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Castle Archdale, Northern Ireland Coastal Command


The battle of the North Atlantic

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Flying Officer Hugh Hirst on the right ( Pilots seat) in "L"/ 240 one of the last operational Stranraer Flying Boats used by the RAF.
This was the firsrt aircraft into Castle Archdale in February 1941.
Hugh Hirst was lost on 7th May 1941 - he and his crew remain "on patrol".

The man on the left is Sgt John Iverach RCAF , a navigator.

Castle Archdale, Northern Ireland, home of 422 and 423 Squadrons.

April 2, 1942, R.C.A.F. overseas headquarters announced the planned addition of two flying-boat squadrons for Coastal Command: #422 to be based at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, with Catalinas and 423 would have Sunderlands and begin training at Oban in Scotland.
The 423 Sqdrn was one of two RCAF squadrons to fly Sunderlands.
423 was formed at Oban on May 18, 1942.
The Squadron moved to Lough Erne (Castle Archdale) on Nov. 3, 1942.
On Aug 3, 1945 the Squadron moved to Bassingbourn to equip with Liberators as a Transport Command Squadron.
RAF Castle Archdale was used during World War II by flying boats of the RAF. A secret agreement with the government of the  Irish free state allowed aircraft to fly from  Lough Erne to the Atlantic, providing vital air cover from one of the most westerly RAF bases in the United Kingdom.
During WW II, RAF Castle Archdale was a major base for flying boats, housing up to 2,500 people. PBY Catalinas and Short Sunderlands flew from Castle Archdale to protect Atlantic shipping from German U-boats. Today’s caravan site sits on the concrete maintenance area where aircraft were serviced, and a museum in the park holds exhibits from the WWII period.
RCAF 422 and 423 (General Reconnaissance) Squadrons, working under Coastal Command in Europe, and flying out of England, Ireland, and Scotland, flew a total of 74 RAF Sunderland Mk.IIs and IIIs, as did numerous Canadians flying in RAF squadrons. There are seven recorded incidents of RCAF squadron Sunderlands having sunk German U-boats. Three are believed to have been lost while in action against U-boats, and throughout the war, 422 Squadron alone lost 11 Aircraft and 52 aircrew while flying 1116 operational missions, while 423 Squadron lost 6 Aircraft and 49 aircrew while flying 1392 operational missions.
Even today in Northern Ireland, many are the wrecks and remnants of some of the aircraft that came to grief during 1941 to 1945, and sadly too are the neat well-kept graves of those who fell.

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.

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 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.

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, 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.

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.

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.


Sunderlands on the apron at castle Archdale as construction work goes on around them.
There is a story that one of these earth movers damaged a Sunderland and the Squadron commander billed the contractor for the repairs !

The building of the base and its development produced many jobs for local building firms and contractors , when you stand on the apron today you can easuily see the sections it was laid in and the levelling marks , the hardcore itself to support the concrete must have been a job in itself.


Parade at Castle Archdale when the Squadron crest was handed over to 423 Squadron (RCAF).

At Lough Erne, 423 Squadron joined a list of squadrons which would make this station one of the foremost bases for anti-submarine operations in the North Atlantic. Established in January 1941, after a secret agreement with the Irish government allowed overflying Donegal Bay, Castle Archdale hosted a total of five RAF and two RCAF squadrons.

Castle Archdale did not offer the regal accommodations suggested by its grand name. At times, the station was so overcrowded that conditions were almost unbearable. Many lived in a swampy part of the camp known as "skunk hollow." There, Nissen huts, poorly built structures designed as temporary accommodations, were cold and offered few creature comforts. One such hut sported a sign reflecting the feelings of the occupants:


Canadian airmen once boycotted the mess to protest the poor and unchanging diet and won their case (much to the surprise and delight of their RAF brethren). If one had the time and the opportunity, large meals of steak and fresh eggs were available in town from supplies spirited across the Irish border. Later, food packets from Canada would improve the fare for all, including the rats, whose numbers and bodily proportions were the stuff of legend. They forced their way into official squadron history when they ruined one particular special occasion. The Operations Record Book for 14 September 1943 reads:

"Rats spoiled the Grapes Draw. Pounds and pounds of money were collected for the draw but a visit of rats upset the plan and the money had to be refunded. The grapes which the rats missed are on sale for 2/6 per pound." 

Another account says:

"The station at Castle Archdale was infested with rats. Walking from your Nissen Hut to the Mess at night you would pick them up in the beam of your torch.

