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Let's praise our Battle of Britain heroes

By Lesley-Anne Henry

They were the bravest of the brave. But their valour and sacrifice has largely been forgotten in Northern Ireland.

Twenty-eight Ulster airmen flew in the Battle of Britain which began exactly 70 years ago today. Tragically, seven were killed during that famous aerial dogfight of 1940 and 11 others never saw the end of the war.

Add the number of RAF ground crew killed and the grim total of Ulster men and women who lost their lives during the Battle of Britain stands at 72.

Over the next four months towns and cities across the UK will be commemorating the battle’s 70th anniversary — but in Northern Ireland little is being done to mark the momentous occasion.

Today, however, the Belfast Telegraph is calling for a memorial event to be held to salute the brave Ulster airmen who risked everything for our freedom.

This newspaper is asking representatives at the highest level to stage a public commemorative event paying tribute to our local heroes.

Aviation historian and author John Hewitt, who was close friends with many of the Battle of Britain survivors, said it was a “shame” nothing has been officially organised here for the 70th anniversary.

“If we hadn’t won the Battle of Britain the Nazis would have invaded England and there’s no doubt about it, we would not have the freedom that we have today,” he said. “And Northern Ireland’s fighter pilots played a key role.

“There were 28 fighter pilots who served during the Battle of Britain and at least 18 of them were killed in the war. I think what these people gave for our freedom should not be allowed to be forgotten.

“I think we should have a memorial service in St Anne’s Cathedral or something to commemorate them.”

A national commemoration ceremony is due to take place at London’s Westminster Abbey on September 19, and there will be a number of Battle of Britain concerts, flypasts and airshows in cities such as Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham and Bristol.

In Belfast, the Royal Air Force Association is launching its Wings Appeal at a reception in Stormont in September but it is not a public event. It is understood budget restraints are a factor in their decision not to do anything this year.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We owe it to the men who fought so valiantly to mark this period in history. I would like to see this momentous period in our history marked in Northern Ireland and I would hope that local councils would be persuaded to do something.”

A spokesman for the RAF in London said a full size replica Battle of Britain Spitfire could be made available to be put on display during October if a suitable prominent venue or event was organised. Branding material, flags and banners are also available.

Belfast City Councillor Jim Rodgers backed the calls for a public commemorative event.

“I know that these things cost money but it is vitally important that we commemorate the Battle of Britain here,” he said.

“I think there could be a service for all communities in St Anne’s Cathedral.”

A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said they would consider any requests for Battle of Britain commemoration events. However, no one from the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister was available for comment last night.

Fighter pilot survived high-speed head-on collision

Wing Commander Harry Clarke is Northern Ireland’s last surviving Battle of Britain airman.

However little is known about his wartime achievements as the modest 93-year-old never speaks to the Press and has not made his logbook public.

Having been educated at Dale Holme Private School on the Ballygomartin Road, Belfast, he joined the RAFVR (volunteer reserves) in July 1930 aged 22 and was called up for full-time service as soon as war was declared.

He did his initial training at St Leonard’s-on-Sea and the Elementary Flying School in Brough before being posted to the RAF base at Kinloss in Scotland.

During the Battle of Britain Wing Commander Clarke flew with 610 Squadron in a Spitfire, registration number DW-D.

Unfortunately Harry’s battle-flying career came to an abrupt end in September 1940 while giving a pupil pilot some dog-fighting practise in the air.

When the pupil hit his aircraft head on, Harry’s parachute harness was sliced. He bailed out and luckily his foot caught in a strap and Harry came tumbling to earth hanging upside down, with only one leg in the parachute harness.

Amazingly he survived the fall but had suffered head and neck injuries and was returned to Northern Ireland as a test pilot.

He now lives in Saintfield.

‘Mad mac’ shot down two and forced third into sea

Belfast-born Kenneth William Mackenzie joined the RAFVR (volunteer reserves) in 1939 and was posted to an operational fighter squadron in the last phase of the Battle of Britain in late September 1940.

By the time the battle ended in October, he had scored seven combat victories making him an ‘ace’ (five kills).

He is probably the best known of the 28 Northern Ireland pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain.

And his most famous victory was on October 7, 1940 when he successfully brought down three German ME109s.

Two of the enemy aircraft were shot down but he ran out of ammunition after closing in on the third. Reluctant to give up, and living up to his nickname ‘Mad Mac’, MacKenzie flew alongside the German pilot and slapped his wingtip over the ME109 tail plane causing it to spiral into the sea.

The impact of the ram smashed about 6ft off the wing of his Hurricane fighter plane and he was lucky to make it back in one piece. MacKenzie crash-landed about 500 yards beyond the white cliffs of Dover, narrowly missing an anti-aircraft battery.

For this remarkable feat and other successes in the sky during his first week of active service he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

In 1941 MacKenzie was taken as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over France.

