Dark days on the lough

Vol. 9 No. 2 - 2009

Dark days on the lough

by Brian Cassells

Few today realise the contribution Lough Neagh made to the war effort during those dark days of the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. Seventy years after the outbreak of war it is important to record those memories for posterity, for all too soon those recollections will fade and be no more.

Apart from having to ensure no light escaped from their windows at night in case this attracted enemy aircraft, those who lived around the shores were never far away from the drone of aircraft. No fewer than seven airfields were located around the lough shore: Aldergrove, Nutt’s Corner, Langford Lodge, Toome, Ardboe or as it was perhaps better known Clonoe, Maghaberry and Long Kesh. Lough Erne is well known for stories of water-borne aircraft locating battle-ships in the North Atlantic; arguably Lough Neagh played an even greater role, certainly in the area of training and practice.

Conscription was never mandatory here and it has been suggested recruitment levels in the early part of the war years were an embarrassment to the authorities. As the war progressed, so too did the local war machine, indeed to such an extent that it attracted the attention of the German Luftwaffe to Belfast on four separate occasions. Belfast was notable for ship building, aircraft construction and the manufacture of armaments.

First bombing raids

Despite rationing, the local people fared well for food, largely due to the rural agricultural economy, and life in the early war years was fairly laid back. This all came to an abrupt end when the first bombing raid struck fear into the hearts of the capital city. Throughout the war years, over one thousand people were killed in Belfast and over half of the housing stock was destroyed displacing over one hundred thousand inhabitants, all within twenty miles of Lough Neagh.

Today relics still remain of the airfields; those drab concrete, asbestos-roofed buildings with metal window frames are testament to the huge building task that was undertaken and completed in such a short space of time. The remains of runways, buildings and control towers can still be seen; many of the smaller buildings have found a new agricultural use while the larger areas are popular with manufacturers of concrete products, where their products can be left to dry and harden.

One control tower at Ardboe airfield enjoys a new life today as a dwelling house; I wonder do the occupants ever dream of the buzz and excitement of screens being watched, crackling radio messages and nervous moments while aircraft were guided to a safe landing. Some of the hangars survive, now enjoying a new life supporting local industry and creating much needed rural employment. Compulsory land acquisition was an emotive issue; indeed today it still lurks in the mind recesses of local land owners. Farmers felt they were not adequately compensated for the farm land commandeered; it is understandable how individuals whose family had settled in the area for generations could feel cheated.

Torpedo testing platform
Torpedo testing platform

Other than the torpedo testing platform in Antrim bay, which was operated by the Navy, nothing in the water that I know of still survives. The torpedo platform, now a sanctuary for nesting terns, stands gaunt above the dark waters, only a shadow of past days when it supported two-storey buildings at one end and three-storey at the other. Service launches sailed to and fro from Antrim conveying the deadly arsenal from the torpedo factory to the test site. The structure is still visible from the Lough shore park, looking west from the mouth of the river, the Six Mile Water. Gone too are the remnants of the torpedo trap which snared the missiles, ensuring their deadly explosives were contained. Barges conveyed ammunition from the port of Coleraine to Shane’s Castle, where they were stored in bunkers before being dispersed to various bases in the surrounding area.

The torpedo platform tender
The torpedo platform tender

The McGarry family, based at Ardmore boatyard near Crumlin, laid and serviced the first targets on the lough as far back as 1929. The 1930s were leisurely days when great lumbering planes flew low over the water while the gunner clad in his goggled leather helmet leaned out the side to eye up the target: no pressure during the 1930s, the enterprise regarded by many in the RAF as an exciting social activity to be discussed later in the mess. How that was to change when the build-up of Hitler’s war machine became evident; all too soon Lough Neagh became one of the most important air gunnery and bombing schools in the war effort.

