A story to be remembered

Introducing Sydney Cowan 22nd Battery 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery

Sydney was born on the 19th of June 1914 to Alexander Scarlet Cowan and Eleanor May Cowan. They lived in 134 Roden Street, Belfast and Sydney’s parents worked in a linen mill. Sydney had two siblings: a sister named Iris and a brother called Fred, who was also a gunner in the Royal Artillery. Sydney worked for the Belfast Corporation (now Belfast City Council) before he enlisted with the 8th (Belfast) Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (Supplementary Reserve) on the 11th of May 1939 as a gunner along with many other men from Belfast. He was also in the 8th Belfast H.A.A Regt. Band.

The Regiment was initially mobilised to defend the city of Belfast in the following months before the United Kingdom officially declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, 1939. Sydney served with the regiment throughout his army career, the regiment joined the BEF in France before Christmas 1939. Sydney’s battery (22nd) was deployed in the defence of Port Le Havre and was later evacuated from St. Malo in 1940. On the 3rd of July 1940 Sydney married Miss Isabella Mooney daughter of Mr and Mrs Mooney from Doagh, Co. Antrim, in a military wedding at Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, Belfast, with his brother Fred Cowan as his best man.
After the regiment returned from France it was deployed across England during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Sydney’s father Alexander died shortly after, on the 7th of December 1940.
The Regiment then served in India and Burma in 1942, where it earned the nickname the “Twelve Mile Snipers” as they fired effectively against the Japanese air force and against ground targets at long range and with incredible accuracy. Sydney would finish the war with the rank of lance-bombardier.

After the war Sydney returned to work for the Belfast Corporation as a gas inspector and lived for a while at his wife’s residence: Springvale House in the village of Doagh, Co. Antrim. He later moved to 1 Sandhill Parade, Belfast where he lived until his death on the 2nd of June 1978. He was buried at Dundonald Cemetery

An Exemplary Soldier

Introducing Gunner James Reid

 

James was born on the 24th of October 1914 at Canmore street. Son of James
Reid Senior and Mary Jane Reid (née Cunningham). His father was originally
from Larne and worked as a stager in the shipyard, his mother was a spinner
and came originally from Scotland.
James was married to Eileen Rebecca Mitchell in 1934 at St. Matthew's Church
of Ireland on the Shankill and had two daughters and resided at Ottawa
street.
James Reid followed in his father's footsteps into service and enlisted on
the 1st May 1939, with the 8th [Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal
Artillery {Supplementary Reserve}.
James Reid senior who served throughout the 'Great War' and then with the
Ulster Home Guard during The Second World War.
James brother Thomas had served with the 2nd Battalion the Royal
Inniskilling Fusiliers and was Killed in Action in July 1943 during
Operation Husky during the Sicily landings.
James himself enlisted with the 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
Royal Artillery and served with the 23rd Battery. They went to France in
1940 and were stationed at Hanfleur under 79th HAA Regiment, after France
fell they arrived back in England and helped defend the UK during the Blitz
until late 1942 when the whole of the 8th Regiment were sent out to Calcutta
onboard the Belfast built ship RMS Britannic and placed under the command of
1st Indian A.A. Brigade.
The 8th was ordered out to Comilla and the 23rd Battery were sent onto
Agartala to deploy by 16th of October. The Regiment were the first to take
large calibre guns across the Brahmaputra Pass.
When it was time to return home, they returned to Belfast, coincidentally
another Belfast built ship the RMS Stirling Castle.
At the end of his wartime service, James stayed on with the Royal Artillery
reserves until 1954, when he was discharged for "His services are no longer
required on re-enlistment into the Territorial Army". His military conduct
was “Exemplary”.

Resources:
War Years Remembered Archive
CWGC
Ancestry
Forces War Records
FindMypast
Lennonwylie.co.uk

<http://Lennonwylie.co.uk

>
burmastar.org.uk/stories/8th-belfast-corps/

<http://burmastar.org.uk/stories/
8th-belfast-corps

What a life to have lived


Meet Bombardier James Alexander (Jim) Brennan who celebrated his 100th birthday back in February and is the last surviving Second World War member of Whitehouse Presbyterian Church.

