concluded in 1941 that introducing conscription to Northern Ireland would be ‘more trouble than it was worth’.[2] As such, Northern Ireland's contribution to the British armed forces would rest, as it had done in the First World War, on voluntary enlistment.

Northern Ireland's experience of the early stages of the war also differed from other regions of the United Kingdom in that the rationing of food and other commodities was initially less pervasive. Arguably, a general mood of remoteness from the war was further fostered by the sluggish and, in light of later bombing raids, insufficient measures taken by the Stormont administration towards the issue of civil defence. The situation was concisely summarised by one Belfast diarist in May 1940, when she wrote that 'We are unbombed, we have no conscription, there is plenty to eat, and life is reasonably normal.'[3] Of course, such feelings of detachment would be irrevocably shattered by the German air raids of the 'Belfast Blitz' in April and March 1941. Over the course of four Luftwaffe attacks on Belfast, 1,100 people lost their lives, 56,000 houses - amounting to roughly half of the city's total housing stock - were damaged and approximately 100,000 people were made temporarily homeless. Writing of the deeply traumatic effect that the experience of the blitz had upon the city's population, Barton has stated that, ‘Arguably, the air raids had a graver impact on the morale of the city's citizens than on its industrial production or the activity of its docks.'[4]

Voluntary enlistment

In Northern Ireland, approximately 38,000 people volunteered for service in the British armed forces between 1939 and 1945 - including 7,000 women. There were in fact more volunteers from neutral Éire with approximately 43,000 men and women enlisting in the British armed forces during the war.[5] Some evidence suggests that the numbers of volunteers from Northern Ireland in the Second World War was considered disappointing by contemporary standards. In 1943, for example, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill negatively characterised Belfast youths as young fellows of the locality who loaf about with their hands in their pockets impeding recruiting and the work of the shipyard.[6] Historian Keith Jeffery has pointed out that although enlistment rates fluctuated according to events at home and abroad - such as the increase which occurred after the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk - enlistment figures never managed to approach those seen during the First World War.[7] Similarly, Jackson has argued that the prevalence of poor economic conditions, as well as vivid memories of the carnage and human cost of the First World War, acted to deter potential enlistment in Northern Ireland.[8]

At the time, several Unionist officials, such as Wilfrid Spender, sought to draw attention to the lower numbers of Nationalists joining the British Armed Forces between 1939 and 1945. However, it must be acknowledged that several factors acted to deter enlistment among members of Northern Ireland's Nationalist minority, including the prominent organisational role taken by the Unionist party in military recruitment drives during 1940 and the remembrance of the political marginalisation of Nationalist ex-servicemen which occurred after the First World War.[9]

Conversely, attention was also drawn to the perceived contradiction between the Unionist rhetoric of supreme loyalty to crown and empire and the much lower than expected numbers of Unionist volunteers for the war effort. In 1947, Nationalist author Denis Ireland wrote of the spectacle of 'streets, cinemas and cafes packed with "loyal Ulstermen", loyally staying at home.'[10] Nonetheless, several thousand volunteers from different communities did serve in some of the war's major campaigns such as the Battle of the Atlantic, and the D-Day Landings, making Northern Ireland an important source of manpower for the British war effort.

Industry and agriculture

Aside from its manpower contribution, Northern Ireland also played a role in the British war effort through its industrial and agricultural output. Paseta has argued that whilst the province responded sluggishly at first to war work, a steady stream of orders for all aspects of military materiel began to significantly reduce pre-war levels of unemployment and create industrial growth after the end of 1940.[11] Compared to other parts of the United Kingdom, however, Northern Ireland's industries were considered somewhat under productive. Additionally, the war years saw high levels of industrial action over issues such as wages and some industries were also marked by high levels of absenteeism.[12]

Despite this, available statistics illustrate that the province's industrial output constituted an important source of military materiel during the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1945, Belfast Shipyards produced 140 warships, 123 merchant ships and repaired and converted several thousand more - developments that saw the workforce of Harland and Wolff triple to approximately 35,000. In terms of aircraft production, Short and Harland produced 1,200 Stirling Bombers and 125 Sunderland Flying Boats by the end of the war. Collectively, Northern Ireland's munitions factories had produced 75,000,000 shells by 1945, while the province's linen and textile industries had also produced 200,000,000 yards of cloth for the armed services.[13] Arguably, Northern Ireland's industrial importance for the British war effort was also shown by the fact that air raids were conducted on Belfast by the Luftwaffe towards the end of the Battle of Britain when key ports and dockyards across the United Kingdom were being targeted.

In terms of agriculture, Northern Ireland also contributed significantly to the war effort. In 1941, it was the only region of the United Kingdom to reach its desired goal in the increase of acreage under the plough. During the same year, over 17,000 gallons of milk were being exported to Britain every day. The efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture to raise agricultural output, through Compulsory Tillage Orders and the introduction of a hire-purchase scheme for farm machinery, were highly publicised. Several unconventional locations - including strips of waste ground, golf course fairways and even the front lawn of Queen's University Belfast - were turned over for the cultivation of crops in an effort to increase the amount of food being produced. In a move that was intended to reflect positively on the determination of the Unionist administration but which instead drew criticism from some Unionist politicians as cynical electioneering, crops were also planted in the grounds of the Stormont Estate. By 1945, sustained efforts to increase the country's food production had resulted in the total acreage of Northern Ireland's agricultural sector roughly doubling relative to pre-war levels.[14]