He tried several escape attempts but was caught each time. Eventually, in 1944, he was repatriated after feigning insanity and saw out the rest of the war as an instructor.

The modest squadron leader

He was not one for spinning tales about his own heroics.

But Squadron Leader Noel Corry never forgot the friends he lost during the Battle of Britain.

The Belfast-born fighter pilot was among 10 Ulster airmen who survived the famous battle waged in the skies over southern England during 1940.

And in a rare interview from her home in Whitehead, Co Antrim, his proud widow Dinah (87) revealed how he thought of the men who never made it back to base, right up until his own death four years ago.

“We went to Westminster Abbey every year. It was important to him,” Mrs Corry told the Belfast Telegraph.

“Very few came through, it was difficult. But he always remembered them until the day he died. And he always talked about them.”

Noel joined the RAFVR (volunteer reserves) with two friends, Sydney Ireland and George Calwell, aged 18, in 1939. “The gang” were all grammar school boys who had dreamt of learning to fly and gained their pilots wings from the flight training school in Sydenham.

When World War II broke out the trio were called up for active service and Noel was selected to fly Blenheim light bomber aircraft.

Ironically, Noel was pleased at the prospect of going to war as it meant he wouldn’t have to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a chartered accountant.

“They were all volunteers, they all wanted to go,” said Mrs Corry.

“And when the war was over somebody got him a job in the Civil Service and he did very well.”

Sadly, Sydney became the first of the 18 Northern Ireland pilots to be killed in the Battle of Britain, being shot down on July 12, 1940. His death had a profound effect on his pal.

“Sydney Ireland was a close friend of his,” said Mrs Corry. “He got leave for the funeral.

“George Calwell, he came through it.”

Dinah and Noel met on the Isle of Sheppey on the Thames Estuary, almost two years after the Battle of Britain had been won.

They were married in 1942 and went on to have two children.

Dinah had been working in the officers’ mess and can recall bringing tea and sandwiches to Polish pilots during their hurried pit-stops in London.

And although he often spoke of the men with whom he flew during the Battle of Britain, Mrs Corry noted her husband’s modesty when it came to talking about his own bravery.

“He did talk about it but he was not one for spinning tales,” she said.

After the Battle of Britain Noel went on to fly Lancaster bombers. Mrs Corry recalled how he had wanted a Red Hand of Ulster painted on the side of the aircraft but his ground mechanic, a Dublin-born Catholic, believed a large green shamrock and shillelagh would be more appropriate. “When he saw it, he just laughed and said he wouldn’t change it,” she said.

Whether it was down to the “luck of the Irish” or his obvious skills, Squadron Leader Corry flew his way through dozens of dangerous missions and reached the end of the war without suffering any serious injuries.

“He was very lucky,” said Mrs Corry, who spent many sleepless nights anxiously awaiting his return.

“It was worse when he was on bombers because I knew when the bombers didn’t come home.

“He was late coming back one night and we were going on holiday together. I was to meet him at one of the railway stations in London and, of course, he didn’t turn up.

“And then some bright spark came after me and said ‘Noel’s all right, only they’ve had to land somewhere’. He said you’ve to go on home and he’ll follow you on. So I just had to go back home. No holiday.”

In December 1944 Noel was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of his exemplary career.

“Of course I’m proud,” concluded Mrs Corry. “You couldn’t have got a better person.”

Ulster airmen who died during Battle of Britain

Sergeant S Ireland - killed July 12, 1940

Sergeant J.B Thompson - killed July 31, 1940

Squadron Leader A.D.J Lovell - killed August 17, 1945

Pilot Officer D Whitley - killed August 28, 1940

Pilot Officer A.W.V Green - killed September 11, 1940

Sergeant S.A Fenemore - killed October 15, 1940

Pilot Officer M.I.D Green - killed October 20, 1940

Ulster born airmen who flew in the |Battle of Britain

Wing Commander J.V.C Badger - killed June 30, 1941

Wing Commander K.W MacKenzie - survived the war

Squadron Leader W.W McConnell - survived the war

Sergeant V.H Skillen - killed March 11, 1941

Sergeant J.K Haire - killed November 6, 1940

Sub Lieutenant W Beggs - killed November 15, 1942

Flight Lieutenant M Cameron - survived the war

Sergeant T.C.E Berkley - killed June 14, 1941

Air Vice Marshal F.D Hughes - survived the war

Squadron Leader N.H Corry - survived the war

Flight Lieutenant H.R Clark - survived the war

Squadron Leader R.R Wright - survived the war

Sergeant J McCann - killed February 20, 1941

Squadron Leader ADJ Lovell - killed August 17, 1945

Pilot Officer M.I.D. Green - killed October 20, 1940

Wing Commander FV Beamish - survived the war

Sergeant J McAdam - killed February 20, 1941

Pilot Officer CR Montgomery - killed August 14, 1941

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