‘Lough Erne, The most beautiful runway in the world’
Leonard “Tuck” Smith, American co-pilot of the Catalina 2, 209 Squadron.
Between 1941 and 1945 thousands of American, Canadian, Australian and British troops were based in Fermanagh, involved in three key operations: air defence from St Angelo Airport, training of air crew from a base at Killadeas and provision of air-cover for Atlantic convoys from the flying boat base at Castle Archdale.
St Angelo airport, known before the War as Rossahilly Aerodrome, was taken over by the RAF in August 1941and became the base for planes such as Beaufighters, Flying Fortresses and Spitfires.
The training base at Killadeas came into use in July 1942 by which time American, Canadian and Australian as well as British servicemen were being taught to fly Catalinas and Sunderlands.
Castle Archdale Flying Boat Base
Various makes of flying boats (aircraft capable of taking off and landing on water) Sunderland, Stranraer, Lerwick and Catalina, were launched from Lough Erne at Castle Archdale to protect ship convoys on the Atlantic. These merchant ships, carrying essential supplies to Britain, were being attacked and sunk by German U-boats.
Although Lough Erne was far from ideal as a flying boat base, mainly because nearby mountains made it unsafe to land on in darkness or bad weather, it had the advantage of being close to the Atlantic coast. This advantage was enhanced by a secret deal between Britain and the Eire Government allowing the RAF and later the USA Air Force to over-fly south Donegal. This meant that air patrols from Northern Ireland could fly directly to the Atlantic coast, avoiding a detour of over 100 miles around Donegal.
De Valera and the Donegal Air Corridor
It was in February 1941 that de Valera gave Eire’s permission for British planes to over-fly a small strip of south Donegal, one mile wide by eight miles long, an area known as the Donegal Corridor. Because this agreement compromised Eire’s neutral position during the War, de Valera insisted that the deal should be kept secret and that flights should not be publicised.
Help from America
America did not take part in the war until after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 but in March of that year it compromised its neutrality by secretly agreeing to lend various equipment including planes to Britain. As a result, American crews brought Catalina flying boats to Castle Archdale and trained RAF personnel in how to fly and maintain them.
The Sinking of the Bismarck
The air patrols from Castle Archdale were responsible for sinking nine U-Boats and they contributed significantly to the eventual success of the Royal Navy and RAF Coastal Command in controlling the Atlantic supply route and ending German dominance at sea. In May 1941, an important victory occurred after the crew of a Catalina based at Castle Archdale spotted the German battleship Bismarck in the Atlantic, a ship responsible for the sinking of a British ship, The Hood, with a loss of 1415 men. The co-pilot of this Catalina was Leonard ‘Tuck’ Smith, one of the Americans engaged in training the RAF, and the pilot was officer Briggs from the RAF. On the day after the sighting, the Royal Navy tracked and sank the Bismarck.
The last operational patrol from Castle Archdale was on June 3rd 1945 and on August 18th of that year the Castle Archdale base closed down with a farewell salute given by five Sunderlands flying in V formation over Fermanagh. Today, little survives from the Castle Archdale base apart from the original flying boat dock, probably the only example of its kind in Europe, which enabled Sunderland flying boats to be serviced while still in the water.
Many planes, including Lough Erne flying boats, crashed during the war although the censorship laws prevented this being reported. In recent times commemorative ceremonies have been held in Donegal, Leitrim and Fermanagh for those killed in these crashes, with plaques erected at crash sites.