One evening we were all in bed reading when one of the boys quietly called the attention of the rest of the hut to a remarkable scene being played out on the floor. As part of the general rationing scheme, one meal a week was comprised of "hard tack" biscuits. These were never eaten, as far as I know, but some had found their way into our hut and one at this moment was being claimed by a more suitable recipient, namely one of the many rats. It had come in through a small crack. After a time it gave up the struggle and retired through the hole. A short while later, we were intrigued to observe its return with an accomplice and we watched, fascinated, while one of the rats positioned the biscuit vertically on its end and the other pulled it through the crack. We considered it a very fitting end for something which was otherwise unsuitable for human consumption."

F/L F.H.C. Reinke’s Diary:

Excerpts F/L F.H.C. Reinke’s Diary. Department of National Defence, Directorate of History and Heritage, 87/241.

9 Oct /44, Monday, Castle Archdale.

Just for a change, here we are over in north-west Ireland, on Lough Ewe, about 20 miles from the west coast. Sunderlands and Catalinas are the vehicles here.

On Saturday I slept in. Ultimately I walked around the station after visiting the maintenance and hangar site where I visited some squadron officers and viewed the flock of huge, white Sunderlands crowding the pavement, on their little trucks. Their size is almost overwhelming, close-up, on land, even after Lancs and Hallys. The fin is as high as a house.

The station is widely dispersed about the hill on which the castle stands dominantly. While S.H.Q. and a few officers are located in the castle, everything else is in nissen huts.

The vegetation everywhere is almost tropical in its dense luxuriousness. Trees are covered with thick vines on their trunks, green with moss, while the rhododendrons and other shrubbery forms a dense undergrowth. The dampness produces tremendous ferns.

From the 100-foot hill on which the castle stands (It’s really just a big, square, three-storey stone house), one looks across the lake at tiers of haze-covered hills in the distance, with a jagged, 1100-foot promontory standing out threateningly on the west side. The lake is lined with trees, just now turning various warm russet shades, but no real reds, presumably because of the lack of sharp frost. Dotting the water are innumerable islands, matted with trees and mostly uninhabited. In the sheltered bays and channels near the main point are dozens of white aircraft moored, looking like strange ea birds with their white undersides and sea-blue tops. From the air they look like so many tiny gnats. The whole scene is something that only a color camera could do justice to.

11 Oct./44, Wednesday, Castle Archdale.

The remoteness from any large centre is the one thing which gets the lads down here—aside from the lack of excitement in their work. They invariably say they’d sooner be in Bomber Command, despite the much increased hazards there. A tour here means 800 hours or 18 months of pretty uneventful flying. Some complete a tour without seeing a submarine. The big thrill in their job apparently is to come upon a big convoy as they carry out a patrol far over the Atlantic.

Belfast and Dublin are the only large centres in Ireland, and a trip to England or Scotland is long and tedious.

14 Oct./44, Saturday, Castle Archdale.

It was Friday the Thirteenth yesterday but proved more than usually fortunate – for me, at least.
Up at six again; breakfast with two outgoing and one incoming crews at 6.30 in “ration stores”. We had one egg, chips (french fried potatoes), tea, bread butter and jam. After briefing in the ops room, the crew collected their gear, Mae Wests, headsets and so forth, and went to the pier to take a dinghy out to L-Love, of 423. It was full and threatening looking. The met. [Meteorological Service] man had been rather pessimistic and cited three or four alternate diversion points in case the weather closed in entirely here.

Until we got well out into Donegal Bay it was quite rough going. Coming out of low light cloud would produce a noticeable bump. Then it smoothed down, without clearing. We proceeded at a norm of roughly 1,000 feet for an hour and a half, then got on course. After nearly another hour, and after five to ten minutes of quite rough going (I would not have liked being in the rear turret), we received instructions to cancel the operation and proceed to land at Oban, Scotland. It became quite cold before we made base. I wore pajama pants, plus two heavy sweaters, with sleeves, under my battle dress. Before we got orders to divert, the skipper and one AG sgt. [air gunner sergeant] had already peeled the potatoes down in the galley, for lunch. Mid-morning tea and cookies were timely.

The entire crew changes on one-hour watches. This is especially necessary for the nose-gunner, who occupies the coldest spot in the boat. Navigator alone gets no relief. In fact, he has no let-up whatever in his labours, plotting course, checking drift, taking fixes, logging everything on a split-second basis. He’s as busy as a CP wire-editor, merely grabbing a sandwich and cup of tea at his desk.

As we approached Oban, visibility improved and we had a fine view of some of the bleak and barren islands along the route, most bearing little but grass and some kind of fern turned brown. In flat, slightly sheltered saucers in the centre of some of these rugged islands were stone-walled fields and little white-washed stone farm houses and buildings. Certainly an isolated and hard-won way of life.

