Remembering Mayo RAF heroes

This year marks 80 years since the Battle of Britain during World War 2 when the Royal Air Force (RAF) repelled large-scale attacks by Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, and took control of the skies over the English channel, preventing planned invasions of both Britain and Ireland by some of the Third Reich’s most battle-hardened soldiers.

Operation Sealion, Hitler’s plan for an invasion of Britain, would have been swiftly followed by Operation Green, the plan to attack neutral Ireland by the 4th and 7th German Army Corps, veterans of the brutal Blitzkriegs that had earlier that summer mercilessly overrun France and the Low Countries.

“Never was so much owed by so many to so few”, was Churchill’s memorable tribute to the RAF men who had fought and died winning the Battle of Britain (July to October 1940) following the defeat of the British and Allied land forces in France and the retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940.

Castlebar Hero

Mayo Peace Park and Garden of Remembrance, Castlebar, with Michael Feeney MBE (first on left).

And among those “few” heroes were natives of County Mayo; young men forgotten now, but whose ultimate sacrifice saved, not just Britain, but also their homeland, from the slaughter and destruction Nazi invasions would have unleashed on these neighbouring islands.

Men like Castlebar-native Sergeant Thomas John Mongey, and Westport man William Edward Palmer, both of whom died in the early summer of 1940 when all seemed lost as the RAF tried desperately to slow the enemy advance towards Dunkirk from where 330,000 Allied troops were trapped by two massive German armies; General Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B was to the east and General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the west.

Sgt. Mongey died on 16 May 1940 when his Blenheim IV was attacked by 12 German Messerschmitt 110s over Gouy, northern France, killing Sgt. Mongey, an observer, in a hail of bullet and cannon fire. The other two crew members escaped after the plane crash-landed close to Prospect Hill Cemetery, Gouy, where Sgt. Mongey is remembered with honour in his final resting place.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records that Sgt. Mongey, 18 Sqdn., Royal Air Force, was the husband of Maureen Mongey, and a son of William and Celia Mongey, Castlebar.

The Connaught Telegraph report that Sgt. Mongey was missing in action, published June 1st, 1940.

U-boat Killala Bay

Little could Sgt. Mongey have known on that fateful day in May 1940, nor the thousands of other Irishmen serving with the Allies for the preservation of civilization itself, that a German spy had already been landed by U-Boat in Killala Bay.

On 28 January 1940, Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Werner Hartmann’s submarine, U-37, left the naval base at Wilhelmshaven, on Germany’s North Sea coast, for an Atlantic combat patrol. The Battle of the Atlantic raged off Ireland’s west coast as Germany tried to starve Britain into surrender by sinking the ships that were bringing it vital supplies from the United States and other parts of the world. On board U-37 was Nazi agent, Ernst Weber-Drohl.

U-37 entered Killala Bay during the night 09/10 of February 1940, surfacing in the dark to avoid being spotted by RAF submarine-hunting seaplanes out of Castle Archdale on Lower Lough Erne. Weber-Drohl went ashore in a small rubber inflatable on the Sligo side of the bay, near Enniscrone.

His mission was to deliver money, a radio transmitter and instructions to the IRA who were shamefully and traitorously collaborating with Nazi Germany. However, he lost the transmitter when his rubber dinghy capsized. Soon after dropping off Weber-Drohl, the U-boat torpedoed and sank the Norwegian cargo ship, Silja, on February 10th, off the southwest of Ireland, with the loss of all 15 civilian crew.

Weber-Drohl stayed undetected for some weeks and was caught on 24th April 1940 in Dublin.

U-37 returned to Wilhelmshaven on 27 February 1940 sinking a total of eight vessels. “Special mission accomplished, oral report to follow” was how Korvettenkapitän Hartmann recorded his secret mission to Killala Bay.

Shot Down Over Belgium

Ireland’s neutrality would not have saved us from invasion had Germany prevailed during the summer of 1940. Fearing invasion by Germany in such circumstances, De Valera’s Government had already agreed on a plan with Churchill that Britain’s substantial army based in Northern Ireland, would counter-attack across the border in support of the Irish Army.

