The Air War II

Ireland's 'benevolent' neutrality during the second world war

Sir John Maffey and the Donegal Corridor
Sir John Maffey was the man chosen to be the British Representative in Ireland. He was a man of much political experience, a former colonial administrator and a tall eloquent civil servant; he was responsible for negotiating an air corridor for use by British aircraft across Donegal Bay through Irish air space. The corridor known as the ‘Donegal Corridor’ enabled Northern Ireland based aircraft at Lough Erne, a quick route out into the Atlantic giving them a longer patrol endurance at a time when every mile of air cover that aircraft could provide over convoy shipping was paramount. The corridor was approved after delicate diplomatic negotiations and the rules were as follows:

‘Flights over Irish Territory were to be at a good height’; the Finner military fort was not to be over-flown; and the arrangement was to be kept ‘as secret as possible’.

It was first used by a Stranraer flying boat of 240 squadron in February 1941 and in August 1941 permission was extended to include ‘land aircraft’ in service with RAF Coastal Command.

The corridor was so secret that it was not until the following month that Irish Army G2 Officers responsible for intelligence found out about it following a tragic crash involving an RAF Catalina Flying Boat of 240 squadron based at Lough Erne. The Catalina (AM265) flown by pilot officer Harold Lewis Seward took off from Lough Erne at 0732 but made a bad descent. The aircraft came back over the Lough at 0748 and the flying control thought she may be landing again, but she then made a change in course and followed the directed route through the Donegal Corridor flying over Ballyshannon at 0805 before turning south-west passing Finner camp at 0810. A minute later the aircraft flew over Kinlough, before crashing into Aunagh Hill, Glenade a few minutes later. All eight of the crew died instantly.

Following the crash the LDF (Local Defence Force) in Kinlough were mobilised and G2 in Athlone was informed at 0920 by the military post at Manorhamilton. Captain Power of G2 in turn rang Finner camp asking for an armed party of soldiers to be detailed to cordon off the crash site and to patrol all roads leading to the border, as the fate of the crew was not known to him at this time.

RAF Officers
Power arrived at the crash site at 1330 and saw the remains of the aircraft still smouldering and very hot with depth charges laying around the area. Two RAF officers also turned up at the crash area from RAF Lough Erne one of whom was Pilot Officer Heneker-Heaton. He informed Captain Power that they had received a phone call informing them of the crash.  The reported call ‘was from a friend’. Captain Power confirmed the crash and instructed them to contact Sir John Maffey in Dublin to make arrangements for the retrieval of any equipment they wished returned.  He was unable to find out who had made the phone call to the British in Enniskillen.

Four of the crew were identified from ID discs, scraps of letters, burnt ID Cards -personal items. The remains were removed to a cleaned up cow byre before being transported to Kinlough Parish Hall that evening. Pilot Officer Heaton asked to view the remains, but was so shocked when one coffin was opened that he had it closed immediately and issued instructions that the others remained closed.

As four aircraft had taken off that morning and were not due back to the early hours, it was the personal items removed from the four crewmen earlier that gave him the identity of the crashed aircraft. Aircraft had to maintain a low level use of radio transmission in order not to allow U-Boats to home in on convoy positions.

No Violation of Airspace
During conversation that evening in Kinlough between Captain Power and Pilot Officer Heaton, Power told Heaton that British aircraft were violating Irish neutrality by flying over Irish territory. Heaton replied that all aircraft leaving or returning to Lough Erne followed the Erne to and from the sea over Ballyshannon and he assumed that they had permission from the Irish Government to cross the narrow neck at Ballyshannon; of this he was definite.

Apart from the embarrassment this must have caused Captain Power, it highlighted the lack of communication in regard to the ‘Donegal Corridor’ between the Irish authorities and their own military intelligence at ground level at this early stage of the war. But it was as I have stated at an early stage, and this situation would quickly change. Before leaving Kinlough, Pilot Officer Heaton arranged for the crew to be handed over at the Belleek border post at 1430 the following day, Saturday March 22.

Belleek Liaison
Pilot Officer Heaton valued the wreck as scrap at £600, a Catalina’s value in 1941 being £18,000. A large portion of the tail had been flung clear and escaped the flames. In it were several petrol tanks, one of which was still full. Pieces of wing and other bits of small wreckage also survived and one piece of wing still survives today as the roof of a sheep pen.

A deep crater remains to this day, marked by a memorial cross. I first visited the site in December 1989 and have returned many times since.

The crew remains of Catalina AM265 were handed over at Belleek with full military honours on Saturday March 22, 1941, at 1430 hours. Unfortunately before the war’s end, there would be a repeat of such ceremonies at Belleek and other border crossings.

