Photo: a lonely Commonwealth War Grave Commission Headstone in Tay Lane Cemetery, Celbridge, Co. Kildare
Walking through cemeteries you may have wondered why graves of servicemen dated 1919, 1920 and 1921 have a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. This is due to a sometimes-forgotten fact, today 31 August, marks the official end of the Great War.
Although guns fell silent with the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, treaties had to be signed and the war had to be officially ended. For example, the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. Different treaties were signed with other powers. To officially end the war the British Parliament passed The Termination of the Present War (Definition) Act 1918 which allowed the government to determine the official ending of the war between the British Empire and the Central Powers. Officially the war ended between the British Empire and Germany on 10 January 1920; Austria on 16 July 1920; Bulgaria on 9 August 1920; Hungary on 26 July 1921; and Turkey on 6 August 1924. It was declared for all other purposes, the Great War to have officially ended on 31 August 1921.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter on 21 May 1917. They commemorate those who died as a result of their service up until the official end of the war on 31 August 1921. That includes those who died in service and those who died after they were discharged.
Two such examples include:
Air Mechanic 2nd Class, Charles Sheridan, Royal Air Force. Died on 16 August 1921. Buried in Tay Lane Cemetery, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, and Sapper J. Cash, Royal Engineers. Died 21 February 1919. Buried in Deans Grange Cemetery, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown.
Local Defence Force and Royal Air Force Ex-Serviceman Jimmy Dodd
It was a privilege to meet and record the story of ex-serviceman, 92-year-old Jimmy Dodd. During the Emergency 1939-1946 Jimmy was living on the Dargle Road in Bray, County Wicklow, working as a messenger boy. He remembers the Emergency well. When he turned 17, he volunteered for Óglaigh na hÉireann / Irish Defence Forces and joined the North Wicklow Battalion, Local Defence Force (LDF).
Jimmy remembers clearly firing the .303” Lee Enfield at Kilpedder rifle range and the cherished overcoat issued at the time. Jimmy’s unit was called out three times during this period. First to relieve the people in Bray after the Dargle burst its banks. People whose houses were flooded were brought to the LDF Headquarters at Rockbrae House. The second incident occurred on 12 August 1946, when a Junkers 52 with 23 passengers – French Girl Guides – and a crew of four crashed near Djouce Mt. in the Wicklow mountains, miraculously with no loss of life. Military units were mobilised to help rescue them. The third took place on the early morning of 4 March 1947, when 13km off Dalkey Island, the Norwegian MV Bolivar – of Fred Olsen and Company – hit the Kish Bank and broke up. Bound for Dublin Port with badly needed grain and other supplies its valuable cargo was sought after by members of the ration weary public. The LDF were called in to patrol the beaches and protect the washed-up cargo.
Seeking adventure Jimmy headed to Belfast and enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) for the Duration of the Present Emergency. He was trained as a Vulcaniser and ground crew, working on every aircraft of the period. Jimmy served throughout the UK in several bases. In 1948 Jimmy was deployed to Berlin, Germany, and recounted the devastation of the city following the war. As tensions rose between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets from 24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949. The only access was by air, and the Allies launched the Berlin Air Lift to relieve the city. In 1951 he was demobbed and went on to become a plasterer, get married and raise eight children. He lives today in Sallynoggin, Dublin.
Per Ardua Ad Astra
If you know of an ex-servicemen or women from the Emergency period and would like their story recorded, please drop us a line.
This project is supported by Dublin Port Company Heritage Office.
Ireland’s Military Story and The Irish Military Heritage Foundation send our best wishes to World War 2 veteran Joe Woods for a very happy 100th birthday today. Joe served with the Royal Air Force Regiment 1941 – 1946 and took part in the Liberation of Denmark. In 1995, Joe and his late wife Josephine, were invited to Denmark and he was presented with The Danish Liberation Silver Medal by a member of the Danish Royal family in recognition of his war service to Denmark. He is originally from Barlborough in Derbyshire but moved to Newbridge, Co Kildare.
He is well known in the Whitewater Shopping Centre and is regularly spotted around the town on his scooter he calls his ‘Spitfire’. Joe will be interviewed by Clem Ryan on Kfm Radio Kildare at 10:45am this morning.Joe was on our list to interview last year as part of our Kildare Veterans’ Story, but due to Covid-19 restrictions this could not happen. Hopefully we will meet Joe later this year.
Joe certainly lives up to the Royal Air Force Regiment motto:Per Ardua ad Astra “Through Adversity to the Stars”
Joe is pictured here at the Annual Wreath Laying Ceremony 2019 at the Irish War Memorial Gardens Islandbridge, with the then British Ambassador Mr. Robin Barnett CMG British Embassy Dublin and standard bearers of the Royal British Legion Republic of Ireland.
Photo courtesy of Joe’s good friend Tony O’Connor.
Congratulations to the Northern Ireland Universities’ Air Squadron (NIUAS) on the approval of their new crest. Five years ago NIUAS designed a new crest and submitted for approval.
The beautiful crest has a crown on top with a harp and book in the centre with the phrase: Novos Finis Usque Petentes, which translates as: ‘Always Seeking New Horizons’.
NIUAS is a Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve unit for full-time undergraduate students from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. It was formed in November 2015 some 20 years after the Queen’s University Air Squadron was disbanded. There are 15 University Air Squadrons of which NIUAS is the most recent.
NIUAS operates out of Aldergrove Flying Station, located by Belfast International Airport and once-a-month from Reserve Forces’ & Cadets’ Association for Northern Ireland (RFCA NI) HQ in central Belfast. The NIUAS activities model is delivered via four classifications as follows: Flying, Adventurous Training, Sport, and Force Development.
Cork’s Arnhem Victoria Cross Flight Lieutenant David Lord
75 years ago, Allied forces in Europe launched Operation Market Garden: an air and land operation derived to drive a 103km salient in German occupied Netherlands and establish a bridgehead over the River Rhine. Market Garden consisted of two sub-operations: Market – an airborne assault to seize key bridges, and; Garden – a ground attack moving over the seized bridges creating the salient. The airborne part of the operation was undertaken by the First Allied Airborne Army while the land operation by was undertaken by XXX Corps of the British Second Army. Market Garden was the largest airborne operation up to that point in World War II.
Amongst the British Army contingent were several Irish units including: 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles; 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars; 2nd Armoured Battalion, Irish Guards; and 3rd Battalion, Irish Guards. This does not account for the unknown number of Irishmen or of Irish descent in other Allied units: a possible figure of several thousand. Many were recognised for their bravery; one such man was Flight Lieutenant David Lord.
David Samuel Anthony Lord was born on 18 October 1913 in Cork, Ireland, one of three sons of Samuel (a Warrant Officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers) and Mary Lord (née Miller). Following the Great War, the family were posted to British India and Lord attended Lucknow Convent School. The family then moved to Wrexham after his father retired from service. David then attended St Mary’s College, Aberystwyth, and then went on to the University of Wales. Later, he attended the English College, Valladolid, Spain to study for the priesthood. This was not for his however, and he returned and moved to London.
Royal Air Force
Lord enlisted in the Royal Air Force on 6 August 1936. After reaching the rank of corporal in August 1938, he applied to become a pilot, which he began in October 1938. Successfully gaining his pilot’s wings, he became a sergeant pilot in April 1939, and was posted to No. 31 Squadron RAF, based in Lahore, India. In 1941, No. 31 Squadron was the first unit to receive the Douglas DC-2 which was followed by both the Douglas DC-3 and Dakota transports. That year he was promoted to flight sergeant and then warrant officer. He flew in North Africa in support of troops in Libya and Egypt for four months, before being posted back to India. He was commissioned a pilot officer in May 1942, and went on to fly supply missions over Burma.
Lord was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in July 1943, and was promoted to flight lieutenant shortly afterwards. By January 1944, he was with No. 271 Squadron (based at RAF Down Ampney, Gloucestershire) and began training as part of preparations for the invasion of Europe. On D-Day, Lord carried paratroopers into France and his aircraft was hit by flak, and returned to base without flaps.
Operation Market Garden and Victoria Cross
During operation Market Garden in September 1944, the British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade were tasked with securing bridges across the Lower Rhine, the final objectives of the operation. However, the airborne forces that dropped on 17 September were not aware that the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were near Arnhem for rest and refit. The Allies suffered heavily against the unexpected Panzergrenadiers, tanks and self-propelled guns. Only a small force held one end of the Arnhem road bridge before being overrun on 21 September. The rest of the division became trapped in a small pocket west of the bridge and had to be evacuated on 25 September.
During the battle for Arnhem, No. 271 Squadron, was tasked with resupplying the trapped airborne troops. On 19 September Lord’s Douglas Dakota III ‘KG374’ encountered intense enemy anti-aircraft fire and was twice hit, with one engine burning. Lord managed to drop his supplies, but at the end of the run found that he had two containers remaining. Although he knew that one of his wings might collapse at any moment, he nevertheless made a second run to drop the last supplies, he then ordered his crew to bail out. A few seconds later, the Dakota crashed in flames with its pilot and six crew members. Only the navigator, Flying Officer Harold King, survived, becoming a prisoner of war. It was only on his release in mid-1945, as well as the release of several paratroopers from the 10th Parachute Battalion, that the story of Lord’s action became known and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Victoria Cross citation Lord’s VC appeared in a supplement to the London Gazette on 9 November 1945, reading:
Air Ministry, 13 November 1945.
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:—
Flight Lieutenant David Samuel Anthony LORD, D.F.C. (49149), R.A.F., 271 Sqn. (deceased).
Flight Lieutenant Lord was pilot and captain of a Dakota aircraft detailed to drop supplies at Arnhem on the afternoon of 19 September 1944. Our airborne troops had been surrounded and were being pressed into a small area defended by a large number of anti-aircraft guns. Air crews were warned that intense opposition would be met over the dropping zone. To ensure accuracy they were ordered to fly at 900 feet when dropping their containers.
While flying at 1,500 feet near Arnhem the starboard wing of Flight Lieutenant Lord’s aircraft was twice hit by anti-aircraft fire. The starboard engine was set on fire. He would have been justified in leaving the main stream of supply aircraft and continuing at the same height or even abandoning his aircraft. But on learning that his crew were uninjured and that the dropping zone would be reached in three minutes he said he would complete his mission, as the troops were in dire need of supplies.
By now the starboard engine was burning furiously. Flight Lieutenant Lord came down to 900 feet, where he was singled out for the concentrated fire of all the anti-aircraft guns. On reaching the dropping zone he kept the aircraft on a straight, and level course while supplies were dropped. At the end of the run, he was told that two containers remained.
Although he must have known that the collapse of the starboard wing could not be long delayed, Flight Lieutenant Lord circled, rejoined the stream of aircraft and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies. These manoeuvres took eight minutes in all, the aircraft being continuously under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
His task completed, Flight Lieutenant Lord ordered his crew to abandon the Dakota, making no attempt himself to leave the aircraft, which was down to 500 feet. A few seconds later, the starboard wing collapsed and the aircraft fell in flames. There was only one survivor, who was flung out while assisting other members of the crew to put on their parachutes.
By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning aircraft, descending to drop the supplies accurately, returning to the dropping zone a second time and, finally, remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flight Lieutenant Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice.
Lord’s Victoria Cross was presented to his parents at Buckingham Palace in December 1945. In 1997, Lord’s VC, along with his other decorations and medals, were sold at auction by Spinks to Lord Ashcroft. As of 2014, the medal group was on display at the Imperial War Museum.
You can read more on Flight Lieutenant Lord: Flight Lieutenant David Lord, Victoria Cross: an Arnhem Hero, by James Patrick Hynes.
Photos by Ken Mooney and courtesy of Ulster Aviation Society
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Keeping in line with our Royal Air Force theme we decided to
pay a visit to the largest collection of aircraft on the island of Ireland –
the Ulster Aviation Collection. Housed within an ex-Second World War hangar at
Maze Long Kesh, outside Lisburn, Co. Antrim, this collection of 36 aircraft, aviation
artefacts, complemented with several historical collections, tells the story of
aviation in Ireland. Resident historian, Ernie Cromie, was there to greet us
and take us around.
I have to admit I am an aviation buff, so this visit was a
treat for me. I’ve been to the Irish Air Corps Museum and to several aviation
museums abroad, I was not expecting to find such a collection on our own
doorstep. Ernie explained that the collection was started back in 1984, by the
Ulster Aviation Society who were then based at Castlereagh College in East
Belfast. The Society is made up of volunteers who research, restore, educate
and fund raise to keep aviation history alive.
Aviation in Ireland dates right back to the early days of
flight when inventor Harry Ferguson took to the air in 1909. Since that time
both military and civilian aviation has made a huge impact on the island. From
a military point of view, Ireland’s geographical position placed it in a
significant strategic location during the First and Second World Wars, and the
Cold War. This strategic position has ensured a unique aviation history. During
the First World War both British and United States aircraft operated from all around
Ireland. Again, during the Second World War and the Cold War Royal Air Force,
Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and United States aircraft operated in and out of
Northern Ireland, while the Irish Air Corps patrolled the airspace of southern Ireland.
Internationally Northern Ireland is well known in the aviation world. The aviation
giant Shorts Bombardier needs no introduction. Their aircraft designs have put
Belfast and Northern Ireland on the world’s aviation map. Northern Ireland is
further known as the birthplace of the ejection seat pioneer, James (later, Sir
James) Martin. Martin-Barker Ltd has a test facility at the former RAF Langford
Lodge near Crumlin in Co. Antrim. It is used for testing, and houses a 6,200
feet (1,900 m) high-speed rocket sled track.
There is no escaping the aircraft collection. You are simply
gobsmacked from the minute you enter the hangar. On entering you are met by a
Blackburn Buccaneer. Beside it is a replica of the Second World War ‘Down’
Spitfire. Two aircraft from two different eras. The replica of the Rolls Royce Merlin
piston driven Spitfire stands elegantly by the side of its larger Cold War jet
cousin. The Buccaneer was a British carrier-borne attack aircraft designed in
the 1950’s for the Royal Navy. With a crew of 2 (Pilot and Observer) it stands
at 63 ft 5 in (19.33 m) in length and has a wingspan of 44 ft (13.41m). Powered
by 2 × Rolls-Royce Spey Mk 101 turbofans, it could reach a top speed of 667 mph
(580 kn, 1,074 km/h) at 200 ft (60 m). The engines on display alongside the
Buccaneer are huge compared to that of Rolls Royce Merlin engine of the
Spitfire. I asked Ernie why is the aircraft lifted off the ground. ‘When we
received the Buccaneer at Langford Lodge our former site, it was flown in in
excellent condition. Which means everything still works. We have her off the
ground so we can raise and lower the undercarriage, the air brake and fold and
unfold the wings, which keeps the hydraulics in working order. To get her flying
again would cost huge funding. Our aim is to get her to a condition whereby she
can taxi out onto the ramp’.
Each aircraft has a story to tell. The English Electric
Canberra B.2 for example became the first jet to make a nonstop unrefuelled
transatlantic crossing. The flight covered almost 1,800 miles in 4h 37 min.
Originally conceived as a high-altitude unarmed bomber, the Canberra first flew
on 13 May 1949, and entered service with the RAF two years later as the PR.3.
In Jan 1960, the Canberra PR.9 entered service with No. 58 Squadron at RAF
Wyton and the first operational sortie was flown three months later. The
Canberra could reach a ceiling of some 60,000 ft. The PR.9 was the
photo-reconnaissance version with fuselage stretched to 68 ft (27.72 m), and a
wingspan increased by 4 ft (1.22 m). The PR.9 has a hinged nose to allow
fitment of an ejection seat for the navigator. A total of 23 of this variant
were built by Short Brothers & Harland. During 1962, PR.9s were used to
photograph Russian shipping movements during the Cuban crisis. Throughout the
Cold War the PR.9 flew missions when and where surveillance was called for with
in more recent years the aircraft being deployed for operations over Rwanda,
Kosovo the 2003 Gulf conflict and Afghanistan in 2006. XH131 was the third aircraft
from the PR.9 production line at Belfast and is the oldest surviving example of
the type. The aircraft was purchased with the assistance of the Heritage
Lottery Fund, and transported to Northern Ireland to join the collection during
December 2010. ‘The last pilot to fly XH131 in Afghanistan in 2006, was Flight
Lieutenant Leckey from Northern Ireland’.