Westport-native Leading Aircraftman William Edward Palmer (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, 107 Squadron) took off from Wattisham airfield, Suffolk in a Bristol Blenheim on the 12th of May 1940. While we will never know for sure, it is heartening, 80 years later, to believe that Aircraftman Palmer knew from the carnage he had witnessed flying over Belgium that he was not just fighting to defend democratic values against the tyranny of Fascism, but he was also ultimately protecting his homeland from unimaginable death and destruction.

William Edward Palmer died on 12 May 1940 as the RAF tried to slow the German advance through Belgium.

The three-man crew were briefed to destroy the strategic bridges across the Albert Kanaal at Maastricht. The plane was shot down near Bettenhoven (Liege), 25 km WNW of Liege, Belgium. The other two crew members survived the crash and were taken prisoners of war.

Sgt. Palmer is remembered with honour in Bettincourt Communal Cemetery, Waremme, Belgium.

The grave of William Edward Palmer in Bettincourt Communal Cemetery, Waremme, Belgium.

Another son of Mayo to die during those seemingly hopeless days in the early summer of 1940 when Britain stood alone, and the RAF was on the back foot, as the Luftwaffe launched daily raids on airfields and military installations in England was Sergeant Patrick O’Flaherty from Kiltimagh.

At only 23 years of age, he died on 6th June 1940 when Beaufort L9797, 22 Squadron, crashed off the coast of Ashington, Northumberland, returning from a mission. He was the son of Thomas and Nellie O’Flaherty, Kiltimagh. He is remembered with honour in Chevington Cemetery, South Broomhill, Morpeth, Northumberland.

One of the youngest Mayo natives to die during the summer of 1940 was 19-year-old Aircraftmen 2nd class, Patrick Joseph Curry, Cloonlee, Knock. He died when the Hampden L4181, 106 Squadron, crashed into a dispersal field gun post. Son of James and Gertrude Curry (nee Gaffney), he is buried in Finningley (Holy Trinity and St. Oswald) Churchyard, Doncaster.

It was the heroism of such men as these, who, in the most desperate of situations, made it possible for the British and French troops to live and fight another day after they were evacuated off the beaches of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

A Halifax bomber from 1941 similar to the one on which Sergeant Thomas Percival McHale was shot down over Germany in 1941.
Thousands of British and French soldiers waiting to be evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940.
Thousands of British and French soldiers waiting to be evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940.

Escaped in coal boat

One of those RAF men lucky enough to escape France was 20-year-old Leo Garvey from Ballina.

Serving with the RAF in France in May 1940, as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Leo’s unit escaped back to England in a coal boat as France fell to the Nazi blitzkrieg.

Holidaying in Ballina in August 1940, Leo told the Western People of his exciting escape from France and the suffering of the French refugees

From May 10th, he saw the roads crowded with refugees, many of them wearing bandages and limping painfully suffering from wounds inflicted by strafing pilots. Old women hobbled along pushing their worldly belongings in wheelbarrows, and, most haunting memory of all, he told a Western People reporter, was the look of hopeless despair in the eyes of those peasants who were forced to run before the German invaders.

Leo’s unit reached the port of La Rochelle where, with thousands of troops, he embarked for England in a coal boat. Each man was given a rifle with five rounds of ammunition and ordered to defend the boat to the last should it be attacked. The boat for most of the way was unconvoyed, and the crew were of the opinion that it would never reach England.

The captain took a zig-zag course which took him six days to reach England, and during that time, the boat did not run into a single enemy, either in the air, on the sea or under it.

Operation Green

A map of Westport town centre contained in Operation Green shows local garages/petrol stations that would have been requisitioned by the invading army. Credit: David Rumsey Map Collection

Within weeks of the death of Sgt. Mongey, Palmer, Curry and O’Flaherty, General Fedor von Bock, who commanded the attacks on Holland and Belgium towards Dunkirk (now promoted to Field Marshal), was back in Berlin drawing up the plan to invade Ireland for Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) (Nazi German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces).

The plan designated three German divisions, about 50,000 troops, including infantry, motorized and Panzer divisions drawn from the fearsome 4th and 7th armies which would later take part in the invasion of Russia and the Battle of the Bulge.

