Monday, September 20, 2010

An Irish Member of "the Few"

As yesterday was "Battle of Britain" day, and given my nerdish passion for aviation, I thought this would be a good opportunity to draw your attention to a somewhat forgotten member of that most noble of groups, "the Few", as the RAF pilots who won the Battle of Britain have become known.

Brendan Finucane (nicknamed "Paddy" by his colleagues - hey, in the 40's even the good guys were racist!) was born in Rathmines in Dublin in 1920. Given his father had been an active Republican during the 1916 Rising, his family would have been less than sympathetic to Britain. However, following emigration to England in 1936, and the development of a passion for flight, Finucane joined the Royal Air Force in 1938 (I would love to know what his father thought!).  

Finucane couldn't have known what lay just round the corner; after all, it was only in 1938 that the RAF was transforming from a "Gentleman's Flying Club" back into a truly operational airforce (indeed, on the BBC last night they interviewed a veteran who had only flown eight hours over the course of 1938. Eight hours! That really puts Britain's post WWI defence policy in perspective). Yet the young Irishman (only 19 when he first flew into combat) soon found himself fighting for the survival of European democracy. A meteoric rise saw him promoted to Wing Commander, and even claim the iconic German ace Adolf Galland as one of his victories - Galland, who was by all accounts an honourable man, thankfully survived.

However, the life of a pilot in the Second World War could be fleeting indeed, and sadly proved so in the case of Finucane. From

After attacking German shipping at Ostend and strafing three German airfields on July 15th, 1942, Finