The Swans of Lough Erne

A Feature by Renée Leen-Huish

On a windswept rugged mountainside in South West Donegal, three Melbourne cousins recently climbed the mountain to honour their grandfather, who lost his life seventy years earlier in the crash of an RAF Sunderland flying boat, whilst embarking on a mission patrolling for U-boats in the North Atlantic.

Vicki and Sean Salkin, and their cousin Mark Garrard were attending the unveiling of a plaque

Vicki and Sean Salkin, and their cousin Mark Garrard  attending the unveiling of a plaque in S-W Donegal.

Vicki and Sean Salkin, and their cousin Mark Garrard were attending the unveiling of a plaque by Dr Michael Ford, nephew of Flt Sgt Frederick Ford to commemorate the crash of the RAF Sunderland flying boat at Crownarad mountain, near Killybegs, Co Donegal on March 14, 1945.  Flt Lt John Garrard, RAAF of Melbourne Victoria, and serving with the RAF 201 Squadron, was one of the twelve young crew men who died on that night.

John Garrard is buried in the war cemetery at Sacred Heart Cemetery, Irvinstown, Co Fermanagh.

The longest continuous battle of World War 2 – the Battle of the Atlantic – commenced after the war started in September 1939, and continued until May 1945, when the war ended. German U-boats and aircraft attacked Allied shipping convoys sinking hundreds of ships and large quantities of supplies coming from Canada and the USA. to Britain. Thousands of lives were lost including those of refugees going to Canada. In December 1940, following suitability surveys,  a flying boat base was established on Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh to facilitate patrols that would provide some protection to the shipping convoys.(1)

These patrols commenced in January 1941. Squadrons were billeted at Castle Archdale on Lough Erne.

The neutrality of independent Ireland (Eire) restricted the access of the flying boats to the North Atlantic and involved a lengthy detour through Co Derry. This was overcome by an agreement in January 1941, signed in Dublin between then Irish Taoiseach Eamon De Valera and Britain, permitting the flying boats to fly across a four mile stretch of neutral Ireland between Belleek, Co Fermanagh and Ballyshannon, Co Donegal. This stretch became known as the ‘Donegal Corridor’ and enabled the flying boats to extend their patrols westward by about 100 miles. It was a secret agreement, although well known to residents in the surrounding areas. It was required that the patrols take place under cover of darkness, and with cloud cover. In spite of these precautions German surveillance quickly identified the patrols and broadcasts on the propaganda network ‘Germany Calling’ referred to the flying boats as ‘The Swans of Lough Erne’.

During the course of the war flying boat crews were responsible for saving many lives.

A notable achievement was the sighting of the Bismarck on her maiden voyage and its subsequent sinking by Allied warships off the North coast of Co Donegal. This was a huge Allied victory over the ‘unsinkable’ state of the art ship and improved safe passage for merchant as well as fighting fleets. The Castle Archdale Museum contains extensive information on the achievements of the flying boats including incidents of airlifting food to citizens of Britain in situations of crisis.

The task of the flying boat squadrons was a perilous one. To avoid detection they avoided radio contact unless in situations of extreme distress. Communication through Morse code was still order of the day and barometric pressures within the planes were very much subject to the vagaries of the weather. Added to all these hazards the coastal rim of Ireland is mountainous, and its mostly poor weather conditions compounded the likelihood of crashes occurring. In fact, the flying boat crash sites dot along the West Irish coastline all the way from Donegal to Kerry.

The commemoration ceremonies on the 14 March 2015 were a result of extensive research conducted at the local level in Co Fermanagh and Co Donegal, notably by Joe O’Loughlin, a much published Belleek historian:

Rose Mary Murphy co-ordinated the event which was part of the Gerry Pentland Summer School. Now deceased, Mr Gerry Pentland had been instrumental in organising numerous memorials to World War II crash victims. His son Ian attended on behalf of the Pentland family (2).

Vicki Salkin spoke at the ceremony on behalf of her family, noting that her mother Patricia had been nine, and her uncle John aged seven, when they lost their father. It was of great comfort to the family that he had been honoured in this way. A previous memorial plaque had been placed on the site but this had been weathered and the new plaque was of a more durable nature.

In speaking to Vicki and Sean, they told me of the support events that took place to mark the occasion. The Clock Tower restaurant in Killybegs hosted a traditionally flavoured Irish gathering, complete with the plaintive strains of a cello. It involved the local community, including children from four local primary schools.

Memorial Stone

Memorial Stone

In their art projects, poems and essays, the children had travelled back in time to imagine what it was like to have lived during World War II and, most especially, what the doomed airmen might have been thinking as their plane went down in the darkness in a foreign land.(3)

This was a beautiful celebration of the lives of the young men. All present then climbed the mountain for the unveiling. A particularly poignant moment for Vicki was when the children read out the names of each of the airmen. Following the unveiling of the plaque all present returned to the Clock tower for refreshments and a performance of traditional Irish dancing by local girls concluded the ‘salute’ to the airmen.

Vicki, Sean and Mark then journeyed across the Border to Castle Archdale base.

In the true tradition of the Irish diaspora the family journey did not stop there. The next stop was County Antrim, whence maternal farming relatives journeyed to Australia in 1838, and were their first ancestors to leave their native land. In Cork they unsuccessfully sought the exact location of the birthplace of their paternal grandfather but gained an insight to his beautiful surroundings. He was born to émigrés from the Baltic States in the mid nineteenth century. Vicki and Sean lastly visited the birthplace of their maternal great grandmother who left Co Limerick in the 1890s.

John Garrard was one of 350 airmen who lost their lives whilst serving on Lough Erne.

At least 10, 000 Irishmen died whilst serving with allied forces. The role of neutral Ireland in assisting the allies in WW2 is well documented and dispels many of the myths circulating at the time. I am indebted to Joe O’Loughlin, Sue Dogherty of The Donegal Democrat and the Salkin/Garrard family for information recorded. There are many websites and publications available for those with historic interest in these events. ‘Guarding Neutral Ireland’, by Michael Kennedy is also an interesting reference.

References:

Doherty, Sue. Donegal Democrat, Monday, March 16 2015 “Hundreds pay tribute to airmen who died in WW2 plane crash” P8.

O’Loughlin, J:  Catalinas & Sunderlands on Lough Erne, Ireland in World War 11. Choice Publishing, Drogheda, Co Louth, 2013. Preface.