A map of Westport town centre, contained in Operation Green, shows premises occupied by T. Hastings, P. Jeffers and John Bourke, local garages/petrol stations, at that time, which would have been requisition by German mechanised forces for repairs and refuelling. German army mechanics were masters at retrieving and repairing damaged tanks in the field, thus the importance of identifying auto servicing garages.

Operation Green (German: Unternehmen Grün) contains 144 six-inch town maps marked with strategic locations and almost 1,500 black and white photographs of Ireland. The maps are copies of Ordnance Survey maps, with overprints highlighting sites which the Germans would have considered targets in any invasion.

As the final touches were been put to Operation Green, the RAF, now largely in control of the skies over the English channel, went on the offensive, despite suffering huge losses, as they attacked military and industrial targets deep inside Nazi Germany.

It was on one of those dangerous missions that Ballina man, Sergeant Thomas Percival McHale, a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, lost his life. On the night of 24th / 25th August 1941, twenty-nine-year-old Sergeant “Percy” McHale was the second pilot on Halifax L9572, one of five No. 35 Squadron of heavy bombers that took off at 20:53 from R.A.F. Linton-on-Ouse (North Yorkshire). Their mission was to attack the Marshalling Yards at Düsseldorf where the Germans had huge aircraft factories manufacturing and repairing fighters and bombers. Percy McHale’s bomber did not make it back to England as the aircraft was shot down by a night fighter, a Messerschmitt Bf 110, and crashed at Grosage, near Chièvres, Belgium.

The 35 Squadron website takes up the story:

“On 25th August 1941, the squadron informed Bomber Command, the Air Ministry and the RAF Records Office that the aircraft and crew were missing.

“A telegram, along with a follow-up letter from the Commanding Officer, was sent to the next of kin of each crew member advising them that he was ‘missing as the result of air operations on 24th / 25th August 1941’.

“Air Ministry Casualty Communique No. 137 reported TP McHale, JB Anderson and WN Collins “previously reported missing” as “now presumed killed in action.

“After the war, an investigation officer from the Royal Air Force Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES) was tasked with locating the remains of the missing crew member(s).

“As part of the process, any remains that were located were exhumed, identified (wherever possible) and concentrated (reinterred) at one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) Cemeteries in the country that they fell, in accordance with Government policy at the time.

“Graves were marked with a simple wooden cross, which was replaced by the familiar CWGC headstone during the 1950s. Missing airmen who could not be found, or formally identified, had their names commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, which was unveiled in 1953.”

CWGC records do not show where the remains of the crew members were located but show that they were concentrated (re-interred) at Chièvres Communal Cemetery. Sergeant McHale’s remains were interred in Grave 6.

Married to Mary Josephine Hopkins from Rehins in 1936, the Ballina RAF volunteer was the second son of Thomas and Maggie McHale (née Ruttledge from Quignashee). His parents ran the Western Woollen Hall, a large drapery, woollen, dressmaking and millinery shop, located at 22 Arran Street (Tone Street), Ballina. Thomas Percival McHale is remembered on the family headstone in Leigue Cemetery, Ballina.

The Western People report of August 30th, 1941, recorded that Sgt. McHale was missing in action.
Thomas Percival McHale is remembered on the family headstone in Leigue Cemetery, Ballina.

Tourmakeady-native, Flight Officer Bernard Joseph Fox, RAF 55th Squadron, was just 21 years old when he died along with the other two crew members, Flying Officer M S Singleton, Sergeant E P Chapman, on December 16th, 1940 when his Blenheim L8790 was shot down at sea near Bardia, Libya.

Son of Thomas and Henrietta Fox, he is remembered on the Alamein Memorial, Col. 240.

In the thick of the fighting in 1940 was Aghamore man, Bernard Glavey, who was serving with the RAF in England. The Western People of October 10, 1940, reported:

“During one of the many German air raids, Glavey’s plane was amongst those sent to engage the enemy. After the duel lasting some time the enemy gunner forced the British plane down. Glavey sustained rather bad wounds to the legs and head is at present in a military hospital in England”.

Died in Far East

Far away from the war in Europe, Castlebar native, RAF Sergeant Patrick Bourke (23) was flying with No. 413 Squadron based in Koggala, Sri Lanka. He died on 9th April 1942 while locating the Japanese fleet off Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka.