Another example is the Westland Wessex, the British version
of the Sikorsky S-58 ‘Choctaw’, developed under license by Westland Aircraft
(later Westland Helicopters). An American-built Sikorsky HSS-1 was shipped to
Westland in 1956, to act as a pattern aircraft. The example on display in the
collection, XR517, first flew in January 1964, and was stationed with No. 18
Squadron and coded G. In 1968, it was transferred to No. 72 Squadron and from
1971 until 1992, was based at RAF Aldergrove initially carrying the code AN. For
32 years, from 1969, Wessex helicopters of No. 72 Squadron assisted the civil
power and supported the security forces during the ‘Troubles’. In addition, it
had a search and rescue function. It could carry 16 fully-armed troops or lift
a 4-ton underslung load. After its service in Northern Ireland it returned to
England with No. 60 Squadron at RAF Benson. It was acquired by the Society in
2004, from Dick Everett of Shoreham and trucked from there to its original home
at Langford Lodge.
There are certain aircraft in the collection that you can’t
help but go ‘WOW’. Aircraft such as the Spitfire are simply aviation legends.
Stephen Riley tells us more on the ‘Down’ Spitfire in our Quartermaster’s store.
Others such as the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II are simply the last aircraft
you would expect to see in Ireland. The Society’s Phantom is currently being repainted.
But even under all the protective sheeting you can make out the slick design of
this Cold War jet. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm employed
the Phantom for air defence, close air support, low-level strike and tactical
reconnaissance. Ernie explained that the British version of the Phantom were
assembled in the United States, but fitted with British avionics and 2 x
Rolls-Royce Spey Mk.203 engines. These engines could produce 12,140 lbf (54.0
kN) (dry thrust) and 20,515 lbf (91.26 kN) (with afterburner). A formidable
defence against any incoming Soviet aircraft. Entering service in 1969, the
aircraft was a very familiar sight over Western Germany and in the latter years
patrolling the South Atlantic from the Falklands. ‘The reason why we got one for
the collection was that virtually all the Phantoms for British service were
flown across the Atlantic into the RAF maintenance unit at RAF Aldergrove in
Antrim. The unit prepared the Phantoms for military service’. Three Phantom
variants were built for the United Kingdom: The F-4K variant was designed as an
air defence interceptor to be operated by the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal
Navy’s aircraft carriers; the F-4M version was produced for the RAF to serve in
the tactical strike and reconnaissance roles. In the mid-1980’s, the third
Phantom variant was obtained when a quantity of second-hand F-4J aircraft were
purchased to augment the United Kingdom’s air defences following the Falklands
War with Argentina. The first batch of Phantoms produced for the United Kingdom
received serials in the XT range. The Phantom in the collection is XT864 and it
had spent its latter years guarding a gate at Leuchars in Scotland.
There are certain aircraft in the collection thatyou can’t help but go ‘WOW’. Aircraft suchas the Spitfire are simply aviation legends.
Another aircraft that has to get special mention is that of
the famous Irish designer, Henry George ‘Harry’ Ferguson. Born in 1884, at
Growell, near Hillsborough, in Co. Down, Harry became gripped by the exploits
of the Wright Brothers and the new flying machines of the early 20th century.
With the help of his brother Harry designed and built the Ferguson monoplane.
The Irish aircraft took off from Hillsborough on 31 December 1909. He became
the first Irishman to fly and the first Irishman to build and fly his own
aeroplane. In the collection is a flying replica of the Ferguson Flyer 1911. You
may have seen it in flight on Dick Strawbridge’s BBC programme earlier this year.
For the programme members of the Ulster Aviation Society built this flying replica.
Dwarfed by a Shorts SD-330, it is baffling how this vintage design could possibly
fly. Ernie could see the question in my face. ‘Yes, it flew. The Society’s own William
McMinn, took it into the air last May at Magilligan Point, near Limavady for
BBC. He said it was a bit hairy,’ Ernie laughed.
One hangar is dedicated to the several aircraft under
restoration. All the work is done by the volunteers. The aircraft come to the
Society in varying conditions. Some aircraft such as the Fairchild 24W-41A
Argus needed a lot of work. This was a four-seater light
transport/communications aircraft used by the RAF and the Air Transport Auxiliary
(ATA). It last flew in 1967, after having a bad crash in Cork. ‘We were given her
five years ago and have done extensive work on her. We have a big job to get an
engine as this model used a rare Scarab engine. We’ve covered her in linen,
whereas she originally was covered in cotton’. During the Second World War
Argus aircraft were based at what is now Belfast City airport with the ATA.
The Grumman F4F Wildcat — JV482 is a long-term project.
Originally, she was stationed on HMS Searcher (D40) in 1943. In 1944,
the aircraft carrier was in port and the aircraft were flown to Long Kesh. ‘The
reason she’s still here is because on Christmas Eve 1944, JV482 was last flown by
a 19-year-old pilot by the name of Peter Lock, who only died earlier this year
and who was ordered to take her up for an air test. She got to about 800 feet
and the engine went on fire. He managed to ditch her in Portmore Lough, near
Lough Neagh. It never sank below the surface as it was in shallow waters’. When
you see the original images of the aircraft as it was taken out of the water,
it is unconceivable that it could be brought back to life at all. Ernie told us
that souvenir hunters had picked at the fuselage and wings. The Society
recovered the aircraft in 1984, the first aircraft in the collection. Bit by
bit the volunteers have begun to rebuild this World War II naval fighter.
‘There is a lot of work still to be done, all the skinning is brand new’.
A very unique aircraft currently being restored is the
Fairey Gannet, a British carrier-borne aircraft from the Cold War. With a crew
of three, it was developed for the Fleet Air Arm for anti-submarine warfare and
strike attack requirements. It had two distinct features: double folding wings
and its double turboprop engine driving two contra-rotating propellers. The
Armstrong Siddeley Double Mamba ASMD 1 turboprop engine drove contra-rotating
propellers through a combining gearbox.
Phantom F-4 — XT864 (currently being repainted)
Blackburn Buccaneer S2B — XV361
Canberra PR.9 — XH131
BAC Jet Provost T3A — XM414
De Havilland Vampire T.11 — WZ549
Hawker Sea Hawk FB.5 — WN108
Second World War
Spitfire Mk2A Replica — P7823 ‘Down’
Grumman F4F Wildcat — JV482 (currently being restored)
Fairchild 24W-41A Argus — HB612 (currently being restored)
Shorts SD-330 — G-BDBS
Shorts Tucano — G-BTUC
Shorts Tucano Prototype — ZF167 (currently being restored)
Shorts Sherpa SB.4 — G-14.1 (currently being restored)
Light Transport Turboprop
Percival P.57 Sea Prince T.1 — WF122 (Needs restoration)
Air & Space 18A Gyroplane — EI-CNG
V-1 flying bomb Replica
Rotec Rally 2B Microlight — G-MBJV
Himax R-1700 — G-MZHM
Clutton-Tabenor Fred Series 2 — G-BNZR
Evans VP-2 — G-BEHX
Pitts Special S-1A — N80BA (Needs restoration)
Sea Hawker EI-BUO
Ferguson Flyer 1911 Flying Replica
Puma HC1 — XW222
Westland Wessex HC2 — XR517
Westland Scout — XV136
Alouette III (SA 316B Mark III) — 202
Robinson R-22 — G-RENT
Bedford QL Fuel Bowser — RAF 206180 (Reg. 53 GPP)
Amazon Thorneycroft Crane (currently being restored)
Ferguson Mk3 Tractor (on temporary loan only)
Fairey Gannet AS4 — XA460 (currently being restored)
Canberra B2 Nose — WF911 (currently being restored)
Devon C2 Nose — VP957 (currently being restored)
The Collection is complemented by several collections. One
currently being put together is on Ireland during the First World War. Ernie
showed us a map of Ireland detailing all the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force
bases and United States Naval Air Stations around the island. It seemed like they
were everywhere: from Lough Foyle to Castlebar and from Tallaght to Waterford.
Two images caught my eye. A Handley Page V/1500 and an image of Women’s Royal
Air Force. Handley Page V/1500 were a World War I bomber. As it turns out
several were built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast. The image of the ladies in
uniform is captioned WRAF Dublin circa 1918/1919. An incredibly rare image.
