Flying-boats in Fermanagh

An article from 2002.

In May 1941 two German oil tankers sailed to the Arctic; two more, with two reconnaissance ships, to the south of Greenland; two more with a supply ship to the area between the Azores and the Antilles and another to Bergen, while four weather ships sailed to the Atlantic. Those were the first moves in an elaborate seaborne ballet that was to bring Castle Archdale, on Lough Erne, into the front line of World War II.

The harbour at Castle Archdale

The harbour at Castle Archdale


The war at sea

Neither Russia nor the USA was involved in the war at that stage. Germany and Italy had captured Yugoslavia, Greece, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. The UK stood alone, with the entire coastline of continental Western Europe in hostile hands.

Convoys were attacked by German U-boats (submarines) operating in wolf packs large enough to overcome a convoy’s few, underequipped escorts. In the air, long-range Focke-Wulf Condors posed a threat to which CAM-ships, which could launch but not retrieve a single fighter, provided only a partial answer. German armed merchant cruisers, notably the Atlantis, were extremely successful.

And then there were the German cruisers, pocket-battleships and battleships, which had been designed as commerce raiders: the fast battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau sank twenty-two merchant ships (totalling 116,000 tons) in two months in early 1941. Even more powerful were the battleships Tirpitz and Bismarck, both over 42,000 tons unladen, 53,000 laden, and capable of 31 knots. With 165,000hp engines, eight 15-inch guns, twelve 5.9-inch guns, sixteen 4.1-inch anti-aircraft guns, sixty quick-firing light guns, six aircraft and thirteen-inch hardened steel armour, Bismarck was a match for any British battleship. On Sunday 18 May she sailed, with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, from Gdynia in Poland, through the Kattegat and Skagerrak and up the Norwegian coast.

The sinking of HMS Hood

In the evening of 23 May, the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, patrolling the Denmark Strait northwest of Iceland, spotted the German ships and alerted Admiral Holland in the battle-cruiser Hood, who was patrolling south-west of Iceland with the new battleship Prince of Wales. Admiral Holland hurried to intercept the German ships and, at 5.35am on 24 May, the Hood sighted the German ships, opening fire at 5.52am.

Bismarck replied a second later, straddled Hood with her second salvo, hit her with the third and, at a range of 16,500 yards, sank her with the fifth. The Hood, for so many years a symbol of British naval power, went down in two minutes: 1415 men died and only 3 survived. Her deck armour was inadequate: the weakness that had afflicted British battle-cruisers at the Battle of Jutland in World War I.

Prince of Wales, which had not been properly ready for sea, was forced to withdraw. Bismarck headed for Brest, detaching the Prinz Eugen, and Norfolk, Suffolk and Prince of Wales gave chase.

The next attack on the Bismarck was by nine Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the carrier Victorious, led by Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde of Drominagh on Lough Derg. But early on 25 May, Norfolk and Suffolk lost contact with Bismarck. For over twenty-four hours the pursuing fleets did not know where she was. Then, as Ludovic Kennedy put it in Pursuit: the sinking of the Bismarck:

In the dead of the night … a Catalina aircraft of Coastal Command, No. Z of 209 Squadron, was racing in the darkness across the trout-filled waters of Lough Erne in the north-west of Ireland. The co-pilot was an American serviceman, Ensign Leonard B. Smith, wearing the uniform of the United States Navy – a fact known then to very few. The plane rose gracefully towards the stars, circled once over the sleeping countryside, set course south-westwards across Donegal Bay and Eagle Island towards the open sea.

What was a uniformed member of the armed forces of a neutral state, the USA, doing at the controls of a British warplane? And what was that plane doing flying over Donegal, in territory of another neutral state?

Castle Archdale

Lower Lough Erne was the most westerly flying-boat base in the UK. Opened in February 1941, its HQ was at Castle Archdale with a training base at Killadeas. Castle Archdale provided accommodation, canteens and recreation facilities, stores, a control tower and station headquarters, hangars, flying-boat pens, a slipway, workshops and a machine-gun range.

