Scientists are searching the bottom of Lower Lough Erne – a lake in Northern Ireland. A year ago, you see, another group of researchers spotted a strange shape deep below the surface. So now the race is on to try and solve this intriguing mystery. And to the experts’ astonishment, their sonar technology identifies the object as an airplane wreck – but how did it get there?
The wreck in question was once a Catalina – an American seaplane which could take off and land on water. Squadrons of these planes were used during World War Two to combat German U-boats, which were causing havoc in the Atlantic, targeting merchant and navy vessels. And some of these seaplanes flew from a base called RAF Castle Archdale.
RAF Castle Archdale was situated on the shores of Lough Erne, which is where our researchers discovered the wreck. But just how had a Catalina seaplane ended up at the bottom of this lake? Certainly, it would be no surprise to find one of these planes sunk by enemy activity in the depths of the Atlantic. Yet why would one be lying in 150 feet of water within sight of its own base?
Before we get to the bottom of this mystery, though, let’s find out more about these seaplanes and that air base at Castle Archdale. The Consolidated PBY Catalina was an amphibious plane that was developed and built by the Americans. During World War Two it was flown by the Canadians – who called it the Canso – the British and others.
In its original conception, the Catalina was designed to bomb enemy shipping. But during World War Two it proved its versatility by acting in a variety of roles, including convoy escort, anti-submarine plane, transporter and search and rescue aircraft. In fact, there were even some still in service as late as 2014 as firefighting aircraft with a water-dropping capability.
The U.S. Navy was keen to have a new seaplane because of the growing military power of Japan in the Pacific in the 1930s. Two manufacturers produced prototypes to meet the Navy’s specification, Consolidated Aircraft and Douglas. Although the Douglas machine’s design was recognized as sound, Consolidated had produced the cheaper option at just $90,000 per plane. So the Navy chose the latter.
In November 1941 the plane was dubbed Catalina after California’s Santa Catalina Island. Shortly afterwards, the British ordered 30 of the aircraft. Meanwhile, the Catalina settled into one of its key roles as an anti-submarine aircraft operating in both the Pacific and Atlantic, as well as the Indian Ocean.
A few months after the British had ordered those 30 Catalinas, one of them was to play an important part in the naval conflict between the Allies and the Nazis in the North Atlantic. And it was a plane co-piloted by an American airman from RAF Castle Archdale on the shores of Lough Erne that was involved.
Born in 1915 in Mayview, Missouri, Ensign Leonard B. “Tuck” Smith was that co-pilot. Smith and other Americans were ostensibly in Northern Ireland merely to train British aircrew in operating the Catalinas. However, it seems these U.S. fliers were keen to get a slice of the action and often actually flew on missions, acting as co-pilots.
Technically, the U.S. airmen should not have been flying on active service early in World War Two for one simple reason. At that point, their country was not yet a participant in the conflict. The important flight co-piloted by Smith that we’re describing here occurred on May 26, 1941. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that dragged the U.S. into the war was still six months in the future.
Although nine men of the U.S. Naval Air Service had volunteered to train British airmen in flying the Catalinas at Castle Archdale, they were not supposed to fly on active service. However, the Chief of Naval Operations told them that as the U.S. would soon be at war, they should take every opportunity to learn about active combat duty.
And it seems that the American airmen took this advice to heart, since they certainly did fly on active service from the Castle Archdale seaplane base. Indeed when the nine Americans arrived at Lough Erne, nine of the British co-pilots went on leave and were replaced in the Catalina cockpits by the U.S. fliers.
In his 1974 book Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck author Ludovic Kennedy quoted the words of Ensign Smith. “It was the blind leading the blind,” Smith remembered. “Briggs had had plenty of operational flying but knew little about Catalinas. I knew something about Catalinas but had no experience of operational flying.” Flying Officer Dennis Briggs was the British pilot with whom Smith flew.
The reason that May 1941 Catalina flight with Smith and Briggs at the controls was so important was what the crew spotted while on patrol. It was the German battleship Bismarck, one of the German Navy’s most advanced ships. Although the pilot of the Catalina was the Brit Dennis Briggs, co-pilot Smith had been at the controls when the ship was sighted.
