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A Landmark Book: Ireland’s Aviator Heroes of World War II by John Hewitt

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Article by Writing IE Admin © 18 April 2016 John Hewitt .
Posted in the Magazine ( · General Interest · Non-Fiction ).

I was born in Portadown in the County of Armagh in August 1945 not long after the war had ended both in Europe and Japan. From the age of five I have always had a great interest in aviation. When I was 10 years old I would travel by bus or cycle over to Sydenham and watch the brand new Royal Air Force and Canadian Pacific Airways Bristol Britannia’s rolling out of the Shorts hangar. After school I would cycle up to Nutts Corner to watch the British European Airways Dakota’s taking off and landing. Never thinking that in 10 years time I would be working for the same company.

At the age of 13 I joined 1136 Squadron, Air Training Corps and on leaving school at the age of 15 I applied to join the Royal Air Force and was offered the position of Radar Engineer. Sadly at that particular time my mother was very ill, and because of this I decided not to go.

I have been a member of the Ulster Aviation Society for many years where I played a prominent part in setting up their Aviation Museum at the American 2nd World War Base at Langford Lodge in County Antrim. I also played a major part in the recovery and restoration of a 2nd World War Grumman Wildcat American fighter from Portmore Lough on 30th April 1984.

I was honoured to be asked to become a member of the Aircrew Association and was a member of Royal Air Forces Association and a member of the American 364th Fighter Group Association.

In August 1969 I applied to British Airways for the position of Aircraft Engineer and was accepted. I spent the next very happy 33 years with the company at the Belfast International Airport. I worked on all of their types of aircraft from the Comet to the Concorde. I took early retirement from the company in 2000.

I have spent over half my life, (40 years) writing my stories, meeting and interviewing RAF aircrew from both North and South of the border who had served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I published Volume 1 of Ireland’s Aviator Heroes of World War II in 2004 and it was sold out in 6 months and it also won 3rd prize in the all Ireland “Celebrating Our Local History” book competition in 2004.

I am happy to say that I carried on visiting these ‘Aviation Heroes’ up until the present day and I am proud to have produced drafts of Vol III, IV, V, & VI on their behalf. Sadly most of my Aviator Heroes have now passed away into the ‘Big Hangar’ in the sky, but their stories live on in Volume II, published this week by Mercier Press.

It has been an honour for me to have been able to meet these aviator heroes of World War II and make so many wonderful friends. These stories tell in human terms the dedication, courage, and self sacrifice these men showed fighting for their country. I feel that we owe it to each and every one of them; many of who lost their lives at such an early age and anyone reading this book can possibly doubt their heroism. Some of them failed to return from their first operation; some went on to complete three tours of operations only to be killed during the last days of the war.

I believe sincerely that the historical content of these books will be a record for the men who fought so courageously for our country, and a record for their children, grandchildren, and the wider public in years to come.

Two of these men, Wing Commander Kenneth MacKenzie DFC, AFC, AE, and Squadron Leader Noel Henry Corry DFC AE became two of my closest and dearest friends.

Sadly in his 90’s Ken had a series of strokes and spent his last couple of years in a nursing home Just before Ken died he rang me from the nursing home in Lutterworth and asked me to do him two favours. When he died, he asked if I would bring his ashes back home and sprinkle them on Lower Lough Erne, just opposite his home near Portora Royal School. This I was honoured to do and on that afternoon I arranged a fly past of a RAF Harrier to fly low over the tiny cruiser.. He also asked me to find a home for his medals and log books in N. Ireland, and these can now be seen in a beautiful glass case in the Public Record Office in Belfast.

On the day of his funeral at Lutterworth we had arranged a fly past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flights Hawker Hurricane, this was the aircraft Ken flew during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. An RAF Honour Guard formed up to receive his coffin at 11am. At 5 minutes to eleven I heard the unmistakable sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine in the distance. All the guests including my wife Pat and myself stood outside and we could hear folk whispering, “no crying or tears”. The Hurricane arrived spot on time at 11am and completed 5 low fly pasts and on the six and last one he pulled the stick hard back and the Hurricane climbed high in the sky waving its wings saying goodbye old friend Well I can tell you all there was not a dry eye outside the crematorium including yours truly. Later that year I was asked by his school Methody to give talk about Wing Commander Mackenzie on Armistice Day

Squadron Leader Noel Henry was one of the nicest, most generous person I had ever met. Both Noel and Ken joined the RAFVR on the same day in early 1939. Noel flew fighters in the Battle of Britain and later Lancasters with bomber command. On one particular weekend the Battle of Britain Lancaster came into RAF Aldergrove and was to remain overnight, so I decided to play a prank on Noel who hadn’t seen a Lancaster up close since he left the RAF in 1945. I arranged with the Commanding Officer of RAF Aldergrove who knew Noel very well to bring him into the hangar were the great bomber was.

As we approached the large hangar, which was all closed up, I told Noel I was going to sign in and for him to go on through the whicker door and I would follow and he would see the small aircraft we were repairing inside. Noel looked in and then up, didn’t move for about a minute or two and turned to face me with great tears in his eyes, saying, “John Hewitt, you have made an old man very happy”. Noel walked round the outside of the Lancaster on his own and then he made his way inside and came out 30 minutes later. He said nothing for a moment and then with the same tears in his eye said, “Nothing has changed and still the same smell in side, and yes I could fly her for you today. A day to remember and one I shall never forget.

In September 1993 I decided to have a reunion at the Ulster Flying Club in Newtownards of the surviving Ulster Battle of Britain Pilots, this was a difficult project as they lived as far a field as Cyprus and some were not in the best of health, but they all agreed to come. I wrote to the Queen mother and told her about the project and invited her to come along. She was unable to come but sent her ADC Group Captain Roger Wedge who was the SRAFONI at that time. He read out a letter from Her Majesty to the Battle of Britain pilots, sending her best wishes to them all and presented me with the letter. The letter is my pride and joy and now hangs on my study wall.

We must not forget the fact that Hitler planned to invade ‘Ireland’ North and South and it was only for the heroism of these aircrews from North an South of the border who fought so bravely for the freedom we enjoy today. They fought during the Battle of Britain from July 10th until October 31st, 1940. They came from Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands and denied Hitler his invasion and kept Ireland safe. Some were only seventeen years of age.

“Old airmen never die. They don’t even fade away” I hope my books preserve that memory and never let it fade.

© John Hewitt

About ‘Ireland’s Aviator Heroes of World War II’

Ireland’s Aviator Heroes of World War II celebrates Irish aviators who served in the Royal Air Force during the dark days of the Second World War. Individual stories have been painstakingly and extensively researched through interviews with the surviving subjects and their families, and using the original log books and service records of the men. The stories contain details of the individuals’ participation in important wartime campaigns, although others are limited to war service records due to a lack of surviving information. Above all this book celebrates the great courage and sacrifice demonstrated by these Irishmen during their contribution to the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany, her western allies and Japan. Many of the men included paid the ultimate price for their participation.

This book also beautifully illustrated with many original and previously unpublished photographs, many taken by the subjects themselves.

Ireland’s Aviator Heroes of World War II is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!