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Consolidated Liberator, Clonmany, Donegal March 1943

The early morning of March 18, 1943 would find the Irish Army garrison at Fort Lenan in County Donegal called out to deal with another foreign military aircraft crew in difficulty on Irish shores.

The previous morning, seven men from the Royal Air Forces 86 Squadron based at Aldergrove outside Belfast boarded their Consolidated Liberator bomber and took off on a long convoy escort mission.  Their assigned mission was to provide anti submarine escort to a transatlantic convoy, SC122.  This convoy, along with another HX229, were being subjected to concentrated attacks by German U-boat packs from the morning of the 16th March.  The report from the Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB) records that they picked up three merchant vessels an hour after take off.  It was not until 17:45 hours before they reported sighting the 27 merchant and 3 escorts of convoy HX229.  They commenced their patrol pattern a little under two hours later and again found convoy HX229 at 21:00.  They do not appear to have sighted convoy SC122 at any time during their patrol.  They stayed near the convoy for an hour before departing with an intention of heading for Benbecula in Scotland

The remainder of their night was taken up with trying achieve landfall.  Owing to a change in wind, the course set for Eagle Island off the west coast of Belmullet in County Mayo found the crew west ward of where they wanted to be at and at 03:50 in the morning, they jettisoned their depth charges to save fuel consumption.  Over the following hour or so, they were able to obtain radio direction bearings from RAF Talbanny, Scotland and Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man.  Two and a half hours after their expected time of arrival back at Aldergrove they finally made landfall but were unable to determine where they were.  They circled around until dawn only to loose one engine due to fuel starvation at 06:15.  A half hour later, dawn revealed 10/10 clouds.  Setting course for Limavady airfield, a second engine cut out.  The Captain then determined to find a suitable place to put down in once the clouds provided visibility. 

The ORB strangely has all this detail entered on the 20 March 1943, however reference numbers for signals recorded with the entry indicate the true dates of 17/18 March.  The ORB doesn't mention the aircraft having landed in neutral Ireland however, and records the landing as being at 'Eglington Marshes at 07:45 hrs".

The aircraft and its crew of seven thus found themselves at approx 07:45 on the morning of 18 March, stranded on Tullagh Strand, 2 km north west of Clonmany, Co. Donegal and some  7 km north east of Fort Leenan.  The aircraft seems to have come to a halt somewhere on the beach along the edge of Crossconnell townland.

The Irish Army and Foreign Affairs records of this event are rather sparse, consisting of only a few pages between a number of files.  The location is variously recorded a Tallaght or Tullan Strands, near Clonmany.

The crew of seven were taken into the care of the Irish military and they recorded the crews names as F/O Hammond, P/O James along with Sergeants Bolton, Hickie, Stewart, Tracy and Bipple.  They reported they were on an air sea rescue (ASR) mission, and had run short on fuel and suffered wireless (radio) failure.  No injuries were reported by the crew. The file is largely hand written and this makes for a difficult to understand file in this instance.

The crew were taken to the border post at Bridgend at 20:00 hours that evening.

The event, rather strangely is mentioned in a number of books post war, though strangely, none mention the fact that the landing occurred in neutral Ireland.

The ‘event’ was formally written up in the official three volume history of the RAF during the war, Royal Air Force 1939-1945, Volume III, The Fight is Won, by Hilary St. G Saunders, HMSO London from 1954.   In a description for the battle of convoys HX229 and SC122, the following was written: A third Liberator was unable to find the convoy and returned to base after a flight of over twenty hours where it made a forced landing without injury to the crew.