Looking from the flying-boat dock at Castle Archdale. The slipway was further to the left

Looking from the flying-boat dock at Castle Archdale. The slipway was further to the left


There were 108 flying-boat moorings offshore as well as 40 boat moorings. A Royal Engineers detachment used the Kathleen to keep the lower lake free for the flying-boats and patrolled the upper using the Cairnbin and St George, based at Crom Castle. A team from McGarry’s boatyard on Lough Neagh maintained the moorings and buoys, salvaged any aircraft or boats that sank — and built two salvage barges, Rossinan and Rossclare.

The remains of a small lighter

The remains of a small lighter


The first flying-boat to land was a twin-engined Vickers Supermarine Stranraer, but 209 Squadron arrived in April 1941 equipped with the medium-range Saunders-Roe Lerwick. This aircraft was intended to replace the long-range Short Sunderland, allowing Shorts to concentrate on producing on the Stirling bomber, but the Lerwick’s handling was so appalling that only 21 were built. By the time its faults became apparent, though, Shorts had dismantled the Sunderland jigs and it took time to resume production.

The coming of the Catalinas

Happily, an excellent American alternative was available on the Lend-Lease scheme: the Consolidated Catalina (PBY-5/PBY-5A): nine-seater, 65′ 2″ long, wing-span 104′; two 1200hp Pratt & Whitney engines; five machine-guns and 4500lb of bombs, depth charges, mines or torpedoes. It was slow (cruising speed 113mph, claimed maximum 179mph) but it had a very long range (2350 miles) and could remain airborne for 28 hours.

Some details of the flying-boat dock

Some details of the flying-boat dock


Officially, seventeen US Naval Air Service volunteers went to train the British pilots on how to fly the planes. Before they left, though, the Chief of Naval Operations told the volunteers that the US would be entering the war soon and that they should learn about war flying while in Britain. Eight Americans went to Oban and nine, including Ensign Leonard (“Tuck”) Smith, to Castle Archdale’s 240 and 209 Squadrons. When they arrived, nine British co-pilots went on leave and the Americans acted as full crew members.

As co-pilot in Z/209, Tuck Smith was flying with Flying Officer Dennis Briggs. Ludovic Kennedy quotes Tuck Smith:

It was the blind leading the blind. Briggs had had plenty of operational flying but knew little about Catalinas. I knew something about Catalinas but had no experience of operational flying.

The sinking of the Bismarck

On 26 May, they reached their patrol area after six hours and Smith took the controls. About half an hour later, they saw a dull black shape about eight miles away. Despite being hit by gunfire they sent off a report, shadowed the Bismarck until another Catalina took over, then headed for Castle Archdale, arriving at 9.30pm. Bismarck then became the quarry of eight battleships and battle-cruisers, two aircraft-carriers, eleven cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, six submarines and over 300 air sorties. The end came on the morning of 27 May when the Bismarck, short on fuel, her steering jammed, was battered unceasingly by the heavy guns of the Rodney and the King George V, before being finished off by a torpedo from the cruiser Dorsetshire. Only 107 survived from a crew of over 2000. Ernle Bradford wrote of the widespread feeling in the British fleet of

nothing but admiration and respect for the outstanding gallantry with which the Bismarck had fought.

The importance of air cover

Lough Erne’s contribution to the hunt for the Bismarck heralded the end of the battleship era: without air protection, the big ships were effectively obsolete. Germany realised that, and brought the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen home to Germany.

The eventual Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic came from three elements: the huge numbers of Liberty ships (freighters), more and better convoy escorts (frigates, sloops and corvettes) and the provision of air cover. The small American escort carriers meant that convoys could bring their own air protection with them, but even then Lough Erne, with its long-range flying-boats, had a vital role in detecting and attacking U-boats.

