Offaly and the First Air War: Joe Gleeson

2. D.H.4 bomber, aircrew posing with map (IWM, Q12021)

Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.

2 Capt Gerard Sherlock cg 1915 p 197 (1)
Gerard Sherlock of Killina, Rahan, Tullamore. Offaly’s first pilot and first war victim

Gerard L.E. Sherlock, early aviation pioneer

Captain Gerard L.E. Sherlock of Rahan Lodge, Tullamore, would have the strongest claim for being the first Offaly man to fly an aeroplane. A Boer War veteran, Sherlock obtained his aviator’s certificate (No. 648) on 9 October 1913 at the Vickers School, Brooklands. Sherlock was killed on 25 August 1914, serving with a detachment of the 3rd (King’s Own) Hussars, which had participated in the occupation of German Togoland. He is therefore also likely to be Offaly’s first casualty of the Great War.

Irish Manoeuvres 1913 – Limerick, Offaly and Tipperary – a Banagher connection

The ‘Inter-Divisional and Command Manoeuvres’ of Irish Command took place in September 1913. No. 2 Squadron was commanded by Major Charles James Burke, from Armagh, a Boer War veteran and a Captain with the Royal Irish Rifles. He was known as ‘Pregnant Percy’ on account of his considerable size. Burke’s squadron were based at Montrose in Scotland but transferred to Rathbane House, Limerick for the Irish manoeuvres, which also entailed the use of Birr. Over 2,000 miles were flown in support of the operations. Among No. 2 Squadron’s officers two others were Irish: Lt Francis Fitzgerald Waldron and Captain George William Patrick Dawes, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Air Force Cross (AFC) for his wartime service.

Burke had requested that Irish Command provide volunteers to act as Observers. Captain Cyril Francis de Sales Murphy – related to the Sherlocks of Rahan – was one of the four officers so nominated. Murphy was promoted to Brigadier-General during the war, being awarded the DSO and the Military Cross. He retired to Offaly in the post-war years and died on 7 January 1961 at Banagher.

Captain Dawes’ Maurice Farman ‘Longhorn’ (No. 207) made a hard landing on 2 September 1913 near Sharavogue, in a field adjacent to where the King’s County Polo Club were holding a tournament. It’s likely that this was Offaly’s first air crash, but was one of a number of such incidents during the manoeuvres. Although less successful than expected, the manoeuvres nevertheless provided the military with valuable experience.

Offaly’s Fatalities with the Flying Services

At least six Offaly men were killed serving with the RFC and RAF in World War I. Given that approximately 500 Irish men and women were killed while serving with the Allied flying services, the Offaly casualties would represent just over 1% of fatalities. This would not greatly diverge from the corresponding Offaly casualty figures on land and sea, and would be in line with the county’s percentage of the global Irish-born population (some 6.5 million in the Census years of 1910-1911 in the British Empire and USA).

Of the six men in question – John Corrigan, George Edward ffrench, Richard Patrick Hemphill, Patrick Kelly, Henry Colister Mulock, Ernest William Smith – only three were killed on frontline service. Corrigan was killed in the sinking of the RMS Leinster, Kelly died of pneumonia, and Hemphill died in a flight training accident. Of those killed on the Western Front, all three men – ffrench (a D.H.4 pilot with No. 27 Squadron), Mulock (an R.E.8 pilot with No. 52 Squadron) and Smith (a B.E.2e observer with No. 9 Squadron) – were credited with aerial victories. However, all three men were killed within three months of being posted to France, which would be representative of the short lifespan of aircrew on the Western Front. In addition, Lt Arthur Gordon Ryall (an F.E.2d observer with No. 57 Squadron) was shot down and taken prisoner of war.

The Silver War Badge (SWB) had, since September 1916, been issued to all military personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or illness. There were at least eleven SWB recipients from Co Offaly who’d served with the RFC or RAF, of whom one had the distinction of being awarded it on two separate occasions. Approximately half were awarded to men who had already been invalided or otherwise discharged from army regiments. However, approximately a dozen more Offaly airmen suffered injuries, wounds or disease whilst on active service with the RAF but did not receive the Silver War Badge.

Crime and Punishment in the Flying Services

At least seven Offaly men fell afoul of various army, navy and air force regulations; others were tried by the civil authorities.

Those tried under the King’s Regulations would include Banagher’s Patrick Cleary (‘insubordination’), Edenderry’s Edward Connell (‘absent whilst on active service’) and Peter Dempsey (‘taking part in a disturbance’), Rhode’s John Costelloe (‘desertion’), Tullamore’s Edward Moran (‘desertion’), and Shinrone’s John Whelan (‘improperly using a telephone’).

