Northern Ireland has a proud aviation history. During World War Two, there were several military airfields in operation in the country such as RAF Sydenham and RAF Long Kesh. The USAAF and Polish Squadrons of the Royal Air Force temporarily called Ulster home and the Battle of the Atlantic is well-documented. From July to September 1940, the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over the United Kingdom.
The name “Battle of Britain” was first used on 18th June 1940 in a speech from Winston Churchill to the House of Commons.
What General Weygand has called The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.
The battle was the first major military campaign fought solely by air forces. Hitler’s Luftwaffe increased attacks on the United Kingdom and the Royal Air Force valiantly defended the skies.
The Battle of Britain
The British military recognise the campaign as lasting from 10th July 1940 to 31st October 1940. German historians disagree, including the Blitz which means the battle went on until June 1941.
Nazi Germany’s main objective was to force Britain into a peace agreement. The Luftwaffe first targetted convoys and ports. By August, attention had shifted to incapacitating RAF Fighter Command by hitting airfields and manufacturing factories.
The men of Royal Air Force Fighter Command were among the bravest in Britain. On 20th August 1940, British Prime Minister Churchill paid tribute to them:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
Twenty-eight of these men hailed from Northern Ireland and served in the Battle of Britain. Seven perished in the 1940 dogfights. A further eleven men would not survive the war.
As well as pilots, Northern Irish men and women made up some of the Royal Air Force’s ground crew. In total, the number of men and women from Northern Ireland killed during the Battle of Britain stands at 72.
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 and Northern Ireland’s fighter pilots played a key role.
John Hewitt – Aviation Historian in 2010
Henry Reginald Clarke
Wing Commander Harry Clarke was the last surviving Battle of Britain airman from Northern Ireland when he died aged 92 in July 2010. He was a private man and did not speak much about his time in the war. Wing Commander Clarke flew Spitfires with RAF 610 Squadron until a training accident in 1940 brought his flying career to an end.
Kenneth William Mackenzie
Known as “Mad Mac”, Kenneth William Mackenzie DFC was the most renowned of Northern Ireland’s Battle of Britain heroes. By the end of the battle, he was an RAF having scored seven combat victories. His most famous exploits came on 7th October 1940 when he brought down three Luftwaffe ME109 planes. He lived up to his nickname, feigning insanity as a POW in 1944 and gaining repatriation.
Squadron Leader Noel Corry was one of the ten Northern Irishmen of Battle of Britain fame to survive the war. Described as modest, he was not one to spin tales of his heroics. He enlisted in 1939 at the age of 18 with friends Sydney Ireland and George Calwell. Noel flew Blenheim light bombers in the 1940 campaign. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944.
Sydney Ireland was the first of Northern Ireland’s Battle of Britain heroes to be killed during the battle. His plane was shot down on 12th July 1940. He was part of “The Gang” of three grammar school boys who enlisted in 1939 at the age of 18 with dreams of flying modern aircraft and escaping working a nine-to-five job.
George Calwell survived the Battle of Britain and came through World War Two. A friend of both Noel Corry and Sydney Ireland, he would lose one of those friends in the first days of the Battle of Britain. Undeterred, the nineteen-year-old from Belfast fought on, serving his country and became one of the lucky few to return home after the battle.
Remembering the Battle of Britain heroes
- Sergeant S Ireland killed on 12th July 1940.
- Sergeant JB Thompson killed on 31st July 1940.
- Pilot Officer D Whitley killed on 28th August 1940.
- Pilot Officer AWV Green killed on 11th September 1940.
- Sergeant SA Fenemore killed on 15th October 1940.
- Pilot Officer MD Green killed on 20th October 1940.
- Sergeant JK Haire killed on 6th November 1940.
- Sergeant J McAdam killed on 20th February 1941.
- Sergeant J McCann killed on 20th February 1941.
- Sergeant VH Skillen killed on 11th March 1941.
- Sergeant TCE Berkley killed on 14th June 1941.
- Wing Commander JVC Badger killed on 30th June 1941.
- Pilot Officer CR Montgomery killed on 14th August 1941.
- Sub Lieutenant W Beggs killed on 15th November 1942.
- Squadron Leader ADJ Lovell killed on 17th August 1945.
- Wing Commander KW Mackenzie survived the war.
- Squadron Leader WW McConnell survived the war.
- Flight Lieutenant M Cameron survived the war.
- Air Vice Marshal FD Hughes survived the war.
- Squadron Leader NH Corry survived the war.
- Flight Lieutenant HR Clark survived the war.
- Squadron Leader RR Wright survived the war.
- Wing Commander FV Beamish survived the war.
Remembering the battle today
Each year, the Royal Air Force Association launches the Wings Appeal in September. Other organisations in Northern Ireland such as the Ulster Aviation Society and For Your Freedom And Ours remember the contributions of Fighter Command from and based in, Northern Ireland.[ssba]