In 1944 Londonderry Corporation conferred the Freedom of the City of Londonderry on one of its own, Sir Basil Alexander Talbot McFarland Bt. The son of the late Sir John McFarland Bt and Annie Lady McFarland, Sir Basil was awarded the honour for his wartime service with 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (Supplementary Reserve).
As Major McFarland, he had commanded 25 Battery of the regiment through most of the war, serving in Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine, Libya and Italy and earning a Mention in Despatches in the Salerno beachhead in September 1943.
Considered the ‘Father of the Regiment’ he had been an inspiration to all who served under him and to those who served in other batteries of the regiment. More than one veteran expressed the opinion that ‘we owed it all to Sir Basil’ when speaking of the regiment’s outstanding service and achievements.
Basil McFarland was born on 18 February 1898, the only son of John and Annie McFarland. In 1914 John McFarland was created First Baronet Aberfoyle, a title to which the young Basil succeeded in 1926 on his father’s death.
Educated at England, Germany and Belgium, he volunteered for military service as a teenager during the Great War. He served as a private in the Artists’ Rifles in 1918, but the war ended before he could see active service.
Between the wars he led a busy life in the sporting, business and political fields in his native city. A good rugby player, he represented Ireland on four occasions between 1920 and 1922, and played for City of Derry and NIFC. He also became a director of newly-formed Derry City Football Club.
Basil married Annie Kathleen Henderson of Whiteabbey in 1924. Six years later he was appointed High Sheriff, an office he held until 1939. He had also been elected as a councillor to Londonderry County Borough Council – the city’s Corporation – and 1939 saw elected to the Mayoralty, an office his late father had also filled. That year also saw him appointed as the Lord Lieutenant for the City.
Sir Basil served as Mayor for only a year and, in fact, for much of that year the duties of Mayor were discharged by his deputy. War had intervened and Sir Basil was on active service in North Africa.
When the announcement that a Supplementary Reserve anti-aircraft regiment was to be raised in the city and surrounding area, Sir Basil was among the first to volunteer. Commissioned as Lieutenant McFarland early in 1939, he was promoted to captain and second-in-command, or battery captain, of 25 Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Battery in August.
The Supplementary Reserve was part of the Army’s First-Class Reserve with its personnel liable for service anyway in the world. As a result the Londonderry Regiment was designated 9th to show its seniority over Territorial Army regiments, the most senior of which was 51st HAA Regiment.
Although the regiment was intended to deploy to France with the British Expeditionary Force, the Admiralty’s demands for more anti-aircraft defences for HMS Nile, the Mediterranean Fleet’s base at Alexandria in Egypt brought about a change of plan. In late October 1939 theregiment was ordered to move to Egypt.
At this stage Captain McFarland might have been left at home. He was already over 40 and, therefore, too old for an active service overseas posting. But he argued against the War Office ruling and won his case, leaving with 9th Regiment for Alexandria in early November 1939. Others in his age group were not allowed overseas at all.
An energetic and enthusiastic officer he was one of the team that ensured that the regiment was ready for action when it finally came in June 1940. The first Italian air raid on Alexandria saw 25 Battery claim its first victory, an Italian reconnaissance plane that came over to photograph the aftermath of the raid.
Then 25 Battery was transferred to Port Sudan to defend that port against the Italian air force. When, on 16 December 1940, the port suffered heavy air raids Captain McFarland earned the undying respect of his soldiers.
Driving up to each gun position in turn he climbed on his car to encourage his gunners. ‘Never forget you’re Derrymen,’ he told them as bombs fell around them, splinters whizzed through the air and the stench of explosives pervaded everything. His car was damaged by bomb splinters yet still he persisted.
When he was promoted to command 25 Battery the gunners were delighted. The spirit of the battery was tremendous and they were proud to declare themselves ‘Basil’s Boys’. He had already given the regiment a nickname. In telegrams home to the Corporation he would always include the line ‘All Derry Boys with me are well’ and Derry Boys the regiment remained.
From the Sudan to the Western Desert, where they spent six gruelling months, and back to Alexandria, his men discharged their duties with professionalism and pride, knowing that their battery commander was a friend as well as an officer.
Such was the reputation of the battery that when ‘Two-five’ put up a performance that was outstanding even by their standards, their brigade commander remarked that ‘I never expected anything else from McFarland’s Battery’.
When 9th (Londonderry) HAA Regiment was converted temporarily to infantry in the Salerno beachhead in September 1943 Major McFarland’s leadership was such that he was awarded a Mention in Despatches while Brigadier Mortimer Wheeler, later a distinguished broadcaster, wrote of the ‘redoubtable Mayor of Londonderry’ and his exemplary service.
The Derry Boys had given tremendous service in North Africa and did so again in Italy where they added field gunnery to their range of skills. Supporting American troops along the Arno river, they surprised the Americans by the accuracy of their shooting. At times one round from a gun of 24 or 25 Batterieswas more effective than a bombardment from an entire US artillery battalion.
But 25 Battery also suffered its worst losses of the war in Italy. On 21 October 1943 no fewer than fifteen men of the battery were killed when a German bomb fell in a gunpit outside Naples. It was the worst day of the war for Sir Basil.
Such was his reputation that Major McFarland was offered two opportunities to return to the UK as a training officer. He refused both, preferring to remain with his Derry Boys until the regiment was repatriated in September 1944 after five long years overseas.
It was during their repatriation leave that Sir Basil was awarded the Freedom of Londonderry, an honour that reflected his service to the city and to the greater Allied cause of peace with justice. He finally left the Army at the end of the war.
However, the Army had not finished with him. He was appointed Honorary Colonel of 9th (Londonderry) HAA Regiment in 1946 and in 1947 also became Honorary Colonel of 246th (Derry) (Mixed) HAA Regiment, the first Territorial Army unit ever raised in the city. Between 1952 and 1956 he also commanded the City of Londonderry Battalion of the Home Guard.
Sir Basil served as Mayor from 1945 to 1950, continued as Lord Lieutenant for the City until 1975, was appointed CBE and awarded the Emergency Reserve Decoration.
His business interests were many but one of his priorities was the welfare of his Derry Boys, for many of whom, Catholic and Protestant, he found employment. Charities that benefited from his expertise and generosity included the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and St John Ambulance, of which he was area President.
Sir Basil died on 5 March 1986 at the age of 88 after a lifetime of sterling service to his beloved city in peace and war.