He was one of an eight-man crew in the Catalina I seaplane, part of No. 413 Squadron RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force). The plane took off from Koggala, Sri Lanka, at 0716 and reported the position and speed of a large Japanese naval force. But before the message was completed, the plane was shot down by two Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, which had taken off from the enemy aircraft carrier, Hiryu, at 0600.

Twenty-five minutes later, close to 100 Japanese aircraft appeared over Trincomalee Harbour. Radar, and No. 413 Squadron’s last message, meant that the defenders were more prepared than during the previous Easter Sunday attack on Colombo. Twenty-one aircraft engaged the Japanese in an intense battle of which nine were shot down.

A son of Stephen and Nora Bourke, Sgt Bourke is remembered with honour on the Singapore Memorial.

The Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu which RAF Sergeant Patrick Bourke was tracking when his seaplane was shot down off Sri Lanka in 1942.

Invasion Plan

Completed on the 30th of September 1940, Operation Green (Unternehmen Grün) consisted of two volumes, one text version describing social, political and geographical conditions in Ireland. The second volume consists of a text and pictorial publication showing pictures of cities, towns and vital installations, some of which are believed to have been gathered by German agents and military personnel visiting Ireland posing as tourists during the 1930s.

Classified “Top Secret” and “Very Urgent”, Operation Green was to have been launched from the French ports of Lorient, St. Nazaire and Nantes following the fall of France in the summer of 1940.

Its faded old black and white photos, along with maps of Mayo locations such as Westport, Newport and Achill, made me stop and think about just how much we owe to the valour of those young RAF heroes, natives of many countries, who, against daunting odds, stopped the Luftwaffe from gaining supremacy in the dark days after the Fall of France when all was still in peril.

Had Operation Green gone ahead, it would have started with amphibious attacks by crack German troops along the southeast coast between Waterford and Dungarvan to be swiftly followed by further attacks from the sea and air along the west coast.

Possible targets included the Shannon estuary, the ports of Galway, Westport, Ballina and Sligo where beachheads would have been established after waves of Stuka and Dornier bombers unleashed terror and destruction to subdue whatever resistance was offered by the lightly armed, part-time Local Defence Force (LDF).

A photograph of Westport Quay contained in Operation Green (Unternehmen Grün), the plan for the invasion of Ireland by Nazi Germany during World War 2. Credit: David Rumsey Map Collection

In September 1940, the Irish army had 37,310 permanent members and the Local Defence Force (LDF) had 100,000 members. Resistance by a small, under-equipped and inexperienced Irish army would have been futile against the elite German troops whose Blitzkrieg tactics of 1939-40 had mercilessly overwhelmed Poland, Norway and France, despite the fact that, in 1940, France had a much bigger army than Germany.

A German invasion of Ireland would have been rapidly followed by “W-Plan”, an Anglo-Irish counter-offensive that would have seen British forces attack from across the Northern Ireland border and join up with what remained of the Irish army, bringing further mayhem to a largely defenceless people.

Waterborne training for amphibious landings as part of the invasion of Ireland took place along the French coast throughout September until mid-October 1940 and it wasn’t until December that the German High Command finally shelved Operation Green.

The war would go on for another four and a half years, and Mayo men would continue to fly with the RAF.

Sergeant George Balmforth (28), son of Oscar and Susan Elizabeth Balmforth, Westport, died on 12 May 1941.

Sergeant Balmforth was killed during an enemy aircraft attack on Yorkshire when three of the aircraft targeted the RAF Linton-on-Ouse airfield, killing thirteen air personnel.

Sergeant Balmforth, was well-known in Westport, having received his early education at the Christian Brothers’ Schools, according to the Connaught Telegraph, May 31, 1941. His funeral, which took place with full military honours, was deferred by the authorities to allow his bereaved mother and sisters to attend. Interment took place in All Saints Churchyard, Newtown-on-Ouse, Lincoln, where he is remembered with honour in Row Q, Grave 10. Messages of sympathy were received from his commanding officer, his comrades, and many friends at home in Mayo.

Another Westport native, Flight Sergeant John Ogilvy Edwards (20) was a Flight Engineer, RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was one of a seven-man crew who died on a training flight on 11 December 1944, when the Lancaster BI NG270 crashed.

