The Donegal corridor and the Battle of the Atlantic

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), News, Volume 11

As Europe fell to the advancing German armies in the early months of World War II, the United Kingdom became more and more isolated and increasingly dependent on the Atlantic trade route for industrial raw materials and food. Although some air cover was already provided, a gap existed in mid-Atlantic, a section which could not be reached from existing air bases. If U-boats could operate in this area without fear of air attack then Allied convoys would be at the mercy of German ‘wolf packs’.
As a result of aerial surveys carried out late in 1940 and despite a less than favourable report, construction of an RAF base began on the old Castle Archdale estate on the shores of Lough Erne with the intention of closing the gap. There was one snag. The extra 100 miles range possible from the new base would only become effective if the aircraft could fly due west over neutral Ireland. Failing an agreement, planes would have to fly north over Lough Foyle before heading for the Atlantic battleground.
While de Valera would not be coerced into joining the war, pragmatism demanded that, despite strained Anglo-Irish relations, an official blind eye be turned to what became known as the ‘Donegal corridor’, a route over south Donegal/north Leitrim/north Sligo and out to the Atlantic. This concession was subject to the provisos that flights would be at a good height and that the route over the military camp at Finner would be avoided, both of which conditions subsequently received scant attention from the British.
No. 240 Squadron, equipped with Stranraer flying boats, carried out the first sorties from the newly established base on Lough Erne, styled No. 15 Group Coastal Command, on 21 February 1941, thus bringing Fermanagh into the front line of the Battle of the Atlantic. One of the earliest and most notable successes was the location and chase that resulted in the sinking of the Bismarck. An entry in the Castle Archdale log for 27 May 1941 reads: ‘German battleship sunk at 11.00 hours. Aircraft of 209 and 240 squadrons operating from this station were responsible’.
The ‘nod and a wink’ policy of ‘neutral Ireland’ extended to more than just a shortcut to the Atlantic. Other concessions followed. The establishment in June 1941 of an armed air/sea rescue trawler, the Robert Hastie, manned by eleven British personnel, at Killybegs, Co. Donegal, was shrouded in secrecy. Its purpose was to provide assistance to shipping casualties and to supply planes that had run out of fuel. The need for such a vessel was illustrated the previous April when Pilot Officer Denis Briggs, returning from a routine U-boat patrol, was forced to ditch his Saro Lerwick sea-plane in the sea off Tullan Strand, near Bundoran, when he ran out of fuel. Watching the descent of the stricken plane, Irish army observation posts shortly afterwards beheld the unusual sight of an airplane being towed to Bundoran by a passing fishing-boat and immediately reported the incident to HQ. This was a new dilemma for all involved. Local units of the Irish Army, unaware of decisions made at a higher level, proceeded on the assumption that the crew would be interned for the duration of the war and the plane impounded. Following some hasty consultation and diplomatic manoeuvring, a camouflaged airforce lorry arrived from across the border with 80 gallons of aviation fuel. The plane was made ready and took off with its crew for their home base on Lough Erne.
On the evening of 5 December 1942 people from all over north Sligo looked up into a lowering winter sky, watching fearfully as a huge Flying Fortress circled noisily overhead looking for a safe place to land. ‘The Devil Himself’, as it was called, created a sensation when it dropped safely out of the sky onto Mullaghmore beach. The crew of American officers and airmen were fêted in the Beach Hotel, Mullaghmore, and at Finner camp for seventeen days while a replace-ment engine was supplied from Northern Ireland and fitted to the plane. A local man did well when he received £2 compensation from the Irish Air Corps for damage to his land!
Cooperation between the British and Irish authorities was soon commonplace, eventually becoming so close that in some instances HQ in Athlone could inform Castle Archdale of downed planes in Irish territory before the British even knew they were missing! There were approximately 162 wartime crashes or forced landings in southern Ireland. Below are others that occurred in the north-west:

24 January 1941, 17.00 hours, Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance bomber, RAF 233 Squadron, forced to land at Skreen, Co. Sligo (out of fuel). Repaired and flown to Baldonnell at 19.15 hours,26 March 1941. Four survivors, two missing. Two carrier pigeons taken into custody and sent to the Curragh!