The Aldergrove Room for example tells the story of the war
over the Atlantic during World War II. People often forget that Derry was the
largest naval base in the British Isles during the Second World War. At the
time it was home to a broad range of Allied aircraft and ships including: the
Canadians, Danish, Dutch, Polish and the United States. A picture of a
Swordfish shows it was flown by pilots of the Royal Netherlands Navy who
operated out of Maydown, in Co Derry. Other exhibit rooms tell the personal
stories of famous Irish pilots from World War II such as Royal Canadian Air
Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frank Rush. Born in Canada, his parents were from
the Falls Road. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with bar while flying
with the No. 502 ‘Ulster’ Squadron Coastal Command.
This article is only an insight into the vast stories that
are housed in the hangars of the Ulster Aviation Society. If you become a
member you will have access to their regularly journal which has endless
articles on Irish aviation history. You can also keep an eye out for in your
local bookstore for titles by the Societies members such as Guy Warner, Ernie Cromie
and Joe Gleeson.
The Ulster Aviation Society turns 50 next year. Keep an eye
out for celebration events. All visits from the public are organised by prior
arrangement. We cater for group visits, school trips (children’s groups should
be around 30 max.) and tour groups.
In 1939, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kiernan left his home in Mullingar for a new career that would take him above the clouds of Nazi Germany.
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Regarded as the ‘brains’ of the family, Joe left his family home after completing his studies at St. Finian’s College; he was 19 years old. He left behind his parents, Elizabeth and Joseph, and four siblings, Bridie, Willie, Kathleen, and Lilly. He was talented at drawing and travelled across the Irish Sea to train as a Draughtsman with the Ministry of War. The black clouds of war were gathering on the horizon and with its inevitable beginning in September 1939, Joe joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and due to his academic skills, he was selected to be a pilot. We know of Joe’s story because of the many letters he wrote to his cousin May who lived in England. These letters would later be sent to Joe’s family in Mullingar. Due to the strict censorship at the time, Joe clearly could not always write about what he was doing. At times he just mentions where he was based and comments on things like the accommodation, but little else.
RAF Boscombe Down: Aircraftman
Our journey begins with him in early December 1940. He is on his way to the RAF base at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire where he would stay for a little over a month. The base had four grass runways and the trainees stayed in Nissen huts laid in precise rows. The huts were made of corrugated iron on the outside and lined with wood on the inside. With concrete floors Joe found he could get no sleep but shivered despite being buried under the five blankets he had been allocated. That winter was on record as one of the coldest since 1889, with temperatures dropping to -21 F in Cumbria. For this young man the cold and the feeling of constant hunger was his introduction to Boscombe!
In the early morning the lads had to walk about a mile in freezing conditions to wash and get their breakfast. A lorry did come to collect them, but Joe found that it was always too early or too late. All the young men were anxious to begin their flying course, but knew they had to wait until a vacancy arose in one of the flying schools. They were really disappointed as they were ‘stuck on ground defence’. Sometimes they were allowed down to the huge hangars to look at the planes and dream of a time they would be at last able to get some flying time. During this period several units were stationed at the base. No. 35 Squadron operating Handley Page Halifax; No. 56 Squadron operating the Hawker Hurricane I; No. 109 Squadron operating the Whitley, Anson, and Vickers Wellington; and No. 249 Squadron operating the Hurricane.
Joe met with two sergeant pilots one afternoon walking across the grass runway and had a good chat with them about the course. They told him the mathematics part was of primary school level and one of them kindly gave him a loan of some books to study. This pilot wrote home for more books to be posted to the novice. Joe was a little overawed at this kind gesture, but one can imagine a seasoned pilot being empathetic with the enthusiasm of these ‘young whipper –snappers!’ Anxious to keep on top of his studies, Joe had already written home to Ireland for his geography books to be sent over. At this time one letter to his cousin May, he mentions a young blonde WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) he saw in the dining hall but felt she was out of his league.
1/7 Flight No. 9 Receiving Wing: Aircraftman 2nd Class
By February 1940, Joe was with 1/7 Flight No. 9 Receiving Wing, S Stratford on Avon. The receiving wing units were for new entrees to receive their uniform and kit, and for their paperwork and medicals to be processed. Joe and his fellow recruits were billeted in the Stratford Hotel. Here Joe comments that they had ‘hot water’ and ‘indoor games’ and ‘football’. The men however, were bored and frustrated and a valuable lesson was soon learnt. His letters indicate he had been refused a weekend pass twice. He also applied for a five day leave pass. This was ‘thrown out’. He decided that he would ‘rip off to London’ with three other chaps for the weekend. However, he had no idea that 48 other trainee pilots had the same idea! As he tells us in his letter ‘the o/c thought it was mutiny and a general alarm was sent out’. The allure of a weekend in the cosmopolitan capital must have had a strong pull for these young men. Joe knew nothing of the furore that was going on at the base until he returned after the weekend.
All of the miscreants were ‘confined to barracks’ for one week and fined one day’s pay. The routine for the week was quite punishing. The men rose at 5.00 am. in order to be properly shaved, dressed and buttons gleaming for Reveille at 6.30am. They had to then march to the guard room for inspection which was a mile away. After a 7.00am breakfast they were assigned fatigues: scrubbing, polishing, sweeping etc. From 10 until 12 noon they had drill and at no time were they allowed to ‘stand at ease’. The day continued with each minute carefully planned; more fatigues, drill, inspection more fatigues and tea at 5.30pm. Even then they were not allowed rest but endured instruction and final bout of fatigues! Then they marched back to the guard room for final inspection and walked the mile back to their hotel. ‘Lights out’ order was given for 10.00pm.
Writing this to his young cousin, Joe was very philosophical and resigned about it all: ‘I survived and feel better for it. Now, if you join the RAF, when the time comes, don’t lark about and piss off for 48hrs, it’s not worth it. We lost our privileges and were going to be taken off our course’. No. 4 Elementary Flight Training School, RAF Brough: Leading Aircraftman His next letters put him over a year later stationed in Brough near Hull, East Yorkshire, with RAF Training Command, 51 Group, 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School). When he started flight school, we are not exactly sure. What we do know from his letters is that he had been learning to fly the de Havilland DH82a Tiger Moth. This was the standard RAF biplane trainer. Joe made his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth on 2 July. Joe writes that the runway was grassy and wind-swept as it bordered the River Humber.
‘It was a marvellous feeling; I took off lovely, circled around the aerodrome, but coming in to land was about 400 feet too high. Round again I went, and this time I got down all right. Today I had 20 minutes of flying solo and did very well. Tomorrow we have mid-term exams…. not much time to study’.
The days for the student pilots were spent continuously learning long-distance map reading, and the theory of night flying. Joe had to learn Blind Approach Training – that is flying on the sound of radio beams. In a poignant statement he noted that it was ‘really interesting and might save my life one day’. It would be at Brough that instructors decided, upon examining the pilots’ style of flight and confidence, who would go on to join Bomber Command.
In his letters, Joe was quite concerned about the bombing of Dublin which took place on a beautiful starry night in May 1941, some weeks previous, at precisely 2.05am. 40 people were killed among terror and pandemonium and over 100 were seriously injured.
‘That’s not too far from Mullingar and I think ‘Gerry’ must surely have passed over there, at some time’,
During the second half of 1941 and into 1942, Joe seems to have moved around quite a bit. By now he had learned how to fly twin engine aircraft, most likely the Avro Anson, and is learning the various skills as a bomber pilot, one of which is flying at night. His letters indicate that he has now been promoted Sergeant Pilot.
RAF Middleton: Sergeant Pilot
A letter dated 3 January, 1942 from the Sergeants Mess at RAF Middleton, St. George, Durham. This base was opened in 1941. It was the most northerly bomber base in England used for the night bomber offensives against Germany.