He was a son of John Ogilvy and Elizabeth Edwards, Westport, and is buried in Aughaval Cemetery, Westport.

The grave of RAF Sergeant George Balmforth in Newton-On-Ouse (All Saints) Churchyard, York.
Sergeant James Patrick Nyland (23), 166 Squadron, died on 27th September 1943. Photo: Courtesy Royal Airforce Association

Sergeant James Patrick Nyland (23), 166 Squadron, died on the 27th September 1943, when Avro Lancaster III – ED875 – in which he was an air-gunner – crashed at Caen Hill, northeast of Caistor, Lincolnshire, when attempting to land at night in difficult weather conditions. Flying from RAF Kirmington, the Lancaster was returning after a mission over Hannover, Germany, an important railway junction for the Nazi war machine.

Sergeant Nyland was a son of James and Ellen Nyland, Castlebar, and he is remembered with honour in Castlebar Old cemetery.

From Claremorris

Sergeant James Dunne (1918-1943), Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, 464 Squadron, RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, photographed in 1939. Photo: Courtesy Dunne family.
Sergeant James Dunne (1918-1943), Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, 464 Squadron, RAF Feltwell, Norfolk, photographed in 1939. Photo: Courtesy Dunne family.

Sergeant James Dunne (23) from Claremorris was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and a member of 464 Squadron, RAF Feltwell, Norfolk. He was lost on the 22nd of January 1943 when his Ventura aircraft crashed into the sea after being hit by enemy flak.

James Dunne’s first mission on the (6th December 1942) was a baptism of fire. He was involved in the little-known, but equally important, RAF daylight raid on the Philips radio works at Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Operation “Oyster” was a special raid carried out by all of the operational day-bomber squadrons in No. 2 Group. Their targets were the Philips radio and valve (electron tube) and radar factories which were supplying the Nazi war machine. Ninety-three aircraft took part in the raid.

James participated in a further two missions with RAF 464 Squadron being lost on 22nd January 1943 after his Ventura aircraft crashed into the sea on the way out to attack a German airfield near Cherbourg, hit by enemy flak. The body of the Pilot – Norman Powell (21) – was recovered from the sea off the Isle of Wight and is buried in Nottingham.

James and the rest of the crew were never found and are commemorated at Runneymede (Panel 148).

James was born in Claremorris on 12th June 1918; his parents were James and Catherine (Katie) Dunne. On emigrating to London, James lived with his sister, Josephine, in Cricklewood and wanted to be a priest.

In 1939, James was living and working as a barman in London; his employer was Harriett Reaney, also of County Mayo, who ran the White Swan public house at 14 Vauxhall Bridge Road, Pimlico, London.

From James’ service record, we learn that he volunteered for RAF service two months before the start of Britain’s involvement in WW2; at this time conscription was not active, this came later in 1941.

James Dunne’s record in the RAF is one of exemplary service that is borne out by the official records.

Sergeant James Dunne pictured with his fellow crew members in front of a Lockheed Ventura at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk. They all died when the Ventura crashed into the sea when it was hit by enemy flak on the on 22nd January 1943 on a mission to attack a German airfield near Cherbourg. Left to Right: James Dunne - (23) Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (from Claremorris); Norman Ernest Powell - (21) Pilot (from Nottingham); Peter Arnold Nodes - (22) Navigator/Observer (from Paddington); Stanley John Newton - (19) Air Gunner (from Putney). Photo: Courtesy Dunne family.
Sergeant James Dunne is pictured with his fellow crew members in front of a Lockheed Ventura at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk. They all died when the Ventura crashed into the sea when it was hit by enemy flak on the on 22nd of January 1943 on a mission to attack a German airfield near Cherbourg. Left to Right: James Dunne – (23) Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (from Claremorris); Norman Ernest Powell – (21) Pilot (from Nottingham); Peter Arnold Nodes – (22) Navigator/Observer (from Paddington); Stanley John Newton – (19) Air Gunner (from Putney). Photo: Courtesy Dunne family.

