Merlins and Spitfires

The story of Ballyhalbert fighter station

Today the very mention of Ballyhalbert evokes thoughts of caravans, holidays and beaches. In fact, to a whole generation Ballyhalbert is caravans! But a closer look at just where those rows of caravans are parked tells another story – one of war and of history. Where a caravan sits today, was once heard the stutter of Merlin engines giving way to the roll of a Spitfire. Take a closer look and you will see a runway, aircraft dispersals and the derelict control tower – remnants of another time, 60 years ago.

In April and May of 1941, Belfast had suffered from German air raids. Inadequate defence and a blindness to reality had resulted in Belfast being left an ‘open city’. The raids changed all that, and perhaps you could rightly say that the damage was done, but it was necessary to prevent it happening again. History has shown that the Germans achieved success with the element of surprise. The Luftwaffe never returned to Belfast in any sufficient strength, although several lone recon aircraft who did, never got back.

Ballyhalbert was opened as a British fighter station following the Belfast blitz on June 18, 1941. Originally under No.15 Group, fighter section HQ was transferred from Aldergrove and with it came No.245 Squadron with their Hurricanes, as Aldergrove transferred to a Coastal Command role. By the end of September 1941, a new No.82 Group was formed in the north with their HQ in the Senate Chamber at Stormont.

Like so many other airfields, Ballyhalbert was located more on need and location, and at times was far from ideal. No.504 Squadron found this out when they flew into strong crosswinds upon their arrival at Ballyhalbert on October 26, 1941, damaging seven of their aircraft; however, they soon converted to Spitfires.

Attempts by the Luftwaffe to carry out photographic reconnaissance missions over Northern Ireland were pursued by the squadron, sometimes to the strain of operating to the limits of fuel and radio endurance. A scramble in bad visibility on February 9, 1942, resulted in one Spitfire setting down in a field near Westfreugh in Dumfries, Scotland, while another reached base with just six gallons of fuel left. The third disappeared without a trace. The pilot, Sergeant Cannon, washed up in a dinghy on the Mull of Galloway, having died of exposure despite a search by Ansons from Westfreugh Scotland engaged on an ASR (Air Sea Rescue) role.

This scramble had been made from Kirkistown, Ballyhalbert’s satellite. Another ‘scramble’ by No.504 Squadron on August 23, 1942, resulted in the downing of a Ju88 (4U+KH) of 1(F)/123, a shared kill with No.315 Squadron based at Valley and No.152 based at Angle, both in Wales. At 07.35 hours Blue and Green Sections of B Flight were scrambled, joining Pilot Officer Sawiak’s wingman, Sergeant Lisowski, who had to divert to Ballyhalbert out of fuel.

At 17 000 feet over the south, No.504’s Spitfires attacked, firing on the Ju88 in a 400 mph dive, causing it to take violent evasive action. During a second attack, Sergeant Francis saw pieces of the Ju88’s port engine falling away, and the return fire from it ceased. A third attack was made and Sergeant Francis saw hits around the Ju88 cockpit. One of the hits was made by Pilot Officer Sawiak’s aircraft, but he himself was seen by the No.504 Squadron pilots to break away from combat at about 500 feet and make a crash landing at around 08.40 hours at Rathoath, Co Meath. He died two hours later in St Bricin’s Military Hospital. At 13.20 hours, his body was moved from the hospital to the cross channel ferry at Dun Laoghaire for removal to England. Meanwhile, the Ju88 had continued to fly south over Irish territory, but was again intercepted by British fighters at 09.00 hours near Tramore, Co Waterford.

These were Spitfires from No.152 Squadron based at Angle in Wales, flown by Flight Officer Sizzer and Flight Sergeant McPhearson. The Ju88 crashed at 09.20 hours at Carriglong, near Tramore. Its crew survived and Haupt. Gottfried Berndt, Lieutenant Paul Stormer, Obfw. Karl Hund and Uffz. Joseph Reiser were interned. The author visited the scene of the crash in October 1990 and managed to find a piece of wing elevator to photograph at Carriglong farm.

