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An Ulster Log: Last mystery of wartime Hellcat in Belfast crash


An American Grumman Hellcat fighter

An American Grumman Hellcat fighter

Surprise surprise: Sheridan Smith, pictured here as Cilla Black in UTV's current drama series, may be on her way to perform in Belfast

Surprise surprise: Sheridan Smith, pictured here as Cilla Black in UTV's current drama series, may be on her way to perform in Belfast

Great crack: The game of conkers dates back to 1821

Great crack: The game of conkers dates back to 1821


An American Grumman Hellcat fighter

My story today is one of tragedy centred around the crumpled picture of a crashed aircraft which can be seen above. Gary Campbell, a celebrated collector of military memorabilia, discovered it among a pile of wartime documents delivered to his doorstep by persons unknown.

However, Gary and aviation authority Ernie Cromie spent hours researching the photograph and eventually came up with some fascinating information about it.

The plane is an American Grumman Hellcat fighter – one of many in service during the Second World War at Sydenham, which was a Royal Navy base during those years.

And the conclusion reached by Cromie and Campbell is that they have stumbled on a picture of a Hellcat which crashed near Gillespie's plant nurseries on the Holywood Road, Belfast, on April 10, 1945. It had just taken off from Sydenham when it was seen to make a steep turn and dive into an open field.

"The double tragedy is that a child who was playing there was killed as the Hellcat crashed and the pilot of the single-seater fighter was severely injured and died an hour later in a military hospital located at Campbell College," says Cromie.

"I know the pilot was Sub Lieutenant Edmund John Hoy, age 27, of the South Africa Naval Forces, but I have no idea if the child was a boy or a girl."

Gary is hoping that whoever delivered the dramatic picture will return to solve that mystery.

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Hoy was one of the Navy pilots who had gone to Sydenham to collect newly arrived Hellcats. This one had been allocated to No 892 Squadron which was then re-forming at Eglinton Royal Naval Air Station and was being newly equipped with night fighter variants of the Hellcat.

We're all heart for Cilla star Sheridan

Every Cilla Black fan in the province wants to see versatile Sheridan Smith appear at Belfast's Grand Opera House or Waterfront. She's the actress who plays Cilla in the drama series about the Liverpool favourite, the final instalment of which is on UTV this Monday at 9pm

And those fans could get their wish in the New Year if negotiations with agents work out. Sheridan (33), who was in the comedy series Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, and Gavin and Stacey, won a BAFTA for her performance in the title role of Mrs Biggs, about Charmian, the wife of Ronnie Biggs. Cilla was due to appear here in a chat show with the late Gerry Anderson in October 1999 when her husband Bobby Willis died. Now, Sheridan is hoping she will make it to town to sing Cilla's big hit Anyone Who Has a Heart at one of our theatres.

Going nuts over conker shortage

There won't be too many games of conkers played this autumn if the produce from the six chestnut trees in my garden are anything to go by.

Usually by this time in September a couple of dozen seeds – the conkers – have dropped from each mother tree.

But so far this year I've picked up one solitary conker (or chestnut if you prefer). Perhaps it was the absence of rain for weeks that killed off the growth.

The first mention of a game played with nuts was in the memoirs of one Robert Southey in 1821, but he insisted it was hazelnuts, not chestnuts that were used.

The first recorded game of conkers using chestnuts was on the Isle of Wight in 1848.

There is uncertainty of the origins of the name. It probably comes from the dialect word conker which means hard nut.

To play the game, a 10-inch shoelace is threaded through a hole cut end to end in the conker with a huge knot at one end to keep it secure.

Two opponents, each armed with a conker, take turns to strike one another's chestnut with their own.

The winner is the player whose conker lasts the longest before crumbling.

The battle for remembrance

RAF veteran Alfie Martin, who baled out of a burning plane over occupied France during the Second World War and was smuggled to safety under the noses of the Germans by the Resistance, is disappointed that the 75th anniversary of the day in September 1939 when war was declared appears to be forgotten. "Quite rightly there has been a fuss over the First World War, but September 3, 1939, when we declared the next world conflict has been ignored," Alfie complains.

"I remember the day well," he adds. "I was in the Army at the time – the Royal Engineers at Greypoint – taking part in a church parade when I was told we were at war with Germany. The day always sticks in my mind, but nobody else seems to remember it."

James Orr makes a comeback

James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry, is back in fashion after being nearly forgotten except in his home village.

It's all down to folk singer Lorna McKee, a member of a group called the Lamplighters. Lorna has been reciting poems written by Orr, who died in 1816 aged 46, and suddenly people are attracted again to his verses.

James was the foremost of the Ulster Weaver Poets, but he was also a United Irishman and took part in the 1798 Rebellion.

A monument to Orr, erected in 1831 in the Templecorran cemetery near Ballycarry, has been restored, and the villagers adore him once again.

Sadie's farls hit right note for Yehudi

Last week I wrote about Moira baker David Lindsay, whose soda bread is a delicacy in all the Hix hotels in London and available in Selfridges. This reminded Sadie Armstrong, who worked in a home bakery in downtown Belfast, that one of her favourite customers was celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

"Every time he came to play at the Opera House, Yehudi made a point of calling with me to place an order to take back with him," Sadie says. "He loved his soda bread and I always double wrapped his farls and potato bread to keep them fresh. He used to call in for his parcel on his way to catch his plane home from Aldergrove."

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