Irish Soldier, Aviator, Pioneer – Colonel James M.C. Fitzmaurice D.F.C. 1898-1965
By Michael J. Whelan – Curator: Irish Air Corps Museum (Images courtesy of Irish Air Corps Photographic Section)
Published Winter 2015
It is impossible to invest in an article of this size the magnitude of the career James Fitzmaurice who, during an adventurous lifetime; had survived the trenches of the Great War, was one of Ireland’s first military flying officers and had become a world famous aviator and an early pioneer of aviation’s potential in Ireland and abroad. But his eventful and courageous life during the dawning of the aviation story in the first half of the 20th Century has all but been neglected.
James was born on 6 January 1898, when the family – Michael Fitzmaurice and Mary Agnes O’Riordan – were living on the North Circular in Dublin City. When he was aged four, in 1902, the family moved to a house on the Dublin Road in Portlaoise, Co. Laois, where James attended St. Mary’s Christian Brothers School until shortly before his sixteenth birthday. But James had a hankering for adventure and the life of a soldier was a good place to find it.
Ireland at this time was still part of the British Empire and much of the politics of the day centred around the possibilities or otherwise of Irish autonomy. James seems to have paid particular attention to the political scene and the seismic events happening around the world and their impact at home. By 1913 Irish society was fracturing over the divisive issue of Home Rule with the Ulster Volunteer Force being formed to oppose its introduction and the Irish Volunteers to defend it. Both movements had started in earnest to covertly procure weapons and train thousands of volunteers for the possibility of civil war.
The Great War
In early 1914, James was said to have joined the Irish Volunteers and may have taken part in the landing of weapons at Howth Harbour. In August of that same year the Great War broke out and he immediately enlisted in a cadet company of the 7th Battalion Leinster Fusiliers, he was sixteen years of age. His father, discovering this, managed to pull him out. The required age for enlistment in the army was a minimum of nineteen years but many boys had lied about their age in the rush to take part in the war. James, however, was adamant and by 1915 he had re-enlisted in the 17th Lancers – the Death or Glory Boys – famed for their part in the actions at Balaclava during the Crimean War. He was still very much underage when he reported to the Curragh Camp in Co. Kildare for training, where he would learn the skills of the mounted soldier. James must have made an impression as he was soon promoted to Lance Corporal. But he soon discovered that the skills of a well-trained mounted trooper would not lend themselves to the warfare being conducted in the trenches of the Western Front.
News of the ever-worsening conditions at the Front must have been received with anxious trepidations when James arrived at the vast infantry training camp at Etampes in France in May 1916. James, now seventeen years old, was given the news that they would be going into the trenches as ordinary infantry soldier. The opposing front lines of the two warring armies were separated in many cases only by mere yards of No-Man’s Land. The arriving drafts of Lancers were split up and sent to various infantry units. The urgent need for replacements in formations due to the attrition of the fighting meant that Irishmen didn’t always end up in Irish Regiments and after handing in his Lance, sword and kit he was posted to the 7th Battalion the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment, the Second Regiment of Foot, which at the time formed part of the 55th Brigade of the British 18th Division who had been in almost continuous action since arriving in theatre ten months earlier. The regiment’s survivors were by now very seasoned soldiers and after a crash course on how to be an infantryman James felt he would benefit from their experiences.
By this time plans were well advanced for the greatest assault of the war, which would turn out to be one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. James’ first exposure to actual warfare involved transporting food, equipment and other essentials up to the front lines over the broken ground of earlier battles, the detritus marking the routes with dead bodies, his first experience of seeing death. But he would go on to fight in many actions including the long Battle of the Somme, the first day of which saw over 60,000 casualties alone and in September his battalion took part in the successful but costly assault on the infamous and well defended German enclave known as the Schwaben Redoubt. In this and later actions James was noted for his daring and courage, often volunteering for night patrols and trench raids but he himself put these down to: ‘only going on those nerve-wracking expeditions because I dreaded staying in the trenches’.
Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force
He was injured twice during his active service on the Western Front. By the last months of the war James had received a commission and was successful in applying for pilot training with the Royal Flying Corps. By November 1918, he was eager to return to the Front but when his orders for sailing came through on the 11th, it was too late. Armistice meant James’ war was over but he did however serve in the Army of Occupation in 1919 with the Army Air Corps and it was during this period that he was selected to undertake the First Night Mail Flight (Folkstone to Bologne) and later for the Cape to Cairo Flight, the latter never getting off the ground. The experimental Air Mail Service ended soon after and between September and November 1919 James commanded the 6th Wing Working Party of the Royal Air Force assigned to the selling off of surplus useful materials and paying and demobilising of staff at six de-activated aerodromes in England. In December his orders came through and James was a civilian once more, spending the best part of the next two years selling insurance for North British and Mercantile Insurance Company. He was recalled to the newly formed Royal Air Force on a short-term commission of four to six years in May of 1921 with No. 5 Fighter Squadron but resigned again in August of that year.
The Fledgling Irish Air Corps and the Crossing of the Atlantic
In 1922 James joined the fledgling Irish Army Air Service in Dublin following the end of the War of Independence and the formation of the Irish Free State. The first dozen pilots were all Great War veterans. He served for the duration of the Irish Civil War and by October 1925 he was second in command in of the now named Irish Air Corps based at Baldonnel Aerodrome. On 16 September 1927, his first physical attempt at crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by air with Captain R.H. MacIntosh ‘All Weather Mac’ in their single engine Fokker F.VII called, Princess Xenia, G-EBTS aircraft was beaten back by weather after 500 miles. However on 12 April 1928, he once again took off from Baldonnel as co-pilot on the first successful East-West non-stop transatlantic flight with Herman Koehl, a German Great War veteran, and Baron Gunther Von Hunefeld as navigator in an all metal Junkers W.33 aircraft registered D-1167 named the Bremen. On route to New York and roughly half way across the Atlantic, the Bremen encountered severe weather conditions and mechanical problems and as a result the crew found themselves somewhat off course and worried about the success of their mission. Changing course the crew landed on a frozen reservoir on Greenly Island in Newfoundland 39 and a 1/2 hours after departing Baldonnel placing themselves and Ireland on the romantic mantle of world aviation history. They would be given many accolades beginning with United States President, Calvin Coolidge, presenting the crew with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first to be awarded to non-American Citizens. On returning to Dublin they were given the Freedom of the City before briefly meeting the abdicated Kaiser in Holland.
Captain Fitzmaurice was promoted to Major and in August to Colonel, his new rank backdated one year with pay. In February, the following year he resigned from the Irish Air Corps and spent some years in the United States and Europe, while involved in trying unsuccessfully to get a number of aviation related ventures off the ground. During the Second World War he operated a club for servicemen in London and in the late 1940s returned to Ireland in pursuit of work. Although celebrated in Europe at various times for his courageous feat over the Atlantic in 1928, James felt that he was forgotten at home in Ireland. He had always felt that the Irish authorities neglected his achievements and pursuits. Fitzmaurice, possibly because of post-independence Irish nationalistic conditioning towards anything English, was to a certain extent the victim of his own successes and what was said to be his invented English accent and persona.
Remarking on his earlier application to the Irish authorities to back an all Irish transatlantic bid using the Martinsyde type A, MkII aircraft – the ‘Big Fella’ (famed for being purchased and kept on standby to retrieve Michael Collins from London during the possible failure of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921 and being the first airframe owned by the Provisional Irish People and subsequently the Irish Air Service in 1922), he was quoted:
‘If you have the misfortune to do anything useful for Ireland, they (the Irish) do everything possible to destroy you. Then when you are dead, they dig you up and laud your praises as a bolster to their own mediocrity’.
By the early 1960’s James had become frail and was living in Dublin at lodgings of various standards. The Irish Air Corps Museum collection holds a handwritten letter from James dated 1962, in which he thanks the officers for not forgetting him in his infirmities and for sending a £10 Hamper sent to tide him over the Christmas after they had discovered his rough circumstances. Soon afterwards he visited his old command at Baldonnel (by this time renamed Casement Aerodrome) and met some old comrades from the Bremen days. James died in Baggot St. Hospital on Sunday 26 September 1965, age 67. He was given a State Funeral, his coffin covered by the Irish Tricolour, and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
The Irish Air Corps are home to several artefacts and paraphernalia related to Fitzmaurice’s military career as well as the marked site of the Bremen departure in 1928. South Dublin County Council has also marked a number of sites using Fitzmaurice as a place-name in the county. In 1998 Portlaoise County Council erected a monument in the shape of the Bremen wing to their adopted aviator. The memorial has been recently refurbished and is cared for at Fitzmaurice Place by members of the Irish United Nations Veterans Association.