This was the second of 1(F)/123 aircraft which had to force land in the south through the efforts of British fighters, the first being Ju88 (0396/4U+HH) which came down at Bellady, Belgooly, Co. Cork, through the action of No.615 Squadron.

Beaufighters of No.25 Squadron were based at Ballyhalbert for a night fighter defence. This squadron had already shot down a high proportion of German bombers over Britain. They stayed for a four-month stint, leaving as No.501 Squadron moved in to take over from No.504 Squadron. By the Autumn of 1942, the action surrounding the downing of Ju88 4U+KH showed just how the British had built a dominating ring of defence around Britain, and also now engaged in offensive patrols against German airfields in France whilst RAF Bomber Command under the new control of Air Vice Marshal Harris had begun to inflict the power of air bombing over Germany never before known. The first 1,000 bomber raids that year set a pattern for what was to come.

German long-range reconnaissance were seriously and increasingly hampered in their tasks by strong British fighter forces. Photographic target material could only be obtained on the south, southwest and east coasts of Britain up until 1943, after which intruder raids were the order of the day.

For the British fighters in Ballyhalbert, a new enemy had emerged – Irish weather and terrain. Squadron casualties were steady in numbers, not due to the Germans but to accidents.

On January 7, 1942, Pilot Officer Walter McManus (RCAF) of No.504 Squadron was killed when his aircraft crashed on a routine flight from St Angelo in Co Fermanagh to Ballyhalbert at Derrymacash, near Lurgan. Early in 1990, during field research, the author traced a witness to the crash, local man Artie McShane, who showed the author the exact spot where the aircraft crashed. It nose-dived into the ground, having swerved to avoid rising ground during an attempted forced landing.

Pilot Officer McManus is buried in Ballycranbeg Catholic churchyard, in Co Down.  The aircraft itself was a Belfast Telegraph presentation aircraft called Down.

In the same churchyard are the graves of two more Spitfire pilots from Ballyhalbert – Warrant Officer Grondowski and Sergeant Kolek, from No.315 (Polish) Squadron. No.315 Squadron arrived at Ballyhalbert in July 1943, sharing the station with a detachment of No.26 Squadron’s Mustangs.  On September 11, 1943, three of the squadron’s Spitfires, flown by Flight Sergeant Kolek, Flight Sergeant Zygmund and Warrant Officer Grondowski, left Ballyhalbert on a formation practice flight. Due to bad weather they lost sight of one another over south Antrim. All three were to crash. Warrant Officer Grondowski hit the ground near plantation House in Lisburn. Flight Sergeant Kolek crashed at Ballyutoag and Flight Sergeant Zygmund hit high ground outside Glengormley, crashing between two pillars, breaking the aircraft’s wings off. He survived uninjured and made his way to Glengormley RUC station.

No.315 Squadron moved to join the 2nd Tactical Air Force on November 13, 1943, being replaced by another Polish squadron, No.303, who also later joined the 2nd Tactical Air Force at the end of April 1944.  No.125 Squadron Beaufighters had been providing night cover; however, at this stage most RAF fighter squadrons were deployed on attack missions, destroying any Luftwaffe resistance in France prior to D-Day.

Ballyhalbert passed over to the Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, now becoming HMS Corncrake. Such Fleet Air Arm squadrons as No.805 and No.808 moved in with Seafires. Fleet Air Arm activities continued, with the last squadron being No.718 with Seafires and Corsairs, before the station closed in November 1945.

Today, at the former British airfield, the runways are still in good condition, as are the dispersals. The control tower, a 518/40 type, is derelict and blocked up but the firing butts are in very good condition. The original entrance gates are still there, as are various other small buildings. Traces of dispersed living sites are still to be seen, although now mostly as farm use. The next time you visit your caravan, take a closer look around you at what remains of this one-time fighter station.

By John Quinn