Most of the bombs were of the practice type that exploded with a soft muffled sound though live ammunition was also tested, evidenced by the many broken windows in buildings close to the shore line. The practice area off the eastern shoreline was marked by buoys and was approximately fifteen miles long by five wide; a contentious area to the local fishermen who depended on the lough for their livelihood, the area was patrolled by fast RAF Patrol boats to ensure the locals respected the restricted zone.

Once when the McGarry family were salvaging a Sunderland flying boat near Ram’s Island, the inquisitive pilot of a Tiger Moth descended to take a closer look at the proceedings. The water was mirror-like, the weather balmy and calm; the pilot misjudged his height and caught the surface. The story ends well: the pilot was picked up and the plane salvaged and towed to shore. Many of the locals found employment in support services offered to the military; some even worked as divers. Recently on a visit to Ardmore boat yard I discovered a diving suit complete with bell helmet on a shelf in one of the sheds, a reminder of the artefacts that remain today and that should be preserved for future generations.

A diver on Lough Neagh

Sadly, the majority of accidents involving aircraft didn’t end so providentially; most involved loss of life, an unknown fact that is not recorded or marked today. Locals were involved in the recovery of bodies, unrecorded heroes who risked their lives so that bodies could be returned to loved ones allowing them to grieve and lay them to rest in the land of their birth.

Between Ram’s Island and Sandy Bay flying boats utilised the sheltered waters to bring supplies from the United States direct to the base at Langford Lodge. During 1944 eleven of the large lumbering Coronado seaplanes landed in one day, a fact Belfast International Airport could not match today! This was of course the build up to the D day landings. Langford Lodge like Clonoe and Toome was largely populated by the American and Canadian forces.

Portmore Lough is a small virtually circular lake that lies close to Lower Ballinderry, a short distance from Lough Neagh. On Christmas Eve in 1944 a young pilot with the Fleet Air Arm took off from Long Kesh airfield in a single seater “Wildcat” for a practice flight that was to end up as a very lucky escape. Lieutenant Peter Lock was based on the aircraft carrier “Searcher” and while the aircraft were being serviced at Long Kesh the pilots enjoyed a ‘rest’ while the ship was docked in Belfast for a period of weeks. During their ‘rest’ they were encouraged by their Commanding Officer to fly practice sorties practising dive-bombing over water. Two planes were on this particular run towards Lough Neagh and just after take off, the second pilot, a chap called Jones, saw flames coming from the engine of his friend’s aircraft. Unknown to the unfortunate pilot, the mechanic who had been working on the plane had forgotten to attach a firing line when he replaced the spark plug, hence fuel was leaking and had exploded causing major damage to both engine and aircraft; indeed increasing the throttle just pumped more fuel on to the flames.

Too low to bail out

At eight hundred feet with the wheels up, it was too low to bale out as the parachute might not have opened; the only alternative was to cut the engine and try to glide towards the lough. Fortunately the pilot managed to reach Portmore Lough and the plane belly-flopped onto the water, the impact temporarily knocking him unconscious. Eventually Lock came round and scrambled on to the fuselage; he was a non-swimmer and with the water freezing cold he decided to stay put until rescued. A number of locals who had witnessed the incident rowed out in a small boat rescuing the intrepid flyer; it is fair to say he was pretty lucky to have Christmas dinner that year!

Another twist to the story is the rescue of the plane from Portmore Lough. After the crash it lay submerged in the shallow water for nigh on forty years when it was rescued by the Ulster Aviation Society and restored. For a number of years it was an exhibit at Langford Lodge museum; sadly the museum has closed and this lucky exhibit awaits a new venue when once again the public will be given the opportunity to view the aeroplane with the second life.

Halifax Bomber
Newspaper report and photograph of crashed Halifax bomber
At rest again

Today the lough is at rest again. Thankfully the awfulness of war-time activity has ended, fishing boats, sand traders and leisure craft ply the waters now and Lough Neagh Rescue are the guardians of the lough; but the waters still hold secrets that perhaps will never be revealed.