Portadown Soldier’s Ordeal: Home for VE Celebrations after 5 years as a Prisoner of War

Portadown Soldier’s Ordeal: Home for VE Celebrations after 5 years as a Prisoner of War

After having spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Germans, Fusilier James Hughes of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers returned home in time to experience the VE Celebrations.

Fusilier Hughes returned to his home at 13 Fowlers Entry, Portadown. He was met at Watson Street Railway Station by Mr R J Magowan, Chairman of the Urban District Council, Mr Geo McGowan, Town Clerk, and Mr R Heathwood, B.E.M.

Fusilier Hughes’ widowed Mother, Mary, and other members of his family were of course overjoyed to see him.  Some of the younger members of the family had never met him.  Some of his younger siblings had only a handful of memories of him before the war and didn’t know what he looked like.

He was described as

“looking little the worse of his long period in German war prisoner compounds”.

First Visit

One of the first visits for Fusilier Hughes on his return was to the News Office.  There he requested a public thank you to be published to the local citizens for their support of the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund.

“these parcels reached us regularly, though the Germans had been ghoulish enough to open them and merely hand over about half of what was intended for the men to whom they were dispatched”.

Fusilier Hughes

He also acknowledged parcels sent by Mr George Hughes, 13 South Street.  Although he never personally received the packages.

The Parcels

One of the main contributors to the parcels for local men being held in German prisoner of war camps , was Portadown Women’s Orange District.  They worked alongside Portadown Women’s Unionist Association.

Sister Louisa Shillington, was one of the main organisers and a driving force behind donations for the appeal.  It was something close to her heart as she had lost her son, Tom Shillington, and nephew, Geoffrey Shillington Cather, in the First World War.  Her Husband, David Graham Shillington had sadly died in 1944 and never saw the war come to an end.

Louisa Shillington (Nee Collen)
Image courtesy of Shillington Family records

David Graham Shillington was MP for the area and was District Master of Portadown Orange District LOL No 1 right up until his death.  He had been a company commander in the local Ulster Volunteer Force during the Home Rule Crisis and went on to become a Major in the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers during the First World War. He had also took over the family firm T A Shillington & Son (now Haldane and Fisher) after his father died suddenly when he was 16.

Enlistment

Fusilier Hughes, who in civilian life, had been employed by Mr Edward Cassells of Woodhouse Street, enlisted in 1936.

He was taken prisoner at Ypres, Belgium on 27th May 1940.  Some of the places he had been to in the course of his travels across Germany, some of them in forced marches, included Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Marienwerder and Danzig.

Dunkirk

Fusilier Hughes had been in Berlin when the Dunkirk Evacuation took place.  During his incarceration he had acquired a good understanding of the German language.

While a prisoner he was allowed one letter home per week, but since the Normandy Invasion correspondence ceased and at all times contact with German civilians was strictly  forbidden.

The bombing by the RAF and USAAF gave the Allied war prisoners cause for anxiety, as at times their camp had narrow escapes.

Experiences

Fusilier Hughes described the Germans as harsh. On one occasion he escaped from the camp and enjoyed four days of freedom.  He was caught by the Gestapo, taken to their headquarters and severely beaten.

He described the occasions of forced marches as gruelling.   The Supreme headquarters of the Allied Nations had dropped leaflets into Germany demanding more consideration to the welfare of their prisoners, but no improvement in camp conditions was noticed.

Liberation

Liberation came when the 8th American Army reached Hamburg.  The Russian Forces converged at the same time.  Another local man they set free was George McCarragher from Obins Street, Portadown.

Fusilier Hughes arrived by Lancaster at Croydon. There, liberated prisoners of war were met with crowds and fellow servicemen and women to welcome them back. James then continued to Stranraer and arrived back in Northern Ireland via Larne.

Home Thoughts

One thing that surprised Fusilier Hughes on his arrival home was the small extent of the damage by air raids.  In Germany, all the big cities he had passed through were completely flattened.

Fusilier Hughes was given 6 weeks leave with double rations which were to help towards his complete recovery from undernourishment.  He was to rejoin his unit on 28th June 1945.

His Father, the late Mr James Hughes Senior, had served in the 1st World War with The Royal Engineers and The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Scenes of unbound enthusiasm as Portadown Celebrates VE Day 1945

Scenes of unbound enthusiasm as Portadown Celebrates VE Day 1945

In 1945, the victory celebrations in Portadown were estimated to be far above those of any provincial town in Northern Ireland.

The VE Celebrations in the town lasted an entire week.  Each night throughout the week, large crowds gathered throughout the streets for games and dancing.

Saturday Celebrations with the Bands

During the day, from the roof of the air raid shelter on the Main Street, near St Marks Parish Church, Edgarstown Accordion Band played music for the crowds to dance to.  At the junction of High Street, Portadown Pipe Band played music for some ‘old time traditional dancing’.

On the Saturday evening, there was ‘open air entertainment’, in which Derrykeevin Pipe Band and Battlehill Pipe Band participated.

The ‘Bewitching Hour’

Just before the clock of St Marks Church chimed midnight, the large crowds gathered, sang the hymns ‘Abide with me’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.  This was concluded with the National Anthem.

It was recorded, that during this particular period of rejoicing and celebrating, not a single unpleasant incident took place to ruin the harmony which was evident throughout the town and the community. This was something that the town took much pride in.

Sunday’s observance in the Churches

On the Sunday there was a United Thanksgiving service for the youth.

Morning Church services in the Protestant Churches were well attended. In the afternoon, more than 800 boys and girls, representing every youth organisation in the town including the Army Cadet Force and Air Training Corps, paraded to the ‘United service of Thanksgiving’ in Edenderry Presbyterian Church.

“The varied uniforms seen on parade made a colourful picture as the lengthy parade made its way along the main streets to the church”.

Weather Interruptions

As is normal with the unpredictable weather in Northern Ireland, the rain arrived which was not expected. The ‘United service of Thanksgiving’ was originally planned to take place as an open air service at Shamrock Park.  Edenderry Presbyterian church offered to host the service instead.

The following bands took part:

  • St Marks Old Boys
  • Thomas Street Old Boys
  • Salvation Army Silver Band
  • Seagoe Church Lads Brigade
  • Portadown Pipe Band

An estimated 1,200 managed to find a seat in the church and the many who had to remain outside had the service relayed to them by a loud speaker van. The service was led by the younger ministers of the town.  The first part was taken by the Rev Cecil Owens of Edenderry Methodist Church, the lesson was read by Rev D Bothwell of St Marks Parish Church and the act of remembrance was taken by the Rev H W Plunkett of Thomas Street Methodist Church.

The address was was given by the Rev P W Gowing, Senior Curate of St Marks, who spoke of the joy with which ‘they had received the news of the victory of the Allied Forces, yet many mourned the loss of loved ones who had sacrificed their lives for us’.

” Those people must never be forgotten.  The young boys and girls  gathered together today are the men and women of the future, from which great things are expected, and I know they will not let us down.  They have to try and make for a better world because that was why their men had died in battle”.

The Last Post and Reveille during the Act of Remembrance were sounded by the buglers from Seagoe Church Lads Brigade.

Evening Service

There was a Thanksgiving Service in Portadown Baptist Meeting House on the evening of VE Day. At the close of the service the King’s speech was relayed after which the congregation united in singing the National Anthem.

Historic Flag Flown at Drumcree

As part of the VE Celebrations, a Union Jack with a history was flown from a window in Drumcree Rectory.  The Flag is the one which the rector Rev F J Halahan carried with him when serving as a Chaplin in the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers in the Great War.