Birr’s John Clancy was tried by the civil authorities in Southampton for drunkenness. However, quite a number of Offaly airmen had been subject to disciplinary proceedings in the army but had a clean record in the RAF. For example, Kilcormac’s Patrick Slammon enlisted in the Leinster Regiment at 16 years of age in November 1915 but was discharged under Paragraph 392 (ii) of King’s Regulations, i.e. having irregularly enlisted, after his mother wrote to the military authorities. Slammon joined the RAF two years later.

1. B.E.2a of 2 Squadron, similar to those which served in Irish Manoeuvres (IWM, Q54985)

Offaly’s decorated airmen

A number of Offaly airmen were decorated for their wartime service, e.g. Banagher brothers William Hastings de Warrenne (‘Billy’) and Albert Gregory (‘Bertie’) Waller were awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) and Military Cross (MC) respectively. Following success as an observer and failure as a high-altitude pilot, Billy served on low altitude flying training instruction duties, for which the AFC was ultimately awarded. To put this in context only 680 AFCs were awarded in the 1918-1919 period. Billy was one of only about 30 Irishmen to receive this honour.

3. Albert Gregory Waller (Royal Aero Club Trust)

His younger brother Bertie served with No. 18 Squadron, rising to the rank of Flight Commander. The award of his Military Cross was gazetted on 16 September 1918. Bertie’s medal citation referred to ‘fifteen successful bombing raids, twenty-two low bombing and reconnaissance flights and eight successful photographic flights’. By the end of the war Bertie had accounted for at least eleven enemy aircraft. Approximately 65 Military Crosses were awarded to Irish airmen in the war. (A further 30 Irishmen who won the Military Cross on land later served with the RFC and RAF).

Captain Lewen Francis Barrington Weldon, of Clonbeale, Birr, was also awarded the Military Cross, for an unusual combination of service on land and sea. However, previously he had a fighting role at sea and in the air. Weldon commanded the SS Aenne Rickmers, a seized German cargo boat, which became a ‘transport auxiliary’, the HMTA Anne, sailing under the red ensign. It was commissioned in August 1915 as HMS Anne, sailing under the white ensign as one of the Royal Naval Air Service’s seaplane tenders, equipped with two-seat Nieuport VI floatplanes. By April 1916 Weldon vacated his naval aviation role to take charge of HMY Managem, a yacht which delivered spies into Ottoman Turkish territory. Weldon was awarded the Military Cross in 1918.

Naval airman Charles Martin Michael McCarthy of Gorteen served as a Wireless Telegraphist, a Wireless Operator and later as an Observer, mainly on anti-submarine patrols. McCarthy was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in October 1917. Only 250 DSMs were awarded to the RNAS in World War I.

RAF Athlone (Ballylin House, Ferbane, Co Offaly), 1918-1919

Ballylin House lies just one mile north of Ferbane. It was the seat of the King family. The RFC developed a landing ground there in January 1918. Although Irish Command refer to ‘Athlone’ in their reports it was actually Ferbane.

On 27 January 1918 two aircraft were en route to Oranmore from Belfast when they were compelled to land. Major Ernest Grahame Joy managed to land on Athlone racecourse but Captain Francis Charles Beresford Savile crash-landed at Ferbane. Savile’s aircraft was taken by road to the Curragh for repairs.

Twelve officers and 84 men were based at RAF Athlone, making it one of the more substantial operations in Ireland. Nos. 105 and 106 Squadrons served as operational (i.e. not training) squadrons, with Flights stationed at various locations during the 1918-1921 period, e.g. Fermoy, Omagh and Oranmore. As for Birr itself, by June 1918 the RAF had taken charge of the Crinkill landing grounds.

6. RAF Athlone transfers to Birr, January 1919 (The National Archives, Kew)

On 2 January 1919 RAF No.11 (Irish) Group wrote to GHQ, Irish Command to request that the Detached Flight of 106 Squadron, RAF Athlone, be moved to Birr, due to flooding issues and other problems with Ferbane. By late January 1919 the ‘Detached Flight’ transferred to Birr. The RAF stated that accommodation was required for eight officers and fifty-five other ranks, i.e. a somewhat diminished but nevertheless substantial operation at Ferbane, some 12 months on from its initial deployment. The RAF were reliant upon the Army for safe keeping of bombs and ammunition at Crinkill.

3 Plane crash into Crinkle House, Birr 18.4.1919

Crash at Crinkill

On 28 March 1919 an Avro 504J (C5970) piloted by Flt-Lt William Edgerton Taylor, with Quartermaster-Sergeant Thomas William Allen as passenger, was performing an aerobatic manoeuvre when the pilot misjudged the loop. The aircraft clipped some trees then crashed into the roof and upper storey of Crinkill House, Birr. Taylor survived but Allen died of wounds the next day. Allen, of the 1st County of London Yeomanry, was an unauthorised passenger, not a qualified observer.

In late 1919 Nos. 105 and 106 Squadrons were disbanded part of the reorganisation that saw a reconstituted No. 2 Squadron operating in Ireland, seven years on from the original Irish Manoeuvres in Offaly.