The event then is covered in a number of books by Martin Middlebrook on Coastal Command operations, including the 2011 publication, Convoy SC122 & HX229: Climax of the Battle of the Atlantic, March 1943.  This book mentions W H Bryan as a source, but no details of him are included.  The mission narrative in the book reads as:
The extra Liberator was flown by Flying Officer Chas Hammond of 86 Squadron; he had been detailed to provide SC.122’s pre-dusk patrol but had failed to find that convoy and flown well past it. Volunteer signalled what little information it could about SC.122’s whereabouts and the Liberator flew away but, despite a four-hour search, it never found its own convoy. It was for this reason that SC.122 failed to receive its air cover in the last hours of daylight. (Hammond’s crew had further trouble on their homeward flight. They were diverted to Benbecula because of bad weather at Aldergrove but had great difficulty in making a landfall in the dark. After two engines cut out through lack of petrol, a landing ground was finally found at Eglinton near Londonderry and the Liberator landed after having been in the air for twenty hours and thirty minutes. Then the arrival at Eglinton was not reported to their home airfield and, while the exhausted crew slept all through 18 March, six Coastal Command aircraft were searching over the sea for them.)  Middlebrook, Martin. Convoy SC122 & HX229: Climax of the Battle of the Atlantic, March 1943 (p. 313). Pen & Sword Books. Kindle Edition.

The ORB of the RAF's 226 Maintenance Unit records that on 20th April 1943, F/Lt H S Moore returned to their base with the salvaged remains of Liberator FK222.  Despite this, it was not officially struck off charge (SOC) until June 1945.

Liberator FK222 was a Liberator Mk III model, generally equivalent to the US Army Air Forces B-24D bomber but equipped with a number of British items of equipment.

Identification of the crew proved to be difficult due to the vagaries of the contemporary record keeping.  The surviving ORB for 86 Squadron mentions only the movements of officers and barely ever records their serial numbers.  The non commissioned aircrew are recorded on operational missions by rank, name and initials only. On top of this, the Irish Army appear to have either been given incorrect names by the crew or the hand writing being so indecipherable, the names recorded do not match those listed in the Squadron ORB.

Thus, ignoring the names Hickie, Stewart, Tracy and Bipple, the actual crew complement on the flight was:

F/O E C HAMMOND  1st Pilot
P/O R P JAMES         2nd Pilot
F/Sgt A BOLTON        Navigator
Sgt A W Cave            F/C
F/Sgt H J Williams      Wireless Operator/Air gunner
F/Sgt A W THIELE     W
ireless Operator/Air gunner
Sgt W H Bryan       
   Wireless Operator/Air gunner

At the time of writing, it has not been possible to fully identify the three men, Cave, Williams and Bryan.  The reasons for this are combination of the following.  The Irish Army throughout the war time period recorded various levels of detail from foreign airmen.  Sometimes, the researcher is presented with the mans name, rank serial number and even next of kin addresses.  In the case of FK222's crew, the NCO crew members names seem to have become completely garbled, perhaps by accident of hand writing or deliberate confusion by the crew.  Though why only three members names were recorded correct is unknown.  Secondly, the surviving records in the currently available RAF public records including the 86 Squadron ORB and the service file of F/Sgt Thiele, simply don't record the enlisted men's serial numbers or full names.  Like many ORB during the war, only the surname and initials were recorded on the operational flights, the in the monthly summaries, only the postings and movements of the officers were recorded, and even then, even their serial numbers are not recorded.  it is hoped that in the coming years, the AIR81 Casualty file for FK222, if one were raised will finally confirm the men's identities.  By virtue of their being commonwealth personnel, it was possible to identify who Bolton and Thiele were.

The two pilots names however could be confirmed since they were recorded on the Air Ministry Form 1180, report on the crash.

Ernest Charles HAMMOND, then Flying Officer, serial number 117319, had been posted into 86 Squadron from 143 Squadron in early December 1942.  With 143 Squadron, which was at the time acting as a training squadron, he had flown on Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter aircraft.  He flew one air sea rescue mission on the last day of August 1942 and another on September 6th with that unit.  He is then recorded in December 1942 as flying one reconnaissance flight of the Dutch coast in a Beaufighter.   His posting date to 143 Squadron is unclear but it may have been as early mid march 1943, when six pilots, under training, were posted in from 3 PRC in Bournemouth.  They were described as having trained with 31 OTU at Debert, in Nova Scotia.  His name appears on a list of pilots on the manifest of the SS Trojan Star which arrived in Liverpool 8 February 1942, aged 31.  The list is struck through so it is unclear if the men were actually on the sailing.

Martin Middlebrook name's this officer as "Chas Hammond" in his books on convoy SC122 and HX229.

