The Irish in the Royal Air Force

Having recently celebrated St Patrick’s Day we would like to devote this week’s blogpost to celebrate and commemorate the thousands of doughty Irishmen and women who served in the RAF since 1918. They took part in countless air battles during the First and Second World Wars and wherever they went, the Irish earned a reputation for courage, fortitude and good humour.

In August 1914, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland declared war on Germany. Some 6,000 Irish volunteers served with the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force and 500 lost their lives.

Irishmen made excellent fighter pilots, and a remarkable 495 aerial victories were credited to only 39 Irish ‘aces’. One was Major Joseph Cruess Callaghan of County Dublin, a Sopwith Dolphin pilot who died as he had lived, and was last seen attacking 25 German fighters single-handed. Another was Captain George McElroy, also from County Dublin, who destroyed 46 enemy aircraft while flying S.E.5As. The most successful pilots were Victoria Cross winners Major James McCudden and Major Edward Mannock; two working-class heroes from the Irish diaspora in England credited with 57 and 61 victories respectively. All four were killed in July 1918.

By the end of the war, flying training schools were operating in Ireland where students learned to fly using the methods pioneered by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Smith Barry; another gifted airman of Irish heritage. Bases were also established around the coast from which British and American aircraft mounted anti-submarine patrols.

Joseph Cruess Callaghan, known as the “Mad Major”, October 1915. Callaghan died three years later taking on 25 enemy fighters single-handed. (By kind permission of the Royal Aero Club Trust)

In January 1919, the Anglo-Irish War began. Two and half years of bitter fighting followed, but in December 1921, a treaty was signed which created a 26-county Irish Free State and left six counties of Ulster under British rule. During the Second World War, Southern Ireland remained neutral, but over 15,000 Irish people from both jurisdictions volunteered for the RAF. They served in all Commands and in all theatres, and 1,300 became casualties.

In 1983, Donald Garland's Victoria Cross was donated by his sister, Mrs Sheila Glenny

Three posthumous Victoria Crosses were awarded to Irish pilots. The RAF’s first VC of the war went to Flying Officer Donald Garland, from Wicklow, for his part in the attack on the vital Veldwezelt bridge in Belgium in May 1940. Donald Garland’s VC is held by the RAF Museum and a Fairey Battle light bomber, similar to the one he flew, is on display at the London site. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, a Tipperary man serving in the Fleet Air Arm, won the VC leading six Fairey Swordfish in a doomed attack on the German capital ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen during the ‘Channel Dash’ of February 1942. Lastly, Flight Lieutenant David Lord from Cork earned his VC at the controls of a burning Douglas Dakota during a resupply flight during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.

Boulton Paul Defiant Mk. I N1801 of No. 264 Squadron, circa 1941. This aircraft was flown by night fighter ace Pilot Officer Desmond Hughes from County Down, Northern Ireland. The aircraft bears artwork depicting the Red Hand of Ulster as well as Hughes’ personal victory tally. 264 Squadron’s aircraft were a gift from the Presidency of Madras and Coimbatore is a city in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (264 Squadron Records)

During the war, RAF bases were established in Northern Ireland from which Coastal Command squadrons worked tirelessly to help keep Britain’s vital sea lanes open during the Battle of the Atlantic. The province would later endure 30 years of sectarian conflict, beginning in October 1968 and ending in April 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Throughout ‘The Troubles’ the RAF welcomed recruits from both sides of the border and it continues to do so today.

In the RAF’s Centenary year, we think that it is perhaps good to reflect on the Irish people who have brought ‘a touch of the green’ to the RAF’s blue.

About the Author

Peter Devitt: Curator

Peter Devitt is a Curator at the Royal Air Force Museum and has studied ethnic diversity in Britain’s flying services while working closely with the African-Caribbean, Asian and Polish communities. In 2013, he curated ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’: Volunteers of African Heritage in the Royal Air Force, the award-winning exhibition produced by the RAF Museum in partnership with Black Cultural Archives.