‘We had a time getting here. On Dec. 29th we left Brize Norton to go to Topcliffe, Yorks. (Brize was the largest station of the RAF 65 miles west north west of London). After a lot of fooling around at Kings Station we eventually got under way with our kit bags gone on another train! Some idiot put them on the wrong one. Finally, we disembarked at some God forsaken dump where an RAF lorry arrived and picked us up about 3.00am on 30th Dec. On arriving at Topcliffe a short time later, we got ‘supper’ and there nobody knew anything about us. That night or morning we slept on the chairs in the anti-room as there was no accommodation for us elsewhere. The following morning after breakfast we had to pay our abominable mess fee. We are to train for Blind Approach- flying on the sound of radio beams. It’s very interesting and may help to save my life someday, if it doesn’t drive me ‘scatty’ before then! Now we leave here on Tuesday, so we weren’t told whether we go back to Brize Norton, or go to OTU or get a few days leave…I don’t know. The OTU’s are all over the place so like Eddie Byrne I too may go to Scotland. Here I met one of the EFTS boys, he’s going on Halifax 4 -engine bombers and he has just finished OTU on Whitleys. What’s in store for me I just can’t imagine. Remember me in your prayers, JOE’
By early January 1942, one can sense a sort of maturity and fatalism entering his letters. The Battle of Britain was over with the RAF suffering losses of approximately 544 fighter pilots. Joe and his comrades were well aware that ‘the chop’ could strike at any moment. He showed his Catholic roots by thanking his cousin for the Rosary beads she had sent. These would be returned to his mother after his death. He begs for letters stating, ‘You’d be surprised what a difference a letter can make’.
RAF Finningley: Sergeant Pilot
A letter dated 4 February 1942, puts Joe at RAF Finningley in south Yorkshire. At this time No. 25 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was operating out of Finningley and at the time was phasing out Handley Page Hampdens for Vickers Wellingtons and Avro 679 Manchesters. The flying conditions are not pleasant with ‘slushy snow’ and ‘winds’. OTU’s were one of the final steps in an aircrews’ training period before they reached an operational squadron.
‘The powers-to-be are rushing us through the ground course. We are scheduled to fly on Sunday next starting on Wellingtons. The flying equipment has been issued to use battle-dress included. After three or four weeks on Wellingtons we go on to Manchesters’.
During training, one of his friends, Tommy, was killed at take-off. According to Air Ministry over 8,000 men were killed in non-operational flying; training or accidents during war years. Another close friend Bill McCleod was lying seriously ill in hospital. His plane had pronged when he was coming in to land. Two of McCleod’s crew were killed in this accident. Joe wrote ironically: ‘That’s Life-Luck of the game! I guess’. The crews were now being picked and Joe found himself in ‘a motley crew’. The co-pilot was a Scotsman, the navigator an Englishman, and the wireless operator an Australian. Although the crew may change again Joe hoped not ‘as the fellows are real diggers!’ The crews flew with an experienced pilot and either Joe or a recovered McCleod would act as co-pilot. At this stage in the war, the RAF had stepped up its bombing campaign on Nazi Germany. Bomber Command had a regular front line strength of around 400 aircraft. They were in the process of transitioning from the twin-engine medium bombers to the newer more effective four-engine heavy bombers such as the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster. To imagine today what the bomber crews had to endure over the skies of Nazi Germany is unconceivable.
The first ever 1,000 bomber raid by the RAF was conducted on Cologne on the night of 30/31 May 1942. Codenamed Operation Millennium, the massive formation had to be augmented with aircraft and crews from Operational Training Units and from Flying Training Command. Some crews had to be made up of student pilots, just like Joe. For 90 minutes, starting at 00.47am on the 31st, 868 bombed Cologne in a ‘bomber stream’; the first time this tactic had been used. It was hoped that such a concentration of bombers would overwhelm the German defences. The 1,455 tons dropped, two-thirds of which were incendiaries, started 2,500 separate fires. These fires quickly engulfed the city in a firestorm which left 12,840 buildings damaged or destroyed. Residential buildings suffered the worst with some 13,010 destroyed, 6,360 seriously damaged, 22,270 lightly damaged. The RAF lost 43 aircraft.
RAF Scampton: Sergeant Pilot
Joe’s next letters place him at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire. We are not exactly sure what unit he was with here or since when. We do know that at this time 83 Conversion Flight and 49 Conversion Flight were operating from this station and converting crews to the four engine Avro Lancaster. By July 1942, Joe’s mood is one of frustration. According to his letters the waiting for active service seems intolerable. His wait would soon be over.
RAF Syerston, 207 Squadron: Sergeant Pilot
An operational tour for an RAF bomber crew consisted of 30 non-aborted, operational sorties. Joe’s first foray into the heat of battle finally came in late August. As part of 207 Squadron, based at RAF Bottesford, his plane was one of 113 bombers to head out over enemy territory to bomb Nuremberg on the night of 28/29 August. Nuremberg was dear to the Nazi heart as it was the site of their great pre-war rallies. Incendiary bombs were also used in this raid. Over Nuremberg, Pathfinders used ‘target indicators’ for the first time, to mark the aiming point. These were tiny little incendiary balls released from a single bomb which burned brightly for five minutes. This was deemed long enough to guide the bombers to their target. Approaching from the south, the squadron’s crews were able to make fixes from the river, canal and autobahn which were clearly visible in the bright moonlight. The town received only moderate damage despite the accuracy of the markers. Again, the force suffered heavy losses with the Wellington Squadrons bearing the brunt of the casualties. Of the 159 aircraft dispatched, 23 were reported missing – 14 Wellingtons, 4 Lancasters, 3 Short Stirlings and 2 Halifaxes. Joe’s crew was not one of them. The squadron relocated to RAF Langar on 21 September, owing to the Bottesford runway surface breaking up and needing urgent repairs. Joe’s second mission was a night-time bombing raid on Munich which took place on the night of 19/20 September.
The distance was enormous at 2,000kms round trip mostly over enemy territory. 68 Lancasters and 21 Stirlings took part. In a German letter dated 19 October 1942, Prof. Carl Muth stated the raid over Munich was apocalyptic. More than 400 people were killed: ‘Houses toppled over like boxes. Whoever experienced this single hour will never forget it as long as they live’. Joe found the killing of civilians deeply disturbing and on his last visit home told his mother as much. He said he always thought he could hear the screams of the casualties on the return leg of the mission. Of course, he knew that was impossible but in those days, no one had known of ‘post-traumatic stress’ one just had to get on with it and do what was expected.
A Bomber Command veteran, Peter George, wrote in the Daily Mail, 12 June 2012 ‘No one talked about the raids. That’s what it meant to fight in Bomber Command in WW2. Very much alive one minute, in the prime of life; very dead the next, shot down, wiped out, obliterated. The courage needed was breath-taking! It took incredible guts to keep going, time after time, when the odds were so heavily stacked against them!’
50 Squadron: Sergeant Pilot
joe’s last letter is dated 14 November 1942, from RAF Swinderby. Although not in his letters, we do know from family members, that Joe managed a short leave home to Ireland to see his family. His younger brother Willie was serving in the Cavalry Corps with the Irish Army and stationed in Longford. Getting word, somehow, that his brother was home, Willie borrowed a bike and cycled the 42kms home to see him. Both brothers were keen on boxing. Joe mentioned it in his last letter, that he was sore from boxing in his free time in the gym. Willie was to become the All-Ireland Boxing Champion for the Army and went on to start the Ballagh Boxing Club in Co. Wexford. Before he left for England, Joe gave his younger brother his watch and pen and told him not to worry; everything would be alright. When his mother asked him, ‘What if the Germans get you?’ Joe’s reply was ‘Mam, Gerry will never get me alive’.
By the end of 1942, Joe was now posted to 50 Squadron. His third raid was part of the 19-week Battle of the Ruhr. The city of Duisburg was their target. Duisburg was a centre of chemical, iron and steel works. Based at RAF Skellingthorpe all the crews could do was wait on the morning of 8 January 1943. From the moment, usually around 11am, when the crews discovered they were flying that night, until take off they lived the day with strong determination not to show their fear. Like other crews Joe’s probably nominated one of their group to ‘water’ the tail and thus give the aircraft good luck! They had a total acceptance of their fate but that did not stop knees from knocking and a dry mouth from lack of saliva.
As pilot, Joe sat on the left-hand side of the cockpit. There was no co-pilot. Beside him sat 23-year-old Sergeant Phillip Fisher from England; his Flight Engineer who sat on a folding chair. Philip’s position no doubt became very uncomfortable during the long flights. He was in charge of everything mechanical on the Lancaster. Phillip would start the engines, control the throttles, get the wheels up and trim the flaps. The Navigator sat at a table facing left directly behind the pilot. His job would prove all the more difficult this night as fog reduced visibility and cloud was dark and heavy. His unenviable job was to keep the plane on course at all times, reach the target and guide the men home safely. Young Eric Charles from England had to keep transmitting messages to their base as Wireless Operator. Both gunners were only 20-years-old and their job was the loneliest. They were separated from the rest of the crew and jammed into unheated turrets; one mid-upper and one at the rear of the fuselage. Their job was to advise the pilot of enemy aircraft movements in order for him to take evasive action. When the crew heard a gunner shout ‘WEAVE’ it meant the FLAK from the anti-aircraft guns were training them or a fighter had them in its sights.