21 March 1941, Catalina flying boat, 240 Squadron, Castle Archdale, crashed on the mountain near Glenade, Co. Leitrim. Nine dead, no survivors. The plane was completely wrecked.

30 April 1941, plane based at Limavady crashed at Askill, on Ballyshannon to Garrison road, Co. Donegal. Crew baled out safely.

21 July 1941, 19.00 hours, British Lockheed Hudson forced to land on Tragh Bui, Ballyconnell, Co. Sligo. Took off at 13.40 hours for Limavady. No casualties.

17 November 1942, 16.25 hours, Catalina flying boat en route from Bermuda to Scotland forced to land on Lough Gill, Co. Sligo. Crew of six unhurt. Refuelled and took off at 16.35 hours, 19 November 1942.

10 May 1943, 09.00 hours, B-17 Flying Fortress, 524th Bomb Squadron, en route from Gander, Newfoundland, to Prestwick, Scotland, forced to land (out of fuel) at Tullan Strand, Finner, Co. Donegal. Crew of ten unhurt. Aircraft dismantled and conveyed to Northern Ireland on low-loader.

9 December 1943, 17.19 hours, B-25 Flying Fortess, en route from Goose Bay, Canada, to Prestwick, crashed on Truskmore Mountain, Ballintrillick, Co. Sligo. Three dead, seven injured; plane a total wreck.

23 January 1944, 18.40 hours, British Halifax bomber struck cliff at Fairy Bridges, Bundoran, Co. Donegal. Completely wrecked; six bodies recovered, four washed out to sea.

31 January 1944, 23.30 hours, Sunderland flying boat DW 110, 228 Squadron, Castle Archdale, crashed at Bluestack Mountains near Brockagh, Co. Donegal. Seven killed, five injured.

20 February 1944, 18.10 hours, B-17 Flying Fortress forced to land (out of fuel) on Fintragh Strand, Killybegs, Co. Donegal. Plane submerged at high tide, becoming a total loss; ten injured.

5 May 1944, 09.15 hours, B24 US Liberator forced to land (out of fuel) at Carradreshy, Foxford, Co. Mayo. Crew of ten uninjured. Partially salvaged and handed over to RAF, Northern Ireland, on 1 June 1944.
19 June 1944, 22.50 hours, American Flying Fortress bomber forced down (engine failure) on the land of Hamilton Black, Sheegus, north-west of Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. Two killed, seven injured, one unscathed. Plane badly damaged; handed over to US forces in Northern Ireland.

12 August 1944, 11.55 hours, British Sunderland, Squadron RCAF 422, Castle Archdale, crashed (engine failure) on Breesy Mountain near Belleek, Co. Fermanagh. Three killed out of crew of twelve. Surviving three engines and rear turret handed over to RAF in Northern Ireland.

4 September 1944, 21.00 hours, British Swordfish torpedo and reconnaissance biplane forced to land at Carrowcastle, Skreen, Co. Sligo. No injuries. Stephen Foley’s hen house destroyed, thirty chickens killed and half an acre of cabbage ruined! Plane dismantled and handed over to RAF in Northern Ireland, 10 September 1944.

17 December 1944, 16.20 hours, British Martinet, Squadron 131, forced to land on Classiebawn estate, Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. No injuries. Wreckage salvaged and transferred to RAF in Northern Ireland by low-loader, 21 December 1944.

14 March 1945, 02.30 hours, British Sunderland, 201 Squadron, crashed on Fintragh Mountain, Clane, Killybegs. Crew of twelve killed; plane completely wrecked.

9 February 1945, 16.30 hours, British Halifax bomber forced to land in sea one mile east of Mullaghmore Head, Co. Sligo. Four survived, two drowned; one body recovered at Rossnowlagh and one at Mountcharles, Co. Donegal. Privates Herrity and Gilmartin of Mullaghmore commended on prompt reporting to Killybegs lifeboat, resulting in rescue of survivors.

Joe Mc Gowan is a local historian living in Mullaghmore, County Sligo and author of Constance Markievicz: the people’s countess.

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