Staging platform

One of Northern Ireland's most important contributions to the war effort was that it effectively acted as a staging platform for Allied forces. Like many other parts of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland played host to large numbers of American service personnel as a staging point for major theatres of combat such as North Africa in 'Operation Torch' and later the D-Day landings in Normandy. The number of American servicemen stationed in Northern Ireland peaked at 120,000 although as many as 300,000 passed through the country during the course of the war. Despite being spread out across various parts of Northern Ireland, their arrival had the potential to create a considerable degree of social tension. Crimes against local civilians by American servicemen did occur, although they were infrequent and often of a minor nature such as the theft of small amounts of farm produce to supplement military rations. In one extreme case, Private William Harrison of the U.S. Army Air Corps murdered a seven year old girl in Killycolpy, County Tyrone, a crime for which he was later hanged in 1945.[15]

The presence of black soldiers in Northern Ireland added an additional racial dimension to interactions between American servicemen and locals. In March 1943, a fight broke out between a group of black servicemen and local civilians outside a cafe in Belfast's Donegall Street. Two of the civilians who had reportedly instigated the violence were hospitalised with stab wounds, while the serviceman, who later admitted wielding a knife, lost two thirds of his pay and was detained for six months by American military authorities. Racial segregation was effected unofficially in several towns west of Lough Neagh, although according to Jeffery this system was mainly designed to protect American soldiers from each other rather than to shelter them against local feeling.[16]

Geographical importance

Finally, Northern Ireland played a key role in the Second World War as a result of its geographical importance. With neutral Éire refusing to grant Britain access to the recently handed over Treaty ports, ports and aerodromes in Northern Ireland constituted the most westerly territory in the United Kingdom from which air sorties and convoy escorts could be launched into the Atlantic ocean. Several aerodromes were constructed in Northern Ireland during the war, and the flying of sorties utilising the Donegal Air Corridor from Lough Erne proved an important step in closing the air gap in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Similarly, the presence of large numbers of American, British and Canadian ships in the port at Lisahally proved crucial in defeating the U-Boat threat. Writing in the mid 1950s, W. J. Blake remarked that ‘Londonderry held the key to victory in the Atlantic. It became our most westerly base for the repair, the working up and refuelling of destroyers, corvettes and frigates. By that critical Spring (1943) when battle for the security of our Atlantic lifelines finally turned our way, Londonderry was the most important escort base in the north-western approaches.’ [17] Lending credence to this analysis, the American government spent $75,000,000 during the war refitting and expanding the port. Similarly, when the ceremony surrounding the official surrender of the remnants of the U-Boat fleet was organised in mid 1945, the Commander and Chief of Western Approaches, Admiral Max Horton, insisted that it be held at Lisahally given its pivotal importance during the war.

[1] NI Hansard, 4 Sept. 1939, (Vol. 22, 1938–39), pp 1901–2.Top of Form

[2] UK Cabinet conclusions, 27 May 1941 (PRO, CAB 65/64).

[3] UK Cabinet conclusions, 27 May 1941 (PRO, CAB 65/64)

[4] Brian Barton, 'The Blitz - Belfast during the Second World War' ( (Accessed 4 June 2012).

[5] Brian Barton, Northern Ireland in the Second World War (Belfast, 1995), p. 84 ; Keith Jeffery, 'The British Army and Ireland since 1922' in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds), A military history of Ireland (Cambridge, 1996), p. 438.

[6] Churchill cited in Barton, 'Northern Ireland, 1939–45', p. 243.

[7] Jeffery, 'The British Army and Ireland since 1922', p. 438.

[8] Alvin Jackson, Ireland: 1798–1998: war, peace and beyond (Chichester, 2010), pp 348–9.

[9] For discussion of the extent to which Nationalist ex-servicemen were politically marginalised in Northern Ireland during the inter-war period, see James Loughlin, 'Mobilising the sacred dead : Ulster Unionism, the Great War and the politics of remembrance' in Adrian Gregory and Senia Pašeta (eds), Ireland and the Great War: 'a war to unite us all' ? (Manchester, 2002), pp 133–54.

[10] Ireland cited in Jeffery, 'The British army and Ireland since 1922', p. 438.

[11] Senia Pašeta, 'Northern Ireland and the Second World War' ( (accessed 6 June 2012).

[12] Jackson, Ireland, p. 348.

[13] Barton, Northern Ireland in the Second World War, pp 80-3.

[14] Ibid, p. 80.

[15] J. R. Lilly, Taken by force : rape and American GIs in Europe during World War II (Basingstoke, 2007), pp 56-7.

[16] Jeffery, 'The British Army and Ireland since 1922', pp 440–1.

[17] Blake cited in Barton, Northern Ireland in the Second World War, p. 88.


Sources used and further reading:

Barton, B., 'Northern Ireland, 1939-45' in J. R. Hill (ed.), A new history of Ireland: VII : Ireland, 1921-84 (Oxford, 2010), pp 235-60.

Barton, B., Northern Ireland in the Second World War (Belfast, 1995).

Barton, B., 'The Blitz - Belfast during the Second World War' (

Blake, J. W., Northern Ireland and the Second World War (Belfast, 1956).

Jackson, A., Ireland: 1798–1998: war, peace and beyond (Chichester, 2010).

Jeffery, Keith, 'The British Army and Ireland since 1922' in Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery (eds), A military history of Ireland (Cambridge, 1996), pp 431-58.

Lilly, J. R., Taken by force: rape and American GIs in Europe during World War II (Basingstoke, 2007).

Pašeta, S., 'Northern Ireland and the Second World War'


QUB Book of Remembrance:

Northern Ireland and the Second World War

Brian Barton, 'The Blitz - Belfast during the Second World War' available at

Senia Pašeta, 'Northern Ireland and the Second World War' available at


At the time of writing Jonathan Hayes was a third year student in the School of History and Anthropology at QUB. He was in the process of writing an undergraduate dissertation on the organisation and effectiveness of war pensions for disabled ex-servicemen in Northern Ireland during the inter-war period. He is currently a MA student.

Short Cuts