The night of 8/9 January, there was no escaping the FLAK for Joe’s Lancaster B MK 1 coded VN-T W4800. Despite Joe’s efforts to speed up, weave and twist, the plane and its crew were badly hit. They struggled onwards due south for maybe minutes. It must have felt like a lifetime for the young crew. Finally, they crashed 30kms south near Dusseldorf. All seven were killed. They now became part of the 55,000 men of Bomber Command who gave their lives when fate called them among the clouds. Joe was posthumously promoted to Flight Sergeant. His family were devastated when they received the news.
Joe’s Resting Place: Flight Sergeant
On a country road between Cleves in Germany and Grennop in Holland on the German side of the border lies the largest Commonwealth Cemetery of either World War in terms of area. It contains 7,654 graves and is called the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. At the end of the war in 1945, the remains of thousands of soldiers and airmen were brought from western Germany to lie here. Nearly 4,000 airmen are buried here, all brothers united. My uncle Joseph Kiernan is one of these.
‘My brief sweet life is over. My eyes no longer see. No Christmas tree, no summer walks, no pretty girls for me. I’ve got ‘’the chop. I’ve had it. All the nightly ops. are done. Yet in another hundred years, I’ll still be twenty-one’. RAF Skellingthorpe Memorial
Catherine Fleming is a retired primary school teacher from Scoil Na Mainistreach, in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. While there she set up the history squad encouraging students to explore family and local history. Catherine’s mother Kathleen, Joe’s sister, served in the Auxiliary Transport Service while her father Tom served in Medical Corps of the Irish Defence Forces. They are stories for another time. Thank you to Mike Connock from RAF No. 50 and No. 60 Squadrons Association for all his assistance in helping researching Joe’s RAF service.
Interview with Frank Brien, Royal Air Force Association (ROI)
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Seeking adventure Frank Brien served with the Royal Air
Force (RAF) from 1963-1968. Within a very short time, he found himself in
Cyprus, Aden and Bahrain with the RAF Regiment. Finishing school in Donnycarney
in June 1963, I was looking for adventure. The RAF had a romanticism about it, becoming
a pilot is what everyone dreamed of. So, I signed up thinking I was going to
have a holiday to Butlins. Boy was I in for a shock. That September I was sent
to the School or Recruit Training at RAF Innsworth in Gloucestershire. My God,
basic training was tough and life changing. You were transformed from civilian
to service person within a matter of weeks.
Following basic training I was posted to the RAF Regiment.
Let me explain what the RAF Regiment is. The RAF Regiment was formed for the
sole purpose of providing close defence of RAF airfields. The Battle of France
during 1940, demonstrated the vulnerability of airfields, which had been long considered
safe, to modern fast mobile warfare. In January 1942, the Regiment was formed
after King George VI signed a Royal Warrant for ‘a Corps formed as an integral part
of the RAF’. The regiment’s first home was in Filey with instructors seconded from
the Brigade of Guards and the Royal Marines. The Depot has since moved three times,
firstly to Belton Park, then to RAF Catterick in 1946. Essentially it was a
defence force within the RAF, so it could look after and defend its own bases.
We have a very proud tradition and proud that we can defend the RAF.
Within the regiment, companies are known as ‘squadrons’ and
platoons are referred to as ‘flights’. During World War II, the regiment developed
two distinct types of squadrons: The light anti-aircraft units were equipped with
Bofors L40/60 guns; and the rifle or field squadrons, which deployed and were equipped
as an army infantry company. Throughout the North African Campaign, five field squadrons
and five anti-aircraft flights earned reputations as robust hard-hitting units.
Following D-Day the RAF Regiment expanded to its peak strength of 85,000
officers and men organised into 240 squadrons. It was in Burma that the RAF Regiment
fought for ten long days to defend the airstrip of Meiktila deep behind enemy lines
during March 1945.
After the war RAF Regiment units found themselves in ‘Bush
Fire’ wars and on peacekeeping operations around the world such as the Malayan
Emergency and was also attached to Hong Kong for internal security duties.
Essentially, we looked and dressed very similar to the rest of the RAF, however,
we wore web belts and short leather gaiters. Initially we trained on the Rifle
No. 4 .303” and later moved onto the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (SLR). We always prided
ourselves on our ability to do drill and the smartness of our turnout. To this
day whenever the RAF is on parade at national ceremonies it is represented by
the Queen’s Colour Squadron. We always had a motto in the regiment, ‘The RAF’s best
fighters are on the ground’.
It was then off to the Regimental Training Depot at RAF
Catterick in Yorkshire. Here you learned your soldiering skills. Tough, but not
like basic. As our role was airfield defence, we were all also trained on the Light
Anti-Aircraft (LAA) role. At this time the regiment was equipped with the
Bofors L/70. This was a 40mm anti-aircraft gun using the 40 × 364R round firing
a slightly lighter 870 g shell with a 1,030 m/s (3,379 fps) muzzle velocity.
The rate of fire was over 300 rounds per minute. The carriage was power laid.
Following that I was then sent to the Driving School just outside Blackpool. A wonderful
posting. Every weekend we were allowed into Blackpool.
It was then off to RAF Akrotiri on the island of Cyprus in
the Mediterranean. I was posted to No. 34 LAA Squadron. This was a large base.
Hostilities on the island had erupted on 21 December 1963, between the Turkish
and Greek Cypriots. I arrived in April just before the main United Nations (UN)
peacekeeping force. They had started to arrive the end of March. Our job was to
provide stability for the local communities.
the end of May the UN had taken over all these peacekeeping duties and we were
back in base and a routine of training set in. The Irish Defence Forces
deployed to the island around the same time and we used to meet them up at Nicosia
on a Sunday at mass. A funny story was that in the British forces a rank with
crossed swords indicates a general. When our guys would see the Irish Defence Forces
guys they’d say ‘heh Paddy how come you have so many generals?’ Of course, they
were getting mixed up with the Irish rank of Commandant. As we were an
anti-aircraft unit, we undertook some range practice. The L/70 was an amazing
piece of equipment. It could be radar operated but we used electrical sites.
Twice a year we’d head to the range. Six guns on the firing line. A plane would
fly over pulling a drogue. You could imagine six guns firing four rounds a
second. Another crisis loomed on the horizon. This time at the bottom of the
Arabian Peninsula. We were deployed to Aden.
Hostilities started on 10 December 1963,
when the NLF launched a grenade attack
against the British High Commissioner
of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis
today is part of Yemen. Britain established a territory there in 1839, to provide
a base for ships heading to India. In 1931 Aden was made a Crown Colony. By the
1960’s, the region had been plagued by years of unrest. In order to stabilise
the region, Britain sought to create a federation between Aden and the
surrounding protectorates. In 1962, the British government announced that Aden
would be maintained as a permanent British garrison east of Suez.
4 April 1962, the Federation of South Arabia was formed from the fifteen
British protected states of the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South (today
South Yemen). The Colony of Aden joined the Federation on 18 January 1963. The day
after Aden joined the Federation, Muhammad al-Badr of the Yemenese monarchy was
overthrown and civil war ensued between forces backed by Egypt and monarchist
forces backed by the British. The conflict soon spread throughout the region. The
Federation formed the Federal Regular Army (FRA) and Federal National Guard
(FNG). The Egyptians backed the National Liberation Front (NLF) who quickly infiltrated
the Federal forces. The NLF were a radical movement formed in 1962, aimed at
expelling Britain from what they called South Yemen. The NLF were also supported
by tribes in the Radfan area of the country, as well as Yemeni tribesmen.