Hammond's time with 86 Squadron continued throughout 1943 and up to August 1944 when he was posted out to 1674 Heavy Conversion Unit. His last patrol on 6 August 1944 included in the crew W/O's Bryan, Williams and Cave.

In 1956, in the London Gazette recorded his cessation of service with the RAF.  It is not known if he had served up to that time.

Air Ministry, 13th November, 1956
The undermentioned relinquish their commissions under the provisions of the Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves Act, 1954, and have been granted permission to retain their rank, as stated, with effect from the dates stated:—

Flight Lieutenants, retaining their rank :

E. C. HAMMOND (117319). 27th Aug. 1956

Besides that above, little else is known about Ernest Charles Hammond at this time.

Ronald Peter James, the second pilot on FK222, was again identified from the Form 1180 for the aircraft.  And luckily, it was possible to contact his family who were able to share details of his wartime service.

Ronald Peter
            JamesRonald, or Peter as he was always known, was born in Swansea.

His sons were able to summarise his service career as as follows:

I have all my father’s log books. Towards the end of his life he annotated these and other documents. Prior to Aldergrove in Febuary 1943 he was at No. 1509 Beam Approach Training Flight, Dyce, Aberdeen on Oxfords. Earlier in 1942 he was at No. 31 General Reconnaissance School, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, on Ansons.
There is no record of a period at an ‘OTU’. No. 86 squadron was at Aldergrove from 7 March to 30 June 1943. According to his log the plane in question on March 17, 1943 was Liberator FK222 with twin Wasp engines which made a forced landing from lack of fuel at the end of Atlantic convoy patrol number 49560
Thus at the time of your incidence he was attached to 86 squadron at Aldergrove. The Liberator squadron was operational over the Atlantic and hence the ‘corridor’ over the ‘south’ was utilised. His log books cover all of their period at Aldergrove and comprise four double pages.
He subsequently, in July 1943, was at No. 3 (C) OTU, Withybush, Pembrokeshire on Wellington IC aircraft. Then by mid September it was No. 303 Flying Training Unit, Talbenny, Pembrokeshire. Then by September 23, 1943 he was attached to No. 621 Squadron with Wellington XIII aircraft and en route to Mombassa, Kenya; Aden and Mogadishu, Somaliland. Much else follows until the end of war !

There is a portrait picture of Dad taken when he was a Flight Lieutenant aged 23 and a flying instructor at 24 Air School, Nigel, Transvaal 1944-45.

Peter's log book records the event, as many men did, with little detail or fanfare.  The red ink was added post war when he was annotating his wartime records.  The flight hours page of the log book records this mission as a grueling eleven hour day flying, with nine and a half hours of night flying.  This latter night time period was when the crew must have known they were in difficulty.

        P James Log book FK222

Peter married in 1948

Alexander BOLTONThe A Bolton recorded by the ORB turned out to be Alexander Bolton, the lack of serial number in the Irish and RAF records making it to difficult to determine who he was.  Shortly after the landing in Clonmany, the 86 Squadron ORB lists the return to the unit of a P/O A Bolton, returning from a course at 1 (Coastal) OTU.  The ORB only records the movements of officers, so the conclusion is that he went to the OTU as a Sergeant or Warrant Officer and received his commission while away from the Squadron.  At that time in April and May 1943, Canadian newspapers carried a small article about a group of RCAF men who had received their Commishions as officers while based in the United Kingdom.  Among them, a navigator named Alexander Bolton from Ardhill, Saskatchewan.

On the 15th and 23rd April, a P/O A Bolton is listed as being posted out of 86 Squadron to 220 Squadron.  The ORB for that unit, records his arrival, but like the 86 Squadron dairy no serial numbers are recorded.  Finally, in May 1943, his posting from 220 Squadron to 422 Squadron is recorded, and finally one can find a serial number in the latter's ORB, namely CAN.J16903, P/O A. Bolton, Nav 'B'.

This posting was to 422 Squadron, then flying Sunderland flying boats, and would continue until October 1944.  At that point he was posted to 4 OTU for non operational duties.  Some five months into his posting with 422 Squadron, Alexander would find himself adrift at sea with his crew, and in desperate need of rescue.

