This week sees the 40th anniversary of the death of one of this area’s most illustrious yet somewhat under-celebrated figures.
Four decades ago, on 24 July 1975, General Sir James Steele GCB KBE DSO MC LLD died peacefully in the sleepy village of Stourpaine (Dorset) following a short illness.
James Stuart Steele was born on 26 October, 1894 in Ballycarry, into a humble farming family. According to the 1901 Census of Ireland, Steele’s father Samuel died before his son was six years old, leaving the widowed Rachel (née Stuart) to look after the household which included two children (James and elder sister Elizabeth ‘Bessie’) and two young adults (Margaret and Bailey), presumably adopted from Rachel’s family, given their surname being recorded as Stuart.
Following his education at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Steele’s studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast were cut short with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The 19-year-old served in the 7th (Service) Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles in Messines, the Somme, and Ypres.
Such was Steele’s bravery, skill, and tenacity that he was commissioned in 1916 and both mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross in 1917.
He continued to serve in India, Egypt (where he married the Australian Janet Gibson Gordon), Pakistan, Jamaica, Palestine, and later in France, Belgium, and the Middle East.
His impressive service accelerated his promotion. In 1939 he was in the mobilisation branch of the War Office, personally signing the signal which took the British Army to war. In May, 1940 he was admitted to the Distinguished Service Order for his involvement immediately prior to the battle of Dunkirk.
Charged in 1941 with command of the mostly reserve force 59th Staffordshire Division, Steele excelled at progressing his section’s skills and was made deputy chief in the Middle East, responsible for the battle of El Alamein in particular.
As Director of Staff Duties back in the United Kingdom, he was responsible for the Normandy landings in 1944. In 1946 he became Commander-in-Chief and High Commissioner in Austria, and the following year Adjutant-General to the Forces, a role which saw him partly manage the Army’s transition from war to peace.
In March 1950, following his retirement, Gen Sir James S. Steele was made Aide-de-Camp to King George VI, which lead to a lasting close personal relationship with the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
Amongst his many notable accolades, Steele was a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (1950) and a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (1949). His personal banner now hangs in the Regimental Chapel of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. He became President of the Army Benevolent Fund in 1955 and was an Imperial War Graves commissioner.
He was admitted as the fourth Freeman of the Borough of Larne on September 5, 1949, yet perhaps one of the most poignant honours for Steele, who never forgot his native village, was his role in the official opening of the new Ballycarry Primary School in 1953.
On the village green, the Gen Steele Memorial stands not far from where the man was born. The community created the General Sir James Steele Memorial Trust to help benefit young people. I was pleased to be the second recipient of a bursary in 2006 in order to travel, fittingly, to India on a church mission trip.
Gen Sir James Steele remained mindful of his origins and his final wish was that his remains were to be returned to rest in the small village of Ballycarry, which still fondly remembers its national treasure.