Hostilities started on 10 December 1963, when the NLF launched a grenade attack
against the British High Commissioner of Aden, Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, as he
arrived at Khormaksar Airport to catch a London-bound flight. A woman was
killed, and fifty other people injured. A State of Emergency was declared the
1964, a second nationalist group, the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South
Yemen (FLOSY), also began terrorist activities against the security forces and
the NLF. The violent insurgency campaign in Aden was marked by a series of
bombings, shootings and grenade attacks. To support the Federation forces, the
British deployed the 24th Infantry Brigade in 1964. By 1965, nine squadrons were
stationed at RAF Khormaksar. These included transport units, helicopters and a
number of Hawker Hunter fighter bombers. The RAF Regiment deployed No. 34 LAA
Squadron in 1965, and No. 27 LAA Squadron 1965/66. This was a very tough
posting for six months. It was known as an Active Service deployment, which
meant you were on duty 24/7. Very rarely did you ever
get some time off, if you did you were confined to barracks. If you were ever
off base you always had to have an armed escort. For example, I used to go to
mass every Sunday. The bus would come to pick us up and there would be two armed
guards on it. It was a very hostile environment.
On such deployments, the squadrons dropped their LAA role and
became field squadrons with three flights; identical to an infantry company.
The base there was big with a large married quarters area and it was our job to
defend it. We were deployed outside the RAF base alongside the regular Army
units. It was very interesting as at that time the Irish Guards, the Welsh
Guards, and the Parachute Regiment were there, and we did a lot of work
together. For several operations we would form part of a battalion with the
Army units and deploy with them. Area and cordon searches were very common.
We’d set up a check point and would then be required to search any vehicle coming
through for arms. This was very difficult work. We didn’t speak Arabic, so we
needed interpreters, and the culture was alien to us. On one occasion a car was
pulled over. There looked like there was somebody hiding and lying in the back.
One of our guys was ordering him to get out of the car. As it turned out it was
a corpse and the driver were simply transporting it. Really tough six months.
It was then back to Cyprus and a normal routine. A few months later I was posted
to No. 27 LAA Squadron on their return from Aden and rotated back to the UK.
Back in the U.K. and the Royal Tournament
By 1967, the Federal government began to collapse, and Britain announced a withdrawal. In September negotiations were sought with the nationalist groups over Britain’s withdrawal. After months of fierce street fighting, the last British troops left Aden in November 1967. I was now stationed at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire when I got word that I was part of the unit that would represent the RAF at the Royal Tournament. The tournament was an annual military tattoo and pageant, held by the British Armed Forces. This was a wonderful experience. We spent two months in London mixing with loads of regiments from around the Army, the Royal Marines and Navy. By the time I was finished here my unit had redeployed to Cyprus, so I was sent to RAF Bicester where I spent a year. This was another nice posting as we were not far from Oxford. In 1966, No.1 LAA Squadron had returned from RAAF Butterworth, Malaysia, along with No.26 LAA Squadron, from RAF Changi, Singapore, to whom which I was assigned. While here I was sent for six months to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
Bahrain is an island country, situated between the Qatar peninsula and the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. The Royal Air Force established RAF Bahrain on 22 May 1943, as part of RAF Iraq Command, part of 83 Expeditionary Air Group in the Middle East. It was later renamed RAF Muharraq in 1963. There was not much there when we arrived. There were no married quarters and no aircraft. The county was not hostile, and the job was very much routine guarding the base. An amazing experience nonetheless and I was able to take a few photographs while I was there.
Royal Air Force Association (RAFA)
I left the RAF in 1968 as a Senior Aircraftman or Corporal in army
terms. I came home, settled down and got married and pretty much forgot all
about it. I was always in the RAFA. One day I was reading their newsletter and
read that the RAF Regiment was forming their own association. I was then
invited to a reunion at RAF Catterick. This would have been in the 80’s. The
Troubles was still on at that time and I had to write and get special
permission to travel over with my wife and children in the car. At the reunion I
met another Irishman who’d served in the Regiment, he hadn’t come home though.
He said ‘Frank, you are the only member we have in the Rep. of Ireland’. We had
such a lovely time my wife said to me ‘when we go back, we’re getting in touch
with the RAF branch in Ireland and getting involved’. I’ve been involved ever
since and am the RAFA Rep. of Ireland Branch Standard Bearer.
The story of a fighting Goldfish Flight Lieutenant John Brennan
By Séan Feast
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Born 5 January 1921, John Brennan was an Irishman who need not have fought in the war at all.
John Brennan joins the Royal Air Force
A sense of adventure, however, and the need to escape an
over-bearing mother took him from his village in Ballylinan, a small, farming
village on the borders of County Laois and Kildare, to London as a 16-year old
boy where he trained as a chef before joining the Royal Air Force within the
first few weeks of war breaking out:
‘I’d read in the national newspapers about the exciting
trips that the heroic crews of the Wellingtons and Whitleys were flying over
Germany, and that on occasion they had to fight off determined attacks from the
German Luftwaffe. In the thick of the action were the air gunners, and despite never
once having fired a shot in anger or even having held a gun or rifle, I was
determined to become one of their number’.
After Initial Training Wing (ITW) where John learned the
rudiments of service life, he was eventually posted to RAF Yatesbury, a Signals
School, to become a wireless operator and thence onwards to RAF Stormy Down for
an air gunnery course:
‘There were classroom lectures on gunnery and gunnery practice,
and of course we learned how to strip and rebuild a variety of different
weapons, including the Browning .303s, such that we could do it blindfolded…
We shot on the ranges and using cine guns, and in the air
firing at a drogue. We would operate in pairs: one aircraft would tow the
drogue while the pupils in the other aircraft would shoot at it; then we would swap.
The pilots were nearly all Polish, and it would always make me smile when they
came on intercom and said “dropz the droguesz”…
Firing at a drogue was not as easy as it sounds. With air
gunnery, you do not shoot directly at the target, but rather at the point in the
sky where you expect the target to be when your bullets arrive, taking into account
wind speed, air speed, bullet drop, angle of attack etc, and you had to get it right
or you could shoot down the aircraft and not the drogue!’.
Qualifying as a wireless operator/air gunner, John
progressed to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Harwell to become part
of a crew. It was while he was at Harwell that he took part on his first operation,
dropping propaganda leaflets (and a couple of 250-pound bombs) over France on
what was called a ‘Nickelling’ Raid.
‘I remember very little about the operation, other than that
there were six of us who set out and only four came back. We were all carrying
leaflets as well as two 250lb general-purpose (GP) delayed action bombs. It was
a very long trip for an inexperienced crew, but I never gave a thought for
those men who went missing. It didn’t seem to affect me one way or another’.
148 Squadron RAF Kabrit – Operations over the Middle East
Having survived his first taste of enemy action, John was
posted to 148 Squadron in the Middle East. Their transit flight took them via
Gibraltar, with John manning the front turret of a Wellington. Flying onwards to
Malta, they ran into enemy fighters:
‘The danger came as we approached Pantelleria, a small
island in the straits of Sicily. We knew that there were squadrons of Italian
and German fighters close by, but perhaps somewhat closer than we thought…
Then, as I peered out in front of me, I thought I saw a
speck in the sky. I blinked and looked again. It was still there, only the
speck seemed to get steadily bigger. It was not a smudge on the Perspex or some
other trick of the eye. Then there was no mistaking it was another aircraft,
and it was closing fast. Recalling the hours spent on aircraft recognition, I
identified it as a single-seat Messerschmitt Bf109, Germany’s best fighter, and
making its way straight towards us in a head on attack…
I lined the fighter up in my sites, released the safety
catches on the guns, and called to the pilot to take evasive action. I then squeezed
both triggers and opened fire’.
John gave the enemy a
long burst but seemingly without effect. The fighter flashed by and prescribed
a large arc in the sky as it turned to attack again, this time from the rear.
‘The pilot took terrific evasive action and I kept blazing
away, the smell of cordite from the spent cartridges filling my nostrils and the
brass cases falling around my feet and onto the floor. Almost as suddenly as it
had begun, it was over. The fighter broke off the attack and again became
little more than a speck in the sky as it disappeared. He was probably low on
fuel, and it had certainly been a lucky escape’.
Arriving in Malta in the middle of an air raid, they were
again lucky to survive after their aircraft was blown upside down on landing.
It was another two weeks, however, before they could get off the besieged island
and reach Shallufah, their initial destination, before being transported to RAF
Kabrit in Egypt to begin operations. John joined the crew of an officer, Pilot Officer
Donald Crossley, an old-Harrovian, who he considered brave but rather cavalier in
his attitude to danger. The conditions at Kabrit, for non-commissioned
officers, were primitive at best, and boredom was a constant enemy, prompting
some of the NCOs to rebel in a little-known but potentially very dangerous
mutiny. Accommodation was especially rough; they slept in scrapings in the
ground, and bed posts had to be coated in creosote to keep the scorpions at
‘Sleeping on the ground was not an option; it was too cold
and too uncomfortable. I fashioned my own bed by acquiring a stretcher and
mounting it on four-gallon cans, one at each corner. I smothered each of the
cans with creosote at the base to stop any unwelcome visitors from crawling
into my bed during the night. I then put the straw palliasse on top and covered
it in blankets to make it more comfortable’.