Squadrons came and went: the RAF’s 240, 209, 119, 201, 228, 202, the (Canadian) RCAF’s 422 and 423, various training units too. The operational squadrons flew Catalinas and Sunderlands: the Sunderland was a ten-seater, produced (63 of them in Belfast) in several different versions between 1937 and 1946. The most common was the Mark III: 85′ 3″ long, wingspan 112′ 9″, four 1065hp Bristol Pegasus engines, maximum speed 209mph, range 2500 miles; eight machine-guns and 2000lb of bombs, depth charges or mines.

Flying-boats were moored offshore in this relatively sheltered bay

Flying-boats were moored offshore in this relatively sheltered bay


When the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, U-boats at sea were ordered to surface and were escorted, some by Coastal Command aircraft, to various ports including Lisahally on the Foyle. The last operational patrol from Castle Archdale was on 3 June 1945. Catalinas from other areas were assembled at Killadeas and, on 18 August, Castle Archdale closed down. Many of the Sunderlands and Catalinas were scrapped, but some Catalinas were scuttled on the lake in 1947.

And Z/209 flying over neutral Donegal? Southern Ireland’s neutrality was distinctly pro-Allied, and one of its manifestations was the Donegal Corridor, which was kept secret during the war. Allied aircraft were allowed to fly over a narrow corridor to the Atlantic, saving them the long journey around Inishowen, and a British rescue boat, the Robert Hastie, was stationed in Killybegs — whence its crew even engaged in the traditional border pastime of smuggling.

Castle Archdale’s museum includes a good wartime display, but the best source of information about Lough Erne’s role in World War II is Breege McCusker’s book Castle Archdale and Fermanagh in World War II, second edition, Necarne Press, 2000, ISBN 0 9521545 0 1, now out of print. There is lots of information about the aircraft and squadrons and the Battle of the Atlantic on the web; start by searching for “Castle Archdale”.

24 responses to “Flying-boats in Fermanagh

  1. andrew caldwell

    very interesting piece of history, recently visited upper lough erne on holiday(inc crom castle) and watched the flying boats pass overhead, apparently there was some kind of cememoration. this has certainly answered the questions as to why they were there.

    regards. Andrew

  2. Thanks, Andrew.


  3. There was a further Fermanagh Seaplane Festival 23-25 September 2011 with 2 Catalinas present.

  4. Great; thanks for the links. bjg

  5. Pingback: Catalina | Irish waterways history

  6. Hi, I lived in Fermanagh during the early ’90’s and even organised an airshow at St Angelo for the then Lough Erne Aviation museum trust run by various local aircraft enthusiasts and ex 209 sqn personnell such as Brian Pendry and others. The idea of the airshow was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Bismarck. Even Tuck Smith was flown over from America at the time.

    The idea was to raise funds to raise at least one of the many scuttled Catalinas from the bottom of Lough Erne. I together with John Potter from Belfast, his father lived at Irvinetown, had managed to find the location of several possible wrecksites using anomaly detection equipment but of course no sufficient funding was ever found. These aircraft, considering they are in fresh water and not salt must still be in excellent condition. I know because some parts such as a large float was recovered in ’89 in nearly new condition. I am amazed that to date not recovery has even been attempted. I know Ernie Cromie from the Ulster Aviation Museum was always pumping for info when the LEAMT was still operational for possible wreck sites. John and I had several interviews with Billy Waters, who helped scuttle the aircraft and was a diver during the war.

    I’m old now and yet I’d still like to see one of those aircraft recovered. I have a map with some of the possible locations that I’d be happy to pass on to any serious group. Any serious groups can contact me by email [***email addresses hidden; request details by replying to this comment. bjg***]

    PS, just a little add on as I just remembered. Close to Church Hill is a barn where we kept , not only an ex RAF launch but a lot of aircraft parts and even a Chipmunk airframe complete with engine and propellor. These should be at Castle Archdale now with all the other Sunderland and Catalina parts secreted away. Before they are all lost forever. There’s a guy called [***details hidden. bjg***] who knows more about where things are kept. Pester him for info or contact me and I’ll give any help I can.

    At the time LEAMT asked me to keep quiet about our finds, I kept my word for 26yrs and nothing has been done that I can see. I now feel it’s been long enough and it’s time work was really started on recovering some of Fermanagh’s history.