And finding the Gerrman battleship was a crucial event because up until that point, the British hadn’t known where the Bismarck was. Now that they’d pinned down her location, Swordfish planes armed with torpedoes took off from the British Royal Navy ship HMS Ark Royal and launched what proved to be a vital assault on the German vessel.
The Bismarck’s steering was damaged by the torpedoes, giving various British ships the chance to catch her and home in for the kill. On May 27, the British Navy finished off the German battleship and she sank to the bottom. Of her 2,200 crew, only 114 were pulled from the sea. Ensign Smith won the Distinguished Flying Cross for the part he played in the sinking of the Bismarck.
And Smith gained another distinction from his role in the demise of the German battleship. He had become the first American participant in a naval victory during World War Two, albeit before the U.S. was officially involved in the conflict. In fact, some said that he was the first U.S. serviceman to play any direct role in the war.
The Bismarck’s sinking was obviously a highlight for the men who were flying the Catalina seaplanes from RAF Castle Archdale. But in their day-to-day operations they also played a crucial role in protecting British shipping from the depredations of the German U-boats in the North Atlantic. And the proximity of the Atlantic was what made the location of the base strategically essential.
Look at a map and you’ll see that the location of Lough Erne and Castle Archdale are about as far west as you can get while remaining within the United Kingdom. That was a powerful advantage for planes heading westwards across the Atlantic, cutting as many miles as possible off their journey and allowing them to stay in the air for longer.
But there was also what could have been a major disadvantage in the location of RAF Castle Archdale. Again, if you look at a map you’ll see that the air base was in the far west of Northern Ireland, which was and is part of the United Kingdom. But notice the border with the Republic of Ireland as it runs from south to north along the western edge of Northern Ireland.
This border actually cuts off that part of Northern Ireland from the Atlantic Ocean. And the problem was that the Republic of Ireland was neutral throughout World War Two. But for a plane to fly directly from Lough Erne to the Atlantic, it had little choice but to fly through this strip of air space controlled by a neutral power.
The alternative to flying across the Republic’s County Donegal, where the strip of land is located, would have been a 100-mile detour north across Northern Ireland to get to the Atlantic. But like America, even though it was officially neutral, the Irish Republic was prepared to stretch a point when it came to the fight against the Nazis.
The strip of land that the British hoped to fly over from Lough Erne became known as the Donegal Corridor. And this piece of land was of great significance for the operation of the Catalinas and their ability to protect transatlantic shipping. As things were, without the Donegal Corridor, there was an area of the ocean that neither U.S. and Canadian planes from their side of the Atlantic, nor British planes from their position could reach.
This part of the Atlantic, known as The Mid-Atlantic Gap or The Black Pit, was an area of ocean where the German U-boats could go about their deadly business without fear of opposition from the air. So now both the Americans and the British put pressure on the Irish government to allow their planes to cross the Donegal Corridor. This would have the effect of eradicating The Black Pit.
In January 1941 Éamon de Valera, the Irish Republic’s prime minister, agreed to a meeting with Britain’s main man in Dublin, Sir John Maffey. De Valera agreed that the RAF could fly the four miles between Belleek near the border to Ballyshannon on the Republic’s Atlantic coast. At first, RAF planes could only fly across the corridor on rescue missions, but this proviso was soon dropped.
And this agreement with the Irish Republic was to bear welcome fruit for the British. Catalina and Sunderland flying boats operating from Castle Archdale sank nine U-boats and seriously damaged many others. This was regarded as a significant contribution in keeping vital transatlantic supply lines to Britain open during the war.
Now that Allied planes could fly across the Irish Republic’s territory, the Castle Archdale base became a major part of the war effort. Over the course of World War Two some 2,500 military personnel were stationed at the Lough Erne base. The flying boat HQ became a substantial camp with barracks, leisure facilities and canteens, as well as all the equipment needed to maintain and fly seaplanes.
Even today, visitors to what is now the Castle Archdale Country Park can see traces of the intense activity of World War Two. There are still docks in which the seaplanes were moored, and former defensive trenches and munitions dumps are easily visible. However, the country park is now given over to more peaceful pursuits, such as hiking and cycling through the deer park and wildflower meadows.
But when scientists came to map Lough Erne, which is actually two linked lakes, they had no expectation of making the find that they uncovered, even although its wartime history was no secret. It was in 2018 when experts from the Charts Special Interest Group came to survey the lough. And It was then that they spotted an unusual structure roughly 150 feet beneath the surface of the water.
Naturally enough, it occurred to them that this strange anomaly might have a connection to the lough’s World War Two story. Could it, in fact, be the wreck of a downed plane? From the results they had at that point, it was impossible to be sure. So the following year a team armed with sonar equipment surveyed the lough for a second time.
And that second team of experts was in little doubt as to what they’d discovered. It was indeed the wreckage of a downed Catalina seaplane. A July 2019 Northern Ireland Executive press release quoted marine archaeologist Rory McNeary. It read, “Studying the seaplane will be of immense interest to professional and amateur historians alike.”
But the archaeologist went on to add some words of caution, saying, “Given that there is still the possibility of human remains and unexploded ordnance being found at the site, we would ask people to fully recognize its protected status.” And he added, “I have no doubt that there are more exciting underwater archaeological discoveries to be made in Lough Erne.”
And with the knowledge that the newly discovered wreck was that of a Catalina, it was now possible to identify the plane with some certainty. Local historian Joe O’Loughlin told the The Impartial Reporter website in July 2019 that there were in fact records of two planes from RAF Castle Archdale crashing into Lough Erne. One was a Sunderland flying boat, and the other was a Catalina.
So this discovery of a crashed Catalina fits in with the history of the Castle Archdale base. O’Loughlin told The Impartial Reporter, “On the morning of May 7, 1941 Catalina AH 536 returned from a patrol over the Atlantic. As it prepared to come down on Lough Erne it suddenly nosedived into the lake, and sank near Gay Island, which is a short distance from the Castle Archdale base.”
O’Loughlin added, “The pilot was Flight Lieutenant Peter Cecil Thomas; he perished along with the other nine crew members. Only one body was recovered, that of Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Leslie Roy Homes, RAF. He is buried in Newport, Herefordshire. The other nine bodies are still aboard the wreck on the bed of Lough Erne. This is one of two recognised war graves in the lake.”
O’Loughlin also described the aftermath of the accident and the response of the authorities. “As a result of the investigation into the crash, measures were taken to prevent a re-occurrence [sic]. With a calm surface on the lake, it was extremely difficult to judge the distance that the plane was from the surface,” he said.
In fact, those airmen who flew out across the sea to protect transatlantic convoys paid a high price for their courage and determination. Some 320 American and British airmen lost their lives flying on missions from RAF Castle Archdale. And that second war grave, the crashed Sunderland mentioned by O’Loughlin, remains undiscovered at the bottom of Lough Erne.
That other seaplane that’s actually a war grave was a Short Sunderland rather than a Catalina. The Sunderland was developed and built by a British company, Short Brothers, in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. It crashed into Lough Erne in November 1943 while engaged in night landing practice. Three of the crew lost their lives, while five escaped.
One of those who escaped was Flight Lieutenant Tommy Grieg. The Impartial Reporter quoted from a letter he wrote describing his escape. It read, “I slid right into the water followed by the two engineers…I looked around for Doug and the other boys, Johnny and Dave, but could not see them and right up until the dinghy picked us up, I kept expecting to see their heads come popping to the surface.” Those last three names mentioned were the men who died.
So one of the Lough Erne war graves has now been found and the archaeologists hope they will one day discover the second. If you ever happen to visit what is now the Castle Archdale Country Park, pause for a moment on the shore of Lough Erne. Beneath its waters lie some of the men who gave their lives to help end the Nazi nightmare that engulfed Europe and much of the world in the 1940s.