With Rommel on the move, and the threat that British and
Allied forces might be overrun, John and his crew began flying daily sorties to
the heavily-defend port of Benghazi in what was known as ‘the mail run’,
bombing enemy ships that were offloading vital supplies to The Desert Fox and
his Afrika Korps. They also flew supplies to the resistance forces in Crete,
and it was during one of these operations in March 1942, that he nearly came to
‘Flying conditions were far from ideal. There was cloud up to
around 10,000ft, and you could clearly see an electric storm brewing on the
horizon. Despite these conditions, we managed to make a successful landfall
over the coast of the island before the problems really started. One of our
engines, which must have been running rough for a little while or couldn’t cope
with the extra strain being placed upon it in the cloud, suddenly caught fire’.
Slowly starting to lose height. John was ordered to throw
out everything that wasn’t bolted down, including his guns. It wasn’t enough,
and his pilot was obliged to attempt a landing on water:
‘When we hit the water, the noise was intense, a loud
scraping sound as though the bottom of the aircraft was being sliced open. It
seemed to last an eternity before it finally stopped and the aircraft slew to
one side as the water washed over the wings’.
Clambering into a dinghy, they were lucky. After four hours
of drifting, their throats dry and their voices hoarse from shouting, they were
spotted by a friendly aircraft who steered a fast boat to their rescue. John
thus became a member of the Goldfish Club, a club exclusively for members brought
down and rescued from the sea.
Given ‘survivor’s leave’, John spent the next few months of
his tour out ‘in the blue’, preparing advanced landing grounds in the desert
from which the bombers could operate on a temporary basis, as the front line
shifted. After more than 300 hours of operational flying, comprising more than 40
raids, he was deemed ‘tour expired’ and posted home. He was commissioned, and
spent the next 18 months instructing in Kinloss, Scotland, surviving yet
another accident in which his pilot crashed into a mountainside, but John
78 Squadron at RAF Breighton – Operations over Europe
Volunteering for a second tour, John joined 78 Squadron at
RAF Breighton in the summer of 1944, being crewed with one of the flight commanders,
Squadron Leader Duncan Hyland Smith, a most experienced pilot. Interestingly,
while John had flown all of his first tour as an air gunner, he spent his second
tour as a wireless operator. He also swapped two engines for four, as his new squadron
was equipped with the Handley Page Halifax.
The differences between his first and second tour were
stark: the lonely, uncomfortable
existence of a pseudo hermit exchanged for the warm comforts of an officers’
mess and beer on tap. The long flights over a barren desert contrasted with shorter
but equally dangerous trips over northern Europe.
‘We flew, ate and drank as a crew, each one depending on the
other. We were like a family, a unique bond that couldn’t be broken. Perhaps,
as nearly all of us were officers, it was different as we could mess together.
But it was more than that. It was a different culture. More inclusive. We felt we
belonged. We counted. We hadn’t been forgotten’.
John arrived on the Squadron just a few weeks after the
invasion of Europe. It was an intense period of operations, attacking flying
bomb sites, and tactical targets in support of the ground troops attempting to break
out from the beachheads. As his tour progressed and the Allies advanced, they returned
to the bombing of German cities. They also started bombing in daylight. One raid,
John remembers in particular, was an attack on the Ruhr:
‘Hyland-Smith was leading the formation and as we crossed
the coast, ‘Smithy’ instructed me to go to the astrodome behind the cockpit and
look out for fighters and other aircraft in the vicinity… We were part way
across Holland, en route to the target, when the rear gunner came onto the
intercom to say that two of our aircraft were inching closer and closer to our
tail. ‘Smithy’ acknowledged the call and inched the throttles slightly forward
to give us more speed…
I am not sure precisely what happened next but I did see the
result. Somehow the two aircraft that were gaining on us collided with one
another and I saw them go down. It was terrible watching the two-aircraft twisting
and turning like sycamore leaves as they fell to the ground. I reported what I
was seeing to the skipper and he told me to watch for parachutes. Sadly, I
didn’t see anyone make it out’.
With so many aircraft in the sky at once, collisions were a
constant threat, as were the German night fighters and flak:
‘On one night, I had a clear warning of trouble. A blip
appeared on my fighter warning radar at a range of about 4,000yds. I watched it
closing quickly to around 2,000yds at which point I warned the skipper to
‘corkscrew’ to port. ‘Smithy’ then flung the aircraft into a series of left-handed
dives and turns in a corkscrew motion and the fighter was lost. Although we
would occasionally be splattered by flak, this was the only occasion we were
intercepted by a fighter. Compared to many others in the Squadron, we seemed to
live a charmed life’.
Preparing to take off on another raid, John had a more
‘As the aircraft in front took off and disappeared into the
haze, ‘Smithy’ pushed the throttles forward, assisted by the flight engineer to
ensure that the levers did not slip back and lose vital power at the critical time.
The torque generated by this huge surge of power needed to be controlled by use
of the rudders to keep the aircraft straight and level but on this occasion,
the Halifax swung so suddenly and violently that we veered dangerously close to
the control tower, causing the CO to jump back in alarm and fall off his feet.
He was, as you can imagine, not very happy with us and told us on our return
that he would ‘have our garters for a necktie!’
Happily, the wing commander did not carry out his threat.
John came closest to death, however, while on a training flight, in a brand-new
‘We took off and made height, climbing through the cloud to
get above it and into clear sky. With the altimeter reading 20,000ft, we were
still in cloud, and Smithy said that he would continue to climb until we were through
it. No sooner had he called out our height than the aircraft appeared to stall
and fall into a spin. The dive became faster and the spin more deadly, the
centrifugal forces pinning me under my table…
‘‘Smithy’ was fighting a losing battle with the controls and
ordered us to prepare to bale out. I tried to raise my right arm to unclip my parachute
but could not move it. (Parachutes for everyone except the pilot were in two parts.
The individual wore a harness to which the separate ‘pack’ had to be attached before
baling out.) I just thought, well this is it and waited for the end…
The altimeter showed we had fallen more than 18,000ft before
‘Smithy’ was at last able to regain control of the aircraft at around 2,000ft
as the ice on the wings melted away, and the flying characteristics of the
aircraft returned. It was one of the only times I had been truly afraid…
We arrived back at Breighton and landed without further
issue. The following day the engineering officer reported that some of the wing
bolts and engine mountings had been sheered off. The fuselage and tail fins
were also twisted. The aircraft was declared a write off and I believe it was
John says that he never feared death, other than how he
might be killed:
‘If I were afraid of anything then it was how I would die.
Would I be blown to pieces or burn to death? Would I be trapped in the aircraft
by centrifugal forces, fully conscious and waiting for the impact? I hoped, as
I think we all did, that if we did have to die that it would be quick, and we’d
know nothing about it. The Halifax had a better survivability rate than the
Lancaster, but it was never discussed. No-one ever thought they would die’.
Happily, John completed his second tour of operations in March 1945, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for bravery. His citation mentions that he had completed 63 operations in total, including those in the Desert. The war ended shortly afterwards, and John opted for a permanent commission. In later life, he became an archivist and librarian, before finally retiring to live in Bedfordshire. He died on 20 April 2017 aged 96, and was at the time the last surviving wartime member of the Goldfish Club. Before he died John told his story to Seán Feast who then published the story in Coming Down in the Drink – the Survival of Bomber ‘Goldfish’ John Brennan DFC.
Seán Feast is the author/co-author of 15 titles for Grub
Street, Fighting High and Woodfield, and has an established pedigree and
audience. He has a particular specialism in Bomber Command with books such as Master
Bombers, Heroic Endeavour, and A Pathfinder’s War. He was one
of the main authors to contribute to the official book released in conjunction with
the unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial. He is also a regular contributor
to various aviation magazines, primarily FlyPast and Aeroplane
Monthly, and a volunteer for the International Bomber Command Centre.
Professionally, he is a journalist by training, and runs an
international PR and Advertising agency with key clients in military and