James Alexander Brennan was born on the 12th of February 1920, along with his twin sister at Whitehouse, near Belfast, in County Antrim. His father was also called James Alexander and his mother was called Annie Elizabeth Brennan (née Moore). The family consisted of eight girls, and three boys, this total of thirteen lived in a small, two bed-roomed terrace house at Whitehouse. The eleven children slept head to toe each night in the two tiny upstairs bedrooms, while their parents slept in a little parlour room downstairs.

Jim was first educated at Whitehouse, Presbyterian Church Day School, where he later qualified for transfer to senior high school. Upon completion of his studies, he began his employment in a Belfast car business, named Johnston’s, and joined a local army cadet unit. This led eventually to him being recruited into the British Army just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, all the men in the Regiment were volunteers. Jim’s father had served well in the British Army during the Great War and suffered a hand wound under enemy fire. His son James was later to serve, and survived throughout the Second World War too, having joined the 22nd Battery, 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft, Royal Artillery in which he served throughout the duration of the war. All the men in the Regiment had been recruited during the Spring of 1939 and were each from the city and district of Belfast. In October 1939, they were posted to Cornwall, and from there they embarked for France, where their first engagement of German Forces took place. However due to overwhelming rapid German advance at that time, all British forces were immediately ordered to make a retreat to Dunkirk and prepare for evacuation back to Britain. Strict headquarter orders were issued, for all forces to destroy all weaponry, vehicles, ammunition etc, upon arrival at Dunkirk thus blocking their use later by the enemy. During that very hasty retreat the 8th (Belfast) HAA under their Belfast Commander, Colonel James Cunningham, were required to make a forced diversion towards Le Havre, due to a dramatic earlier incident which was as follows.

While endeavouring to escape through one French town, their lead vehicle arrived at the town square just as some German Advance Motorcycle Troops entered the square on the opposite side. Quickly observing this dilemma, Colonel Cunningham in the leading Belfast 8th vehicle, ordered his driver to turn sharply left out of the square, and the complete regiment in their vehicles etc, followed along completely behind. The German advance troops did not pursue the retreating Regiment, but remained in the square, where they apparently had been instructed to secure it until the main German Forces arrived. Meanwhile, the Belfast 8th sped quickly onwards, to escape on a course towards Le Havre, and from there made post-haste on the route for Cherbourg. Upon safely reaching that port, they quickly observed a massive British ship berthed nearby, and the 22nd Battery made immediate contact with its crew. Agreement was immediately reached with the ship's officers to have the 22nd Battery's Heavy Guns and their specialised equipment urgently taken aboard along with all the Battalion's Troops, for shipment back to the British mainland. They had therefore now disobeyed the original strict order; ' To destroy all weaponry etc, upon reaching the French coast. The astounding consequences of that decision resulted in them being the only British Troops to arrive back in Britain with both men and weapons intact. What a most breath-taking achievement that was, which resulted in all those men and heavy weapons etc. being next engaged to defend Britain during the Battle of Britainand the London area during the London Blitz period. While one London air-raid was in progress, Jim was caught out on a London Bridge due to being ordered across London to deliver a dispatch, but now found himself dangerously exposed while incendiary bombs 'fell all around him like hail stones', is how he described that hair raising experience, yet he miraculously escaped without injury.
High flying German reconnaissance planes were often observed photographing over the 8th Belfast Heavy Gun positions around London and the south of England so when it was estimated that those planes had finally gone back to their base, all guns, equipment, and their crews were transferred to entirely new positions in a 'cat and mouse' game, as preparation for the appearance of the expected German Bombers and their fighter escorts.

One serious problem for the Belfast 8th was trying to avoid shooting down R.A.F.,aircraft during these fierce air battles as at certain high altitudes some planes on both sides looked quite similar, so 'friendly fire' was a distinct hazard then too, as it still is today in current world conflicts.
The next major engagement for the Belfast 8th began in 1942, when they with their heavy weapons etc., embarked in the Belfast-built liner R.M.S Britannic for service in Burma against the Japanese, under the command of the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. They became known as the 'Forgotten Army' at one stage, but colour film shot during the conflict by the Regiment’s Colonel Harry Porter today provides a tremendous insight into the atrocious and difficult fighting conditions faced by all those brave men, who often did not receive an adequate amount of supplies while carrying on the war against the ferocious Japanese.

