Lough Neagh - The Heady War Years

The late Jim McGarry recalled the excitement around Lough Neagh around world war two

Lough Neagh always had the potential to be a boat owner’s paradise with its uncluttered waters almost without islands or mid-Lough shoals. Large enough indeed to lose all sight of land in hazy conditions, thus allowing the budding navigator scope to practise his expertise, arriving at the chosen harbour by use of instruments only.

However, due to the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, plus the decline and closing of the various feeder canals, the Lough remained very scarce of private fishing boat activity, although there would have been around 200 professional fishing boats in the Lough at any time. They remain in similar numbers today.

Due to the fact that it was uncluttered waterway and with few users, great use was made of it during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when it became a very concentrated practice range for fighter and bomber aircraft for air-to-ground and air-to-gunnery exercises.

The bulk of the aircraft using the ranges were stationed at Aldergrove aerodrome, which had been established in 1918. The writer’s father Henry, an experienced professional net fisherman and boatbuilder with similar ancestry reaching back into the mists of time, had just moved to Ardmore (in the Crumlin district) where his house and quay were in almost direct line with the main East/West runway at Aldergrove.  He was asked to lay the first target and service the same, as and when required, in 1929.

During the early 1930s, bombing and gunnery practice was slow and leisurely, a kind of gentleman’s pastime, a large proportion of the range time being taken up by the local No. 502 (Ulster) Squadron, RAF Special Reserve, formed at Aldegrove on 15 May 1925.

Between 1929 and 1936 the memory conjures up pictures of great lumbering bombers such as the Vickers Vimy, Vicker s Virginia, Handley Page Heyford (which we christened ‘The Flying Hayshed’), Avro Ansons and Oxfords and, of course, the famous Gloster Gladiators of Malta fame.

On the fighter front, the outstanding performers were the Hawker Fury and Hawker Hind biplanes: the latter had their forward firing machine-guns synchronised to fire through the propeller. How we watched them each day to catch the moment when the system might fail and give us the glory of racing to rescue the pilot from the Lough in the flat-bottomed cot which we used for schoolboy eel fishing. Thereby we would become famous heroes! (What did you expect form 10 and 12 year olds living in wonderland?)

The Vimys and Heyfords seemed so slow that my brother and I tried to race them on our bicycles along the shore road, parallel to their route, whilst the stand-up gunner in his open cockpit complete with leather helmet and goggles waved us on.

It was not unusual in those halcyon days to have pilots and gunners visit us in their open sports cars at weekends to meet their young bicycle-mounted rivals, and to discuss with our father the design and positioning of targets.

Biplanes such as the Fury and Hind were still widely used as trainers up until 1939. Early during this period the air gunnery targets were used by a squadron of short Stranraer flying boats. The floating targets were fitted with hessian screens and, after each gunnery mission, the flying boat would land, taxi up to the target, tie up and count its own gunnery score!  The whole thing seemed so natural.

This temporary piecemeal arrangement lasted until 1936, when the various governments and defence chiefs throughout Europe finally realised that their airforces would be no match for the rising war machine in the centre of Europe. They speeded up aircraft and armaments production and subsequently upgraded the range and number of targets required.

RAF high-speed rescue launches were also introduced about this time.  From 1936 to the late 1950s Lough Neagh became one of the most important air gunnery and bombing schools in the province. The excitement and variety of every waking day was of great interest to our family and those who worked with us (many of whom were of local fishing stock).

Who else was privy to the very latest developments in armaments and aircraft displayed daily flying low over our heads, when circling to dive once again on the row of eight air-gunnery targets just off our yard? They flew low enough for us to wave to the pilots and to be able to count every rivet and stitch on the underbelly of such new and exotic fighters and fighter bombers as the Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lysanders, Beauforts, Blenheims, Skuas, Mosquitos, Fairey Battles and Bostons, plus a few Thunderbolts and P38 Lightnings from the local USAF airbase established in 19741 at Langford Lodge.

A late evening pastime for us youngsters was collecting the day's spent cartridges from along the shoreline. Bombing targets formed a solid basis for concentrated use both from a low level (500ft) and also high level (around 10,000ft) aspect. These were harmless practice bombs, which emitted a muffled sound and whitish smoke only.

Special high-rise observation towers were constructed at several locations from Langford Lodge point to Ballginniff , to observe and record hits and misses. Records show that as many as 196 bombs were dropped in a single day. A short period of bombing, using live 1000lb bombs on a target in the centre of the Lough, had to be scrapped due to broken windows and shattered nerves on the shore.

Night targets had to be fitted with dim lighting. Due to the introduction of air-to-air gunnery from fighters firing on a drogue target towed by another aircraft, it was found necessary to lay out a rectangular area of approximately 15 miles by 5 miles bounded by 52 danger mark buoys.

This was a drastic measure, which inconvenienced the professional fishermen who were producing much needed food during the war.  No doubt there was friction at times between the fast RAF patrol boats and themselves, but from memory it seemed to resolve itself, in that both sides learnt that sensible reading of the rules allowed both activities to survive side by side.

The towed target silk drogues mentioned above were often jettisoned by the towing aircraft well outside the aerodrome boundaries. These were worth five shillings each when returned to the operations hangar: good eyesight and a super bicycle were the tools of success and riches in this field.

This article appears as a tribute to Jim’s memory.Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation