Remembering Lurgan boy who became one of Second World War’s most decorated fighter pilots

Spitfires of 241 Squadron over Italy 1944
Spitfires of 241 Squadron over Italy 1944

There was an introduction to the new Remembrance NI website here a month ago.

The website shares information about local people who served in two World Wars and last month’s introduction included details of Royal Navy Commander Oscar Henderson’s heroism during the St George’s Day raid on Zeebrugge on April 22nd-23rd 1918.

Lurgan's heroic Second World War air ace, Squadron Leader Turkington

Lurgan's heroic Second World War air ace, Squadron Leader Turkington

As its huge archive of wartime memorials grows, Remembrance NI emails updates when a new tribute or commemoration is added.

One arrived in Roamer’s mailbox a couple of days ago – “Lurgan may claim NI’s most decorated fighter ace of Second World War”.

The account was so captivating I’m sharing it here immediately.

Robert Turkington was undoubtedly amongst the foremost Second World War fighter pilots from Northern Ireland.

Telegram with the sad news of Robert Turkington's death

Telegram with the sad news of Robert Turkington's death

With a confirmed total of 11 “kills” to his name – three of them shared – plus a “probable” – and four enemy planes damaged, he emerged as one of the most successful pilots to hail from the ‘Emerald Isle’ in the war, second only to the likes of Wing Commanders B E F ‘Paddy’ Finucane and J I ‘Killy’ Kilmartin.

Dublin born Finucane was credited with 28 aerial victories, including five probably destroyed, six shared-destroyed, one shared-probable victory, and eight damaged.

Dundalk-born Kilmartin had a total of 12 or 13 awarded claims destroyed, two shared-destroyed and one damaged.

Robert Turkington attended Lurgan College from 1933 until 1939 and joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve almost straight from school.

Flight Commander Robert Turkington shot down two Messerschmitt 109s on the same day

Flight Commander Robert Turkington shot down two Messerschmitt 109s on the same day

He became a highly successful pilot, and had the distinction of being awarded the DFC and Bar before his death.

He was awarded the DSO posthumously.

Having lent valuable service in Operation Jubilee off Dieppe in August 1942, Turkington started his operational career in a Hurricane of No 43 Squadron – the famous ‘Fighting Cocks’ – over North Africa in late November 1942.

On converting to Spitfires in the following year, he added swiftly to his score over Sicily and Italy, five enemy aircraft falling to his guns in November 1943 alone.

Then in July 1944, as a Flight Commander in No 241 Squadron, he raised his score to double figures, destroying four Messerschmitt 109s – two of them on the same day.

His subsequent – and “brilliant leadership” – of No 601 Squadron was marked by numerous episodes of high valour.

On one occasion he made no fewer than six attacks on a heavily defended enemy strongpoint until reducing it to “burning wreckage” and his Spitfire returned to base “in a badly shot-up state”.

He treated such episodes “in a characteristically light-hearted manner”.

He was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader, with 241 Squadron, based in Italy following the defeat of the Germans. Squadron Leader Turkington died in a flying accident in July 1945 when his aircraft exploded during a manoeuvre.

He was only 26 years old.

The tragedy was compounded by the circumstances of the Air Ministry’s notification of his death.

When his mother received the sad telegram on August 2nd 1945, she was expecting it be confirmation of her gallant son’s long-awaited home leave.

Robert is buried in Padua War Cemetery.

His posthumous DSO citation stated: “Squadron Leader Turkington took over command of 601 Squadron on 2 August 1944, at which time he was awarded a Bar to his DFC for brilliant fighter and strafing work with 241 squadron. Since that time he has carried out 81 fighter-bomber sorties, bringing his total operational hours to 615 and his total operational sorties to 453”.

The citation continued to commend Turkington’s “inspiring and brilliant” leadership, adding “as a fighter-bomber pilot he has, by personal example, taught his pilots with determination and accuracy from a low-level; the inevitable return fire he treated in characteristically light-hearted manner, although repeatedly hit himself”.

It continued: “In this way he brought squadron morale, spirit and efficiency to the highest possible pitch, and commanded the absolute loyalty and devotion of those serving under him.”

Squadron Leader Turkington’s DSO citation vividly recounts the heroism of Lurgan’s air ace, outlining his virtually unimaginable fearlessness and aeronautical expertise whilst leading his squadron during attacks with “a particularly inspiring record as a close support leader. Many times he has destroyed his target through sheer dogged persistence, strafing repeatedly until his ammunition was exhausted. Thus, on 26 December 1944, leading a formation of six aircraft against a strongpoint, four bombs were not seen to explode and the other two went wide; accordingly, he led his aircraft into strafe no less than six times, despite return fire, and only left the target area when the strongpoint was reduced to burning wreckage. On 31 December 1944, under similar circumstances, and with a depleted formation, he strafed eight times to destroy the target completely.”

It continued: “On, January 5th 1945, his aircraft was badly damaged by flak; he found it impossible to control, and would have baled out but for the fact that he needed both hands to maintain control. He succeeded in flying it back to base, and force landed successfully despite the fact his aircraft stalled at 160mph – a very fine feat of airmanship.”

Remembrance NI’s memorial to Squadron Leader Turkington ends with a reminder that “there were ten more former pupils of Lurgan College who died serving with the RAF in Second World War”.

Their record of service will be the focus of future issues at https://remembranceni.org.