Belfast Telegraph

Back at his wartime base on Lough Erne: the hero of horrific seaplane crash

By Patrice Dougan

It's almost 70 years since he was stationed in Northern Ireland, but Chuck Singer can recall the details of those days like it was yesterday.

The 89-year-old war veteran — a gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force — was posted to Castle Archdale during WWII.

He was among squadrons of Canadian and American servicemen who were sent to train local soldiers in the use of seaplanes.

This weekend he has returned to his former base to take part in the Fermanagh Seaplane Festival, which will showcase some of the aircraft originally stationed there.

It will bring back powerful memories for Chuck, who ended his time here with a heroic rescue of his fellow crew members after their plane crashed into a bog.

It’s the fourth time he’s been back in Northern Ireland since then, but he said it has not always been easy.

“When I was asked about this on my first trip here I couldn’t talk about it, because it brought it all back and I was in tears — I just couldn’t do it,” the retired businessman said.

“It’s my fourth trip now and I still don’t like talking about it.”

On August 12, 1944, Chuck and 11 other crew mates from the 422 Squadron — two more than usual — were returning to the Lough Erne base in a Sunderland seaplane when the engine froze and the aircraft crashed.

The plane had flipped upside-down, but the pilot managed to right it seconds before it smashed into a peat bog near Belleek.

“Everything explosive on board blew up,” recalled Chuck. “It was just a horrible mess.

“I couldn’t see because there was blood in my eyes, but I knew where the opening was. When I got out of the portion of the plane I heard a guy screaming and I knew it was my second gunner and he needed help.

“My first instinct was to go and save my life, but I went in anyhow and the tail section of the plane, the whole end, was laying across his legs. Because it was in peat moss the ground was soft, and instead of breaking his legs off, it just broke his legs.

“I managed to get him out and safe before we both passed out.”

Most of the crew had also managed to get out safely but, for three, the crash had proved fatal.

The others spent months recovering in hospital.

Chuck said they remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

“I was in touch with everybody, but they’re all passed away now,” he said with sadness.

Today Chuck will join another Castle Archdale veteran, Ted Jones (89), for a flight on one of two WWII Catalina’s which have flown into Fermanagh for the festival.

He said it’s something he’s looking forward to, having not been in such a plane since the crash.

“I’m pins and needles waiting,” he said.

Factfile

The Fermanagh Seaplane Festival takes place this weekend from today until Sunday.

Taking over the former Catalina Training base at Groblusk, the festival will showcase some of the seaplanes which were originally stationed here. Two PBY Catalina planes will have pride of place at the festival, which aims to celebrate the beauty and history of the Fermanagh lakelands.

It’s the second time the festival has been held, after the success of the first one back in 2009. This year will see aircraft fly in from countries such as Norway, |Netherlands and France.

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