The hills became higher and more craggy towards Oban which we finally discovered very neatly tucked in at the foot of one long hill around a sheltered bay. We moored on this bay. Oban had previously been an operational site but now is a training station (boats) and is used by BOAC.

Lough Erne:

10/9/1942. Lerwick  422 L7267    Crashed on Lough Erne.

4/10/1942. Sunderland 201 W4001. Struck rock on Lough Erne.

20/12/1942. Catalina FP127. Foundered in the Irish Sea.

10/1/1943 Sunderland 228. W 3995. Ran aground Lough Erne.

10/5/1943  Catalina  131 – FP194. Crashed on Lough Erne.

12/5/1943.Sunderland W6075 330 Sq. Crashed on Lough Neagh .

26/5/1943. Catalina 131 W 8414. Crashed on Lough Erne.

30/6/1943. Sunderland 201 DD857. Crashed on Lough Erne.

23/10/1943. Sunderland 423, DD858. Hull split on landing Lough Neagh.

8/11/1943 Catalina 131 W8408 Ran aground on Lough Erne.

10/7/1943  Catalina FP 155 210Sq. crashed into sea off the north Donegal coast. Crew rescued by Br. Navy boat.

9/1/1944. Catalina 131 FP193 Crashed on Lough Erne.

3/3/1944 Catalina 131. AM216. Struck Buoy.    Lough Erne.

4/3/1944 Martinet 131 HP 980. Taxied into truck at St. Angelo.

12/3/1944 Sunderland 423. W6028. Ditched at sea –Sunk by Br. Navy.

27/6/1944 Mosquito  CC5D HJ 887. Engine failed take off St. Angelo.

16/8/1944. Catalina 131 FP203 Damaged Landing on Lough Erne.

20/8/1944. Catalina 131  Z2152. Damaged Landing Lough Erne.

4/12/1944 Sunderland 423. DV978. Ran aground Lough Erne.

17/12/1944 Sunderland 423. ML883. Sank at Moorings Calshot.

17/12/1944 Martinet 131 HP 370. Crashed Cassie Bawn, Mullaghmore.

12/4/1945. Martinet 131 HP351. Engine Fire . St. Angelo.


January 1945 Flying Fortress B17. Ditched Donegal bay.

January 1945 Liberator. B24. Ditched near Green castle.

January 1945. Flying Fortress force landed at Sievetraguh, Killybegs.


All Squadrons that were based at Castle Archdale:
240 Squadron 1941-42
209 " 1941.
201 " 1941-1944 and back late 1944-45.
228 " 1942 -43.
422 " 1942 -43. ( Most of their operational flying still done from LE).
423 " 1942 -45.
202 " 1944 -45.

131(c) O.T.U. Killadeas 1942-45.


Z/209 which loacted the Bismarck - she would later disappear with the loss of her crew.


Denis Briggs , commander of the aircraft which located the disabled Bismarck some 400 miles west of France.

Tracking Germany's terror of the sea
An RAF navigator recalls his part in the Allies' destruction of the mighty enemy battleship Bismarck, Randy Boswell reports.
The Ottawa Citizen
Wed Nov 10  2004
Page: B3
Section: City
Byline: Randy Boswell
Source: The Ottawa Citizen ( Story used with permission)

When the bugle's blast fades and the silence sets in during tomorrow's Remembrance Day ceremony, one Canadian veteran's thoughts are sure to turn to his key role in the dramatic chase and sinking of Bismarck, the mighty German warship that terrorized Allied naval forces before she went down in flames on May 27, 1941.

Alberta-born Gaynor Williams, 83, a retired engineer now living in Ottawa, was a 19-year-old navigator aboard a Royal Air Force float plane when he and his fellow crewmen caught sight of the "pride of the German fleet" southwest of Ireland and shadowed it for five nerve-wracking hours.

Mr. Williams' story is little known in this country, chiefly because he was the lone Canadian in an RAF aircraft at the centre of an otherwise wholly British assault on the German super-ship.

Bismarck had already destroyed the flagship of Britain's navy, HMS Hood, in a North Atlantic showdown that sent a wave of grief and pessimism across Britain and Canada. More than 1,400 sailors perished in the sinking, and no event seemed a greater foreshadowing of defeat than the tragic loss of Hood.

German submarines had already been picking off Allied warships and merchant vessels almost at will, and Nazi supremacy over the North America-to-Europe sea lanes seemed irreversible with the arrival of the "unsinkable" Bismarck.

But with the German ship far from port after its successful duel with Hood, Britain launched an all-out pursuit. Waves of aircraft scanned the waters south of Iceland and a pack of British warships sped blindly to sea in search of Bismarck, the deadliest and most technologically advanced vessel of the era.

"The Bismarck had disappeared after it sank the Hood, and they didn't know what it was going to do next," Mr. Williams told CanWest News Service yesterday.

Several convoys -- including 20,000 troops -- were en route to Britain with Bismarck lurking in unknown waters, he said.

Mr. Williams, a rookie navigator on a Catalina "flying boat" assigned to the search, recalls how a sister plane first detected Bismarck's presence, 1,200 kilometres off the Irish coast.

But the ship was soon lost again in stormy seas, and Mr. Williams was ordered to plot a course most likely to bring his plane -- Catalina M-240 -- over top of Bismarck.

He chose a northerly route and passed a note to the pilot, who was struggling to steer the plane through dark clouds, strong winds and heavy rain.

"After about 20 minutes, the pilot motioned for me to come forward," Mr. Williams says in a written account of the incident. "'We should have kept flying south', he shouted above the roar of the motors. 'Give me a new course.'

"I had just started to calculate a new heading when I heard

a shout from the rear of the Catalina -- 'The Bismarck! The Bismarck!' Pandemonium broke out. The second pilot slapped me on the back as if I had just scored the winning goal in a hockey game."

For five hours, M-240 kept the German ship in view, dangerously circling within reach of its massive guns and dodging in and out of cloud cover.

"I saw the massive shape of a battleship, with the unmistakable yacht-like bow of the Bismarck," Mr. Williams recalls. "As I looked, the ship came alive with red flashes, and the air around us filled with dozens of black puffs of exploding shells."

Eventually, after relaying Bismarck's position to the approaching pack of British battleships, Mr. Williams' plane was forced to return to its base in Northern Ireland, nursing damage from the German ship's attacks.

But by then, Bismarck was doomed. Its rudder was ruined by a torpedo strike from a Swordfish aircraft, and the ship was circling helplessly as the British vessels closed in for the kill.

"We woke up in the morning to the great news that the Bismarck had been sunk," Mr. Williams says. He remembers the "huge uplift" it gave to Britain and her allies, an event still seen by some historians as the turning point of the war.

Barely 100 of Bismarck's 2,200 crewmen survived the sinking. And Mr. Williams says he'll think of them, too, when he pauses to remember tomorrow morning.

"It's a sad story, because everything about war is sad," he says. "I've got some sympathy for all of those young sailors, men I probably would have been just as happy to play tennis with if I'd known them in peacetime."


Gaynor Williams of 240 Squadron.

When the aircraft went off to Iceland he thought his chance of finding Bismarck went with them. Gaynor trailed the Bismrck for several hours after Briggs headed for home, having been directed towrds her by Briggs.
His rigger Cyril Newtown can say that he is the only member of the RAF who attempted to cook steak while being under fire by an enemy battleship.

Special thanks to:
 James Stewart     N.Ireland 
Joe O'Loughlin     N.Ireland
    Breege Mc Cusker  N.Ireland 
John Newall         Canada
                               Richard Lebek  Canada ( crew member U-672)
Norman Lebek   Canada
 Roland Berr      Germany
                                Harry Lorkin   U.K. (RAF 226 Squadron)          
     John Rogers          UK            
                                    N.Jack Logan       Canada   (RCAF 422 Squadron)
              Les and Maureen Ingram  Scotland
   Bill Barber            Canada    
  Robert Walsh        N.Ireland  
                         Capt. Jerry Mason USN (ret.)  Canada         
             Blake Wimperis      Canada              
                                   Robert Quirk     Canada                                          
                                    Norm Muffitt          Canada                                      
                         Lt/Col S. Beaton     Canada  (Camp Borden)
       Stephanie Pinder     USA            
    Alec (Johnny) Johnston    N.Z.
                 Stephen Kerr           N.Ireland             
                                   Reg Firby               Canada (RCAF 423 Squadron)
         Maurice Duffill         Australia     
                   John Hartshorn              UK                     
                                  Don Macfie      Canada ( RCAF 422/423 Squadron)
                               Frank Cauley   Canada  ( RCAF 422 Squadron)
                                Harold O'Brien  Canada  ( RCAF 423 Squadron)
                                   James Newall          UK        ( RAF 423 Squadron)
      Ian Meadows                    UK
                     Bill Baker                 Canada               
John Taylor      Canada
            Gordon Burke              Canada
          Carol Whittle                    U.K.

Last Update on Dec 07 , 2010