He joined the RAF on the 27th of July 1939 and was assigned to RAF Feltwell (near Thetford in Norfolk) as an Aircraftsman 2nd Class. In November, he began training as an Electrical & Wireless operator and completed his training on the 31st December 1942. RAF records show that he was listed as Sergeant – Wireless Operator/Air Gunner – “Proficiency A+ B with very good character”.

Achill Flight Sergeant

In advance of D-Day, the Normandy invasion of Europe on the 6th of June 1944, the RAF and US Air Force sent hundreds of heavy bombers over northwestern France to destroy lines of communication such as rail links.

It was on one of those missions that Achill-native, Flight Sergeant Michael Madden (28), 158 Squadron, died on the 18th of April 1944. He was an air-gunner on a Handley Page Halifax III that took off from RAF Lissett, Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire.

Sergeant Madden was one of a five-man crew that was tasked to bomb rail facilities at Tergnier in Normandy in advance of D-Day which was just weeks away. The plane crashed near Rosieres-en-Santerre (Somme), 15km NW of Roye.

Sergeant Madden was a son of John and Mary Madden and husband of Florence Mary Madden, of Manchester. He is remembered with honour in Meharicourt Communal Cemetery, Picardie, France.

Sergeant Michael Madden RAF was an air-gunner in a Handley Page Halifax III when the plane was shot down over France in 1944.

Sergeant John Canavan (28), Achill, was a member of a five-man crew from 144 Squadron that took off from RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, on 12th February 1942 to attack a fleet of enemy battleships in the English channel.

Operation Fuller was a joint Royal Navy-RAF operation, to stop the German battleships (Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen) from returning to the North Atlantic and threatening Allied trans-Atlantic convoys. On 11th February 1942, the ships left the port of Brest in Brittany at 9.14pm and escaped detection for more than 12 hours, approaching the Strait of Dover without discovery.

The crew of the Handley Page Hampden I AT175 was “a quickly assembled crew who had apparently never flown together before”, according to the 626 Squadron website.

The aircraft appears to have been brought down either by flak or a German fighter. All the crew were lost and no bodies recovered.

Husband of Margaret Canavan, Moreton, Cheshire, he was a son of John and Kathleen Canavan. He is remembered with honour on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 79.

RAF Sergeant John James Salmon died in an accident on 18th June 1944 and is remembered with honour in Kilgeever New Cemetery, Louisburgh.

Remembered in Canada

Pilot Officer John Benedict Murphy from Bangor Erris (26) died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1944. He was a Navigator in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) on night navigational exercises over Patricia Bay, BC, Canada, when a Douglas C-47 Dakota FL650 with a crew of three went missing. Despite exhaustive searches, no trace of the missing aircraft or the crew was found. He was the son of Michael and Sarah Murphy, and he is commemorated at the National War Memorial, Ottawa, Canada.

The last known Mayo man to die in the service of the RAF was Leading Aircraftman Michael James O’Boye, who died on 23 December 1945, aged 38. He was a son of James and Celia O’Boye; husband of Florence R. O’Boye, of Wimbledon, Surrey, and is buried in Kilmurry Cemetery near Crossmolina.

Awarded DFC

Many hundreds of Irish men served in non-combat roles in the RAF during World War 2 and many more men and women from this country worked in the aircraft factories in Britain.

A Ballina man, who served with the RAF during World War 2, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The award is given for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”.

Pilot-Officer Edward Michael Cottrell, RAF No. 101 Squadron, second son of Mr. Sil Cottrell and Mrs. Cottrell, Convent Terrace, Ballina, went on to become an RAF instructor in Northern Ireland.

The Western People reported in 1954, that Pilot-Officer Cottrell joined the RAF in 1937 and was commissioned in 1944. He participated in many successful sorties and attacked a wide variety of targets.

His citation reads: “As an air-gunner, he has continuously displayed outstanding coolness and skills. In January 1944 his aircraft was attacked three times by enemy fighters but by skilful manipulation of his guns, the enemy was driven off. His long operational experience has been of great value in the training of new personnel.

Born in Bandon, Co. Cork in 1916, the family moved to Ballina, where he was educated at the National School, and at St. Muredach’s College, Ballina.

The only shots fired by either the Allies or Germans near County Mayo during World War 2 happened on the 20th August 1940 when gunfire from a German bomber, attacking SS Macville, near Blackrock Lighthouse off The Mullet, killed one of the collier’s young crew members who came from Waterford.