The story of the events of 3 to 6 September 1943 is told on the following video by the son of the other navigator on board.

Alexander was crew member on Sunderland DD861 which took off from Castle Archdale on a Percussion patrol in the early morning of 3 September 1943.  Around eleven hours into the mission the starboard left outer engine suddenly caught fire and dropped off the wing into the sea.  It took with it the wing tip float and part of the wing.  The adjacent inner engine then also failed due the fuel pipes being compromised.  The captain of the aircraft managed to land on the sea and it remained afloat only long enough to allow the crew escape.  Alexander received an injury in the landing, his head smashing off nearby equipment, and this explains his bandaged appearance in the photo above.  After strapping their dinghy's together, the men had to wait three days before they were happened upon by an American Liberator bomber, and later that day, a Sunderland flying boat came to their location.  The pilot of this aircraft, from 228 Squadron was F/Lt H C S Armstrong.  He took the risky decision to land at sea and managed to collect the crew of twelve.  For his efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He and some of his crew  would sadly loose their lives on 31 January 1944, when their Sunderland, serial number DW110 of 228 Squadron, crashed in Co. Donegal.

With the information that Alexander Bolton came from Archill, it was possible to learn that he had been born in January 1917 to parents, Abraham and Ellen.  It appears that the family name was Zaboltney or Zabolotny, spelling varies across records and documents.

He passed away on 12 March 2004 in Vancouver.

Alan Wilkie THIELE 401057 was born in March 1921 to William and Anne Marie Thiele in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.  By virtue of his being a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, his service career is well known and easy to obtain details of via the countries national archives.  He had worked briefly as a clerk and a wool worker before enlisting in December 1940.  He trained in Australia as an Air Gunner and Wireless Operator before embarking for England in the middle of September, 1941.  The new year of 1942 would see him posted to 1 Radio School and then 1 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit before a posting to 407 Squadron on 29 April.  He served there for just under a year, being posted to 86 Squadron in February 1943.  While serving with 407 Squadron, he featured in a press article in many Australian newspapers in July 1942.  An example of these is shown below from the  The Sun, Sydney, NSW on Saturday, 18th July 1942.

Australians As "Demons"
LONDON, Saturday.
Four Australian sergeants belong to the "Demon Squadron," of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Coastal Command, which earned that
nickname because of its mast-high attacks against enemy shipping.
They are Alan Thiele, of Middle Park, Melbourne: Eric Cowled, of South Australia, and Geoffrey White and John Sharpe of Western Australia.
The squadron has sunk 250,000 tons of shipping of the Dutch coast.
Thiele, interviewed by "The Sun" representative said, "The squadron already has a casualty list as long as your arm, but the effectiveness off our twilight attacks is proved by the fact that the Germans usually protect a convoy of three or four merchantmen with four flak-ships, balloons and fighters.
"A Hudson bomber, in which Sharpe and Cowled were members of the crew, recently tore of its bomb-doors and left ifs wireless aerial trailing around the mast of a ship during a low-level attack. Then it made a direct hit and blew up a big tanker."
Sharpe and Cowled, who participated in the thousand-plane raid over Bremen, said, "The squadron reckons a Bomber Command job is just a piece of cake compared with our nightly mast-high attacks."

His time with 86 Squadron ended on 4 April 1944 after 35 operational sorties, on top of his 18 with 407 Squadron, and he was posted to 1674 HCU in August 1944.  While there, he was commissioned as an officer.  By January 1945, he had returned to Australia and spent the remainder of the year being posted to various training establishments.  He spent a short period of temporary duty on Morotai island in the autumn of 1945, before returning to Australia and leaving the service.  He remained on the RAAF Reserve until the 1970's when his name is found in the government gazettes.

He married in 1946 but tragically lost his young wife, Dalene, from illness in 1949.

Alan passed away in July 2003 in the Gold Coast, Australia.

The only information known about W H Bryan was that he is a named contributor to the author Martin Middlebrook in his book, Convoy SC122 & HX229: Climax of the Battle of the Atlantic, March 1943.  It is thus assumed he referred to his pilot as "Chas Hammond".

Compiled by Dennis Burke, 2023.