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.
- Thomas John Mongey
- William Edward Palmer
- Patrick O’Flaherty
- Patrick Joseph Curry
- Thomas Percival McHale
- Bernard Joseph Fox
- Patrick Bourke
- George Balmforth
- John Ogilvy Edwards
- James Patrick Nyland
- James Dunne
- Michael Madden
- John Canavan
- John James Salmon
- John Benedict Murphy
- Michael James O’Boye
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 Wesport 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 husband of Maureen Mongey, and a son of William and Celia Mongey, Castlebar.
U-boat Killala Bay
Little could Sgt. Mongey have known on that fateful day in May 1940, nor the thousands of other Irishmen fighting 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 huge 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 Norwegian cargo ship, Silja, on February 10th, off the south west of Ireland with the loss of all 15 civilian crew.
Weber-Drohl stayed undetected for some weeks and was caught 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 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. This fact makes Churchill’s unwarranted criticism of our neutrality delivered in a radio broadcast at the end of the war even more petty.
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.
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 a son of Thomas and Nellie O’Flaherty, Kiltimagh. He is remembered with honour in Chevington Cemetery, South Broomhill, Morpeth, Northhumerland.
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 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 the 26 May and 4 June 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 onwards, 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 wordly belongings in wheel-barrows, 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-sag 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.
Within weeks of the deaths 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 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, lost his life. On the night of on 24th / 25th August 1941, twenty-nine-year-old Sergeant “Percy” McHale was second pilot on Halifax L9572, one of five No. 35 Squadron aircraft detailed to attack the Marshalling Yards at Düsseldorf where the Germans had huge aircraft factories manufacturing and repairing fighters and bombers.
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 Chievres Communal Cemetery. Sergeant McHale’s remains were interred in Grave 6.
Tourmakeady-native, Flight Officer Bernard Joseph Fox, RAF 55th Squadron, was just 21 years-old when he died along 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 Alemein 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 Squardron 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 huge 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.
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 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.
It was during some unrelated research that I discovered a copy of Operation Green. 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 south east 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).
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 is remembered with honour in Newton-On-Ouse (All Saints) Churchyard, York.
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.
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, north east 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.
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 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 RAAF 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.
He joined the RAF on the 27th 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. 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 north western France to 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 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.
Operation Fuller was a joint Royal Navy-RAF operation, to stop the German battleships (Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen) 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
In far-off Canada, Pilot Officer John Benedict Murphy from Bangor Erris (26) died on St. Patrick’s Day 1944 when the Douglas C-47 Dakota FL650, vanished during night Navigation Exercises.
He was a son of Michael and Sarah Murphy, and he is commemorated on the National War Memorial, Ottawa, Canada.
The last know 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.
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. During January 1944 his aircraft was attacked three times by enemy fighters but by skillful 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 in 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, killing one young crew member from Waterford and damaging lantern panes.
There is no doubt that our neutrality was central to keeping us out of World War 2, but, in my opinion, it was definitely 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
Today, Operation Green is only of academic interest, but the faded photographs and maps of Mayo towns 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 includes the names of all the RAF men from Mayo who died in World War 2.
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 much 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.
Contact me through Contact Page or in comments below.