Before sailing for Burma, Colonel Porter had equipped himself with a cine camera and some reels of colour film, which accompanied him during that phase of the war. Ironically, this had resulted once more in an Ulsterman disobeying orders, as at war's end, all the film material he had recorded was confiscated by the Forces Censorship Personnel, and Cameraman Porter was threatened with court martial proceedings. However, the Ulsterman forcefully pleaded with them not to destroy all his precious films, but to delete anything that may have caused a security issue, then return what remained. Thankfully, this request was finally agreed to, resulting today in a copy of that 35-minute amazing film record being available in an accompanying disc for viewing by using a disc player/television link. The court-martial threat was also grudgingly cancelled.

Both James Brennan and his future brother-in-law, Jack Price, who was also in the Regiment appear in that approximate 35-minute film record, which is entitled; 'The Twelve Mile Snipers'. The Regiment had admiringly earned this title due to the extreme accuracy displayed by them over a twelve-mile range in the use of their heavy guns.

The film record includes a wide variety of topics in relation to the Regiment's involvement during that period of the war. One amazing highlight is of a spectacular 1945 pre 'Home-Coming' parade held in Madras, to celebrate both the victory over Germany and Japan, combined with a special 12th of July 1690 anniversary celebration of the much earlier, historical, King William of Orange victory at the Battle of the Boyne.

During those Second World War years, some men of the Belfast 8th had earlier obtained a few sets of bagpipes from their Indian friends and this eventually resulted in the development of a complete pipe band being formed, with an additional two more, including one flute band introduced later over time. The recorded film of the 1945 parade shows their flute and pipe bands for that occasion leading the parade. This is followed by the Regiment marching along in their very own specially made Orange sashes. These had been produced by the native Indian Dorsi Wallah Female Stitchers using the canvas material cut from the Regiment's now obsolete ammunition chandeliers and dyed orange. Previously those ladies had been engaged in carrying out all the necessary repairs of the men's uniforms and clothes during the Regiment’s complete army service in the Burma Campaign. In addition, the troops and stitchers also produced special war-made banners, and all the above mentioned items appear in the colour film of that most unique parade, in which Jews and Roman Catholics as well, all happily participated in.

There are also photographic records of the soldiers, each clad in their unique Orange sashes, and one large photo accompanying this written record shows James A. Brennan and his future brother-in-law standing proudly in that group. The sash he was wearing and a copy of the large photograph are now displayed in the Belfast Orange Museum. (On loan) A second photo is included, showing James in 2007 wearing his special sash, along with his war medals, but he is referred to as 'Sergeant' in inverted commas, and that is for a very valid reason as Jim had once challenged the conduct of a somewhat arrogant female officer in her doings with a group of female British Army personnel. He considered her to be displaying a most abusive attitude towards the girls under her command, so Jim clearly expressed his objection to her behaviour. As a result, that arrogant lady used her authority in every way possible and succeeded in blocking Jim's pending promotion to Sergeant, on the grounds of insubordination. He had recently been recommended for the promotion, but that was now withdrawn. Like a true Ulsterman and honourable soldier, Jim 'stuck to his guns' and forfeited his promotion.

At the war’s end, the Belfast 8th embarked at Madras as a complete unit on the Belfast built ship, R.M.S. Sterling Castle, which sailed to Liverpool, and from there they journeyed by sea to the Larne port of Northern Ireland, where a large 'welcome home' crowd had assembled for their arrival back. From there, a special train had been arranged for transporting them back to Belfast, where a hero's welcome awaited them as they marched proudly but in a somewhat sombre atmosphere, through the city centre streets of their beloved, war damaged Belfast while remembering with sadness their fallen comrades in far off foreign fields.

Again, all those happenings were recorded in colour film by Colonel Harry Porter, and are now available for viewing on the 8th Belfast's video disc.
Belfast city had suffered severely while they were absent due to the devastating German Air-Raids on that city earlier in the war, and one of those raids during Easter was second only to London in relation to its casualties, when almost 1000 people had been killed in the bombing and massive destruction had been inflicted upon that great industrial city, which had played such a major role in the war effort during all those devastating war years.

Soon after arriving home from the war, James returned to civilian life, and was welcomed back to his previous workplace at Johnston’s car business in Belfast. All his complete army service earnings received during those war years had been faithfully invested by his parents in a bank account for him, so when an old friend named Jack Barron (who was an Elder in the Presbyterian Church) approached James with a proposal for them both to consider entering into a business partnership in relation to various types of motorized vehicle, caravan products, components and accessories etc., James was most interested. After full discussion and research, this was considered an excellent idea, so their company was found under the title of Barron and Brennan, which later became a limited company.

