Celebrating 100 years of remarkable history since the formation of the RAF

Sunderlands from Castle Archdale. 1945.  Belleek is in the background
Sunderlands from Castle Archdale. 1945. Belleek is in the background

All sorts of events marking the formation of the Royal Air Force a century ago are happening here, across the UK and overseas.

Under the banner of RAF100, it’s an on-going celebration of remarkable history that began on April 1st 1918 when the RAF was established as a separate Service, independent of the British Army and Royal Navy.

Left to right are: WAAF drivers Francis Hornby and Rita Hamilton at Castle Archdale in 1945

Left to right are: WAAF drivers Francis Hornby and Rita Hamilton at Castle Archdale in 1945

It was an historic first – no other country maintained a self-contained air force.

The new RAF, with its own ministry and Secretary of State for Air, was the most powerful air force in the world with over 290,000 personnel and nearly 23,000 aircraft.

It fought effectively from April 1st 1918 over the Western Front, and by First World War had a significant presence across Northern Ireland with more than 28 airfields extending from the Ards Peninsula to Lough Erne.

Several Polish fighter squadrons were based here, and concentrating on the Battle of the Atlantic, defending vital allied convoys, aircraft from Northern Ireland sank numerous U-boats and, notably, assisted in the sinking of Hitler’s dreaded Bismarck.

Second World War flying boats on Lough Erne

Second World War flying boats on Lough Erne

Almost 12,000 men and women from Northern Ireland volunteered to serve in the RAF during Second World War with 1,352 losing their lives.

“We drove everybody everywhere,” 90-year-old Rita Hamilton told Roamer.

Rita was a WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) driver at Castle Archdale sea-plane base during Second World War, from 1943 until she was demobbed in 1947.

A Catalina based there famously found the Bismarck exactly 77-years-ago tomorrow, May 26th 1941.

The Catalina from 209 Squadron at Castle Archdale that sighted Bismarck on May 26th 1941

The Catalina from 209 Squadron at Castle Archdale that sighted Bismarck on May 26th 1941

Rita often pedalled her bicycle around the family farm when she was a child, and sat on her dad’s knee at the wheel of their car, but the first motor vehicle she ever drove was a three ton truck during WAAF training in England.

She was 18-years-old at the time.

Her duties at Castle Archdale were as varied as her vehicles.

“We drove supplies of beer or groceries to the officers’ mess, we delivered depth charges to the seaplanes in trucks, we drove ambulances,” Rita recounted.

By the summer of 1942 an Atlantic convoy-ship was sunk every four hours by the Germans, strangling Britain’s vital imports.

Three key operations were urgently activated at a key location – Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh – where there’ll be special RAF100 commemorations this weekend and next Saturday.

St Angelo Airport, previously known as Rossahilly Aerodrome, was taken over by the RAF in August 1941 and became an air defence base for Beaufighters, Flying Fortresses and Spitfires.

Air crew training was initiated at a base at Killadeas, now the Lough Erne Yacht Club, where an RAF100 celebration is being held next Saturday, June 2nd.

Killadeas accommodated 2,800 RAF personnel housed in Nissen huts and a Catalina slipway remains there today.

Air-cover for the beleaguered Atlantic convoys came from the famous flying boat base at Castle Archdale, now a popular Country Park with a Second World War museum and Caravan Park.

Flying boats such as the Sunderland, Stranraer, Lerwick and Catalina, took off from and landed on Lough Erne at Castle Archdale.

This weekend’s RAF100 celebrations on Saturday and Sunday take place in and around the Caravan Park, situated on part of the original flying-boat base.

Rita Hamilton and her friend and colleague WAAF driver Francis (Frankie) Hornby, with nine or ten other women drivers, celebrated VE Day on a RAF motorboat on Lough Erne after hearing Winston Churchill announcing victory on the radio.

“We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” said Churchill during his historic broadcast on May 8th 1945,“but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.”

Two young RAF boatmen ferried Rita, Frankie and their WAAF chums around the islands on their celebration voyage.

“We were all very excited at the news” Rita remembers, “we were so happy that everything was over.”

“It was an unforgettable trip,” added Rita, more used to chauffeuring two of Northern Ireland’s RAF Air Commodores around the country in a comfortable Humber Snipe!

She also drove air crews to the slipways for their sorties over the Atlantic.

“Some didn’t come back, sadly,” she recounted “but that was part of the war.”

A host of memories will be recalled this weekend and next Saturday at Lough Erne.

The Ulster Aviation Society’s Spitfire will be exhibited at both events, and for Enniskillen-born Bill Eames, watching a Catalina over the Lough next Saturday will evoke powerful memories of his service as a Second World War bomber pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Eames towed a glider full of airborne troops to Normandy for the D-Day landings, and still bears shrapnel wounds from the Battle of Arnhem. The story of the tens of thousands of American GIs who trained in Northern Ireland during Second World War is well-known, many based in County Fermanagh.

G I Teddy Dixon trained in Antrim, and on the 29th of April 1945 he arrived at the gates of Dachau Concentration camp with the American 42nd Rainbow Division which liberated 33,000 prisoners.

A little of Teddy’s remarkable story was recounted on Roamer’s page recently when a Belfast City Hall reception was held in recognition of his service during the Second World War.

Now in their 90s, both Teddy and Bill will be attending the RAF100 celebrations at the Lough Erne Yacht Club.

They have received special invites from the RAF, as have former WAAF drivers Rita Hamilton and Frankie Hornby who are eager to be there as well.

Information about RAF100 is at www.raf.mod.uk/raf100.