  7. I have merged three comments into one. I have also concealed some of the contact and ID details for third parties. bjg

  8. No probs, hope I generate some interest

  9. I’m making some enquiries in the area too. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. bjg

  10. Why did the Irish government allow the British military to fly across it’s territory to attack the property of a country with which Ireland was not at war?

  11. That was just one of many wars in which Éire assisted the war effort. See books by Robert Fisk, T Ryle Dwyer, Clair Wills and others. bjg

  12. We have side scan sonar, boat and dive equipment. We would be interested in attempting to relocate some of the sunken planes if we can get some approximate locations. We have previously relocated others such as German JU66. Possible place on the boat for location provider.

  13. Thanks, Eoghan: I’ve forwarded your message and email address to Rein Boomsma. bjg

  14. I will find maps of the survey we did in 1990/91 and get in touch with Eoghan. I would also suggest he contacts Ernie Cromie or whoever is in charge of the Ulster Aviation museum as I don’t think there is any museum now in Fermanagh that has first of all anywhere where an aircraft could be displayed or any facilities to restore or recover any aircraft. I’m quite happy to help as much as I can as 25years have now gone by since we last tried to recover just one, we got rough locations with a magnetometer of 7 suspected aircraft.

  15. Great Stuff, Rein, I’ve been in touch with Ernie. Can you send me your contact details (privately of course) and we can discuss. It should however be noted that we do not want to recover any artefacts, we just want to relocate the planes.

  16. I have recovered many mechanical devices from fresh water, including aircraft, this is a huge undertaking, the aluminum will be usable, the steel badly rusted, lesser metals gone completely, engines and props, wiring, plexaglass all scrap , the Catalinas are still occasionally found flying, but the others mentioned are more rare. The common side scan fish finders have proven to show well enough what is below the boat, planes look like planes, cars look like cars, mine is a hummingbird model, good enough to see what I was looking at was a pick up truck, not a car for example. I restore aircraft as a business, and know the cost, it will not make a profit, but could provide very nice displays!

  17. I’d be very interested in locating the Chipmunk airframe that Rein mentioned if anyone has any further info on its whereabouts.

  18. One additional thought, the aft portion of the Catalina wing was fabric, which will be all but gone, this will likely make the image of the plane look less than normal, but the fuselage, engines, cowlings should still be in place, Many reports of burying or scuttling aircraft have proven to be false, but an afternoon with a good side scan fish finder will confirm what is there, and there will be no doubt that it is an airplane, even 50 year old sunken small planes look like airplanes. On most retrievals, some damage is done as there is little to grab on to with winches, etc. pulling the hull out of the mud requires great force. floating works better, but requires more labor, and done improperly will damage the wing spars to the point of collapse. Much depends on the depth of the lake, Divers from the area can assist in planning,
    The value of the Catalina has been increasing, and a restoration might be possible, the engines and props are available, P and W 1830s I believe (DC3) ,. Plexaglass is a big undertaking as any WW2 stuff will be cloudy, the rest is common stuff, The hard part is finding an indoor facility, its a huge airplane, but I think it might be do able so long as the wings are not torn up to badly.

  19. In the Early 90’s during routine Army operations, I met a gentleman with a chipmunk airframe who would on occasion drag it out of the barn giving the RAF helo pilots kittens. He also talked of several aircraft at the bottom of the lough.

  20. Thanks for that. bjg

  21. Just updating the info with a link as thanks for this fascinating article. Hoping to be able to track down a copy of the book.

    World War Two seaplane found at bottom of Lough Erne
    Article dated: July 4th 2019

  22. Just updating the info with a link as thanks for this fascinating article. Hoping to be able to track down a copy of the book.

    World War Two seaplane found at bottom of Lough Erne
    Article dated: July 4th 2019

  23. Thank you very much. bjg

  24. How many Shorts Sunderland S 25s where stationed at Lough Erne,I worked in Shorts for 40 years and retired in 2014 the slipway was still intact at the airport road main factory for launching the flying boats.

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