Referring back in later life to their momentous decision, Jim remarked with a great sense of humour that he had been under the impression his friend Jack Barron knew all about business, but soon became aware that neither of them knew anything whatsoever about business. This realization only made James even more determined to succeed, so he set out to do everything necessary for developing a successful business and did eventually accomplish this after years of extremely hard work and dedication. He later took over full control of that business, when his Barron partner decided to emigrate in line with some other of his closely related Barron family members, who had done so earlier and he too now wished to be living abroad with them as well.

Jim’s next major step was taken on the 9th of August 1974, when he married Elizabeth G. McAuley, who was then private secretary to Sir Graham Larmour, a man who was referred to as: ‘ The Knight of the Linen Industry’ in Northern Ireland.

James and Elizabeth first met in the late 1940’s, when their families became neighbours at Whitehouse, and eventually the couple became members of Whitehouse Presbyterian Church, having both decided to dedicate their lives to the service of Christ, which due to their commitment and determination, was to provide outstanding benefits for all the Church’s outreach in many fields, including financially and personally, supporting Missionaries; Missionary Bodies; Registered Charities; Church Organisations, and much more. They both took up leadership in many areas of Church life. Meanwhile their business interests continued to grow from strength to strength.

Their loving generosity and thoughtfulness, can be revealed through one touching example, when at each Christmas season they arranged for the children of their nearest relations to be transported to one of the Belfast Christmas pantomimes, followed by a Christmas Party in their beautiful home along with a presentation of gifts to each of the boys and girls.
There were eventually three business premises in various parts of Belfast City, plus a large warehouse type business building at the Pennybridge Industrial Estate in Ballymena. On three occasions during the Northern Ireland Troubles, I.R.A. Terrorists bombed the Belfast Premises, which resulted in James requiring temporary emergency premises to store salvaged stock and materials. A kind friend offered Jim one of his available empty stores, but ironically a few weeks later, a severe storm blew part of that building down, thus causing further destruction to Jim’s previously rescued stock and materials. Undeterred, James determinedly worked relentlessly at restoring all his business interests back to their former state, as well as continuing to develop and expand his company.

After the first bomb attack on his property a most brave and determined Jim breathtakingly equipped himself with a long coil of rope, which he planned to attach to any further bombs that may again be planted inside his premises. His intention was to carefully exit the building, while holding the other rope end, and allow the full long coil to extend to its full length behind him. Then at what he considered a safe distance, he would attempt to extract the bomb from the building out into the open and away from the building, by continuing to keep walking onwards while pulling on the rope. If successful the intention was for the plan to greatly reduce destruction overall, should the bomb detonate, but involved an extremely hazardous and uncertain procedure.

This planned operation was put into action a short time later, when a further bomb was placed inside the newly restored building, but when Jim quickly entered equipped with his rope after the bombers withdrew, he immediately became aware that it would be impossible to pull the lethal object outside as planned, due to it being cunningly placed in a position completely surrounded by fixed obstacles. Fortunately Jim quickly withdrew from his threatened building, and moved swiftly away to a considered safe distance, from where he soon witnessed the complete destruction of his property once more, but thankfully everyone had survived yet another heart-breaking, cruel set back.

Jim’s recreational life greatly involved both him and his wife, in their deep passion for playing the game of golf, in addition to indoor and outdoor bowling, mainly linked to their own Church bowling group. They both enjoyed fully the fellowship and friendly competition these most popular sports provided, and they frequently were in line for top awards, due to their skilful abilities. Also being prolific readers, they greatly treasured their wide collection of books and accumulations of literature, held within a large library at home. Each had their own car for use in their home and business activities but also used to transport those who genuinely required transport to the various church functions and meetings etc. One example being the transportation of disabled people back and forth from their Disabled Christian Fellowship meetings.

Both developed the desire for collecting a substantial amount of widely varying articles, and over the years many of those items were obtained during their annual holidays or other trips abroad, while at their home residence both enjoyed cultivating and maintaining quite a large flower and vegetable garden, plus a conservatory.

