Down in a Free State

How one wartime pilot got an Irish geography lesson

On Sunday December 21, 1941, a young navy pilot Bruce Girdlestone, flew his Grumman Martlet ‘Wildcat fighter off the deck from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious on what should have been a routine flight to Macrahamish airfield at Campletown on the Mull of Kintyre in

Former sub-lieutenant Girdlestone takes up the story:


Without maps on board, I passed between the
Mull and Fair Head without seeing either and made landfall near Stranraer. Realising that I was too far south I turned out to sea again hoping to pick up the Mull but on again making landfall which evidently was the coast of
Northern Ireland
, I attempted to cross it due west thinking it was the east coast of Kintyre.


‘Finally I became weather-bound amongst the mountains, found a valley running north, and carried out a precautionary landing in a field just as it was getting dark. The field’s surface which looked sound enough from the air, failed to take the plane’s weight on landing and with a violent tearing of metal I came to rest upside down in a most undignified fashion.’


Girdlestone was pinned down under the aircraft and had to be manoeuvred out by two Gardaí amid a semicircle of onlookers. The Gardaí station was very close by, and he was taken there in a car belonging to one of the onlookers. When told at the Gardaí Station he was in
, the young pilot was sure he had to be in the six counties, after all he had flown north and landed on the most northerly peninsula. Unfortunately for the now rather confused New Zealander, he was about to receive a very quick if not still confusing geography lesson from the Gardaí Sergeant.


Eíre is south of
Northern Ireland
,’ the pilot argued.


So it is, but this is northern Eíre and its north of Northern Ireland, and its neutral like southern

Eíre which is south of
Northern Ireland


At this point a priest arrived. ‘Ah me poor boy, God has indeed been kind to you,’ he said.


‘How’s that?’ Girdlestone asked.


‘You have landed in n
orthern Eíre.’


The pilot knew it was pointless to carry on the confused argument and welcomed his next visitor, a doctor who stitched a cut on his forehead.


Outside the station a military escort was waiting, but before being taken to the local military barracks, a woman rushed forward and gave him a packet of cigarettes. It may have been Donegal but it was still a friendly environment. Bruce Girdlestone had actually landed at Cloughfin in a field between the road and the old railway line south of Carrigans, w
est Donegal.


Sub-lieutenant Bruce Girdlestone was given a history lesson en route to the Curragh from the captain in charge of his escort on the Irish War of Independence. But despite reading books during his time at the Curragh on Irish history, he could not bring himself to sympathise with
’s neutrality policy.


His first escape attempt was made on February 9, 1942, when Flight Lieutenant Grant Flemming, the senior officer with whom Girdlestone shared a room, attempted a scheme to get all 33 Allied internees out, but it failed. A week later, Girdlestone made another attempt but was caught at the outer perimeter. He again took part in another mass escape of 18 men organised by Flemming on August 17, 1942, during which he stayed at large for five days. Grant Flemming escaped and crossed into the north with fellow Canadian Pilot Officer Ralph Keeferd of No 103 Squadron, on foot on August 28, 1942.


John Quinn


Extracted from the book Down in a Free State – Wartime Aircrashes and Forced Landings in