To cut down on bureaucracy, a direct line was set up between G2 through Captain Power and Lieutenant Birthistle with Pilot Officer Heaton to enable supervision of the cross over at Belleek, not only of salvaged components from crashed aircraft, but also ‘aircrew being returned’ rather than being interned. An RUC constable John Briggs was also assigned to Belleek as Head Constable with the task of acting as a liaison and assisting in cross-border activity.

The Robert Hastie
Eíre also allowed a British rescue boat the ‘Robert Hastie’ to be based at Killybegs for picking up crash survivors in Donegal Bay. The boat arrived in Killybegs in June 1941 and was met there by Pilot Officer Heaton and John Briggs. It carried a crew of eleven who posed as fishermen, although the trawler was painted in a very distinctive dark grey. The crew mixed well with the locals, but were kept under close observation by the Irish authorities. The trawler crew were civilian not Royal Navy and were under the charge of a Captain Hood. It also engaged in a bit of smuggling between Donegal, Derry and Belfast.

Anglo-Irish Cooperation
In the first two years of the war when a German invasion of Ireland was still a threat there was a strictly secret but mutually beneficial Anglo-Irish co-operation. General Dan McKenna, a former ‘twenties’ IRA man who originated from south Derry, the Free State Army Chief of Staff, regularly visited British officers in Belfast and twelve Irish officers travelled to the north in 1942 to undergo commando training with British troops at Poyntzpass in Co Armagh. In July 1942, the same month that the first contingent of USAAF disembarked at Larne, a proposed visit of General Mulcahy of the Irish Air Corp. to RAF Northern Ireland command was agreed to. Also, Dan McKenna always thinking of cross-border military concern, had lunch with Sir Alan Brooke who was the Chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff. Brooke thought of McKenna as a ‘rough diamond’.

As close relations bonded below the surface on the top the official line continued. On August 15, 1942, RAF Intelligence, on the advice of the British air attaché Wing Commander Malcolm Begg, informed the British Embassy in Dublin, that all aircrew had been briefed that if they were to crash in Eíre, the policy is to say that they were on an air-sea rescue in response to an SOS from an unidentified aircraft, believed to be German. Whether plausible or not, this was the ‘official line’.

‘Friendly Neutrality’
There were several cases where Allied airmen were interned mostly throughout 1941.  Some escaped and the rest were released by October 18, 1943. Following the internment of a New Zealand pilot, Bruce Girdlestone on the December 21, 1941, there was a marked change in de Valera’s policy in regard to Allied aircraft landing on Irish soil. The very same day as Girdlestone was taken into custody in Co Donegal, Pilot Officer Les Carlow was forced to make a landing at Gormanstown military camp in Co Meath due to fuel shortage.

He had been en route to Aldergrove. His aircraft was refuelled and he departed the same day. ‘He (de Valera) will make his neutrality as friendly as possible,’ Sir John Maffey explained. ‘But he has to tread warily where overt actions are concerned.’  Henceforth, all aircraft being delivered to airfields were promptly released, usually after being refuelled. In return, the British furnished an incentive bonus by replacing Irish stocks of scarce aviation fuel with twice the amount used in refuelling any Allied aircraft.

After Bruce Girdlestone on December 21, 1941, no Allied pilots were interned for ten months with one exception in April 1942 when a pilot flying a tomahawk trainer made a forced-landing and was brought to the Curragh. However, it was a very short stay as that night Wing Commander Begg arrived at the Curragh and removed him to bring him north. The pilot Donald Kennedy had been on a training flight and had to be freed in line with the precedent set by the Swiss.

1942 – Scarce internment of Allied Aircrew
Throughout 1942, Allied pilots who survived crashes were released and brought to the border. The Irish authorities adopted the attitude that they would release any Allied airmen in circumstances where publicity could be avoided, or where it could be shown that the planes had not been on combat missions.

Only one Allied pilot, a Pole, whose Spitfire came down near Oulart, Co Waterford on October 31, 1942, was interned from 35 different Allied landings during that year.  Following the internment of the five-man crew of Wellington Z1676 of No. 427 Squadron on February 17, 1943 (who had been on a bombing mission over France), the crews of all 77 of the other Allied aircraft which landed in Ireland from then until the end of the war were quickly and quietly released.

The release of the last internees from the Curragh was again due to the diplomatic skill of Sir John Maffey. Twenty men left the Curragh on the pretence they were being transferred to a new camp at Gormanstown when in fact they were released. Eleven others did go to the Gormanstown Camp, all sergeants and the remaining eight of these were released on June 15, 1944, three others having been released the previous winter on feigned medical conditions. Although the Dublin government had tried to keep the release of the Allied airmen in October 1943 secret, it soon leaked out. De Valera was questioned about it in the Dáil, but he declined to answer in the interest of national security.

By John Quinn