All those activities continued unhindered for several decades of their married life until eventually they reached the stage when retirement required consideration. James and Elizabeth, never having had any family of their own, previously decided much earlier to appoint a third partner into the business. Eventually that partner was approached for the purpose of discussing all matters relating to their necessary future business arrangements, in preparation for James and Elizabeth’s planned retirement.
The eventual outcome resulted in a date being agreed for the retirement of James and his wife, while their third partner agreed satisfactory terms in relation to taking over the business. James also gave him firm assurance that he would continue to monitor, assist, and advise the new owner part-time until everyone was completely confident and fully satisfied regarding future operation of the business. At that point James would withdraw finally from all future involvement. This agreed procedure was put into operation and when all requirements necessary were achieved, James and his wife withdrew completely from the business.

During the final phase the newly retired couple had been planning to go on an extensive celebration world tour, so when relations and friends living abroad became aware of their intentions, several invitations were offered to James and Elizabeth indicating they were welcome to arrange visits and stopovers with those friends and relations where possible during their extensive planned tour. This in one case resulted in them spending a period of time with Jim’s brother David and his family in Australia, due to them having earlier emigrated there. Before doing so, David had worked with his brother at Barron and Brennan Ltd.

In another case, a further period was spent with relations in Canada, so this pattern frequently continued throughout the entire world tour, which involved many countries throughout the world. Some were friends who lived in countries where James had served in during his war service, and two of those countries were India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The many years of retirement following that grand world tour, provided James and his wife with endless opportunities, to engage fully in and expand their involvement in all the many interests and activities which they had participated in and developed during their earlier years plus the following business years.

The impact which all that amazing service and dedication has had on so many lives, is nigh well impossible to measure.
However the reality is that the passing years ‘took their toll’, and Jim’s war service in the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Gun Regiment had eventually been very damaging to his hearing, so that with each passing year a gradual deterioration in his range of hearing became more noticeable, until today even with the use of two hearing aids he has to shout loudly and even then it is difficult for James to finally grasp the message. People often resort to writing down questions for him to read and answer. He was greatly amused recently when his sister-in-law paid him a visit and soon noticed he was wearing only one hearing aid, when she enquired loudly as to why he was not wearing his other hearing aid, James replied that he was keeping it in reserve just in case the other one failed. His sister-in-law quickly responded with a most hilarious and appropriate remark; “are you keeping it intact for your old age”?

Otherwise over his lifetime James was greatly blessed with excellent health. Only on one occasion did he require hospitalisation for back surgery, but after recovery from that, he never had any further problems. This was the case until the year 2012, when suddenly he developed a nasty infection, and was admitted to hospital for emergency investigation and treatment. When he had recovered sufficiently, the hospital recommended a period of respite care, aimed towards full recovery in a care home.
Meanwhile his wife Elizabeth had lived alone at home during this period, but due to a severe disability she no longer was able to care for her husband at home. Several years previously, she had been diagnosed with osteoporosis, and now because of the deterioration suffered through this, her husband James still resided in the care home. Elizabeth too then suddenly required an emergency admission to hospital in early 2014, in relation to her osteoporosis, and while carrying out their standard admission medical tests revealed Elizabeth was also suffering from advanced breast cancer, which she had not been aware of up until that unexpected and now devastating diagnosis.

When her medical condition had stabilized sufficiently, the hospital now transferred Elizabeth into respite care, but this very quickly extended into full time care for both James and his wife due to all their changed circumstances.
Just some two and a half years later on 11th of July 2016, Elizabeth died suddenly due to a severe infection, and today James still remains in full time care, where he has been residing since early 2012, but has adjusted amazingly well through all those heart-breaking trials, both past and present. His profound deafness is a major frustration for him, and has resulted in him having some memory problems in recent times, due to being cut off for so long from all the general conversation etc, but he is completely aware of that fact, and now just ‘soldiers on’ by reading his way through books and various papers every day, while using the bible as his main guide. After all a good soldier aims for 100% while living his life to the full, and James has certainly achieved that goal of 100 in every way.

One Verse for Life
“There are mountains in life we all have to climb.
But we can remove them, with one step at a time.
Have faith to move mountains, with God at your side.
Just keep climbing upwards. Let Him be your guide.”

D.B.McA.

 

 

 

This post has a personal sentiment as it relates to one of our volunteer’s families.
Resources:
War Years Remembered Collection
Image www.waryearsremembered.co.uk