The question is often asked were we right to stay neutral during World War 2 when German aggression threatened our nearest neighbour?

In reality, we had little choice. We did not have an air force, adequate air defences and no air raid shelters which would have left us at the mercy of the Luftwaffe. The scale of the death and destruction that would have resulted from our cities being blitzed is unimaginable and unlike the UK we did not have the level of emergency services that would have been needed to cope with the aftermath of such a catastrophe. We supported Britain and the Allies in every way we could short of giving the Nazis an excuse to bomb us or worse carry out their well-laid plans to invade this country. The Donegal Corridor that allowed RAF seaplanes from Lough Erne to fly directly out into the Atlantic over Ballyshannon is just one good example of Ireland’s support for Britain that was kept secret during WW2.

Ballina Heroine

But our greatest support in the fight against totalitarianism was evidenced in the 120,000 Irish men and women who served in the British forces during World War 2. Many of our young doctors and nurses also played a heroic part in caring for the sick and wounded in UK hospitals.

Kathleen Gilmartin from Laughty, Ballina, was the first Royal Navy Nurse to be awarded an OBE during World War 2 for heroic conduct during an air raid on HMS Peregrine Royal Naval Air Station, near Littlehampton. In a letter to her parents, published in the Western People, on August 31, 1940, she mentioned that a colleague at the West Sussex airbase was another Ballina native, Vincent Duffy, from St. Enda’s Villas, and the surgeon commander was a Sligo man who knew her father.

Tens of thousands of men and women from Ireland helped in no small measure keeping British industry and other vital services functioning throughout the war years and their remittances kept the wolf from many Irish doors during the hardship years of the war.

There is no doubt that our neutrality was central to keeping Ireland out of World War 2, but it was not decisive because our non-alignment would neither have saved us from German aggression or British necessity had the RAF not regained control of the skies over the English Channel from the Luftwaffe during the summer of 1940. Sadly, at a time of war, right will always be subordinated to strategy and expediency.

Today, Operation Green is only of academic interest, but the faded photographs and maps of Mayo towns contained in the Nazi blueprint are a chilling reminder of how much we owe to the Mayo men who volunteered to fly with the RAF during World War 2.

The Mayo Peace Park and Garden of Remembrance in Castlebar include the names of all the RAF men from Mayo who died in World War 2. A separate memorial commemorates civilians, firemen, nurses and emergency services personnel, who died during the wartime blitz on British cities.

I would like to thank Michael Feeney MBE of The Mayo Peace Park and Garden of Remembrance for supplying me with the names of those born in County Mayo who died in the service of the RAF.

I would also like to acknowledge the generosity of the Dunne family for supplying me with the information and photographs concerning Sergeant James Dunne of Claremorris.

I would also like to acknowledge RAF Commands Forum from where I was able to glean information about the fate of the Mayo men who served in the RAF during World War 2.

Newspaper Sources: The Western People and Connaught Telegraph.

Any additional information and photographs that can be added to the above article will be more than welcome.

You can contact me through the Contact Page or in the comments below.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

6 replies on “Remembering Mayo RAF heroes”

A great tribute to the Irish men and women of Co. Mayo who fought, and in many cases died fighting for Britain with the Royal Air Force in WWII. In addition, I particularly liked the account of Operation Green, and the emphasis on its repercussions should it have gone ahead. I had little idea how advanced the planning was for it. The account of quite how it would have been executed was also very enlightening. The highlighting of the IRA’s involvement in attempting to thwart the Allied war effort is well known of course, but good that it was mentioned in the context of this particular article. Acts that were in total opposition to the heroism of fellow Irish men and women who were serving in Britain’s armed forces at that time. As an Englishman, I also totally understand the reasons for Ireland’s neutrality, and agree with your sentiments. Like many others have deposed, you had little choice.


My father, who has recently died came from Co. Mayo. He told me about a pocket watch he’d been given when he was young for doing jobs for a lady in his village. The watch was given to her by an airman in WW11. I’ve recently found the watch and would love to know who it belonged to; if anyone could help. The details on the back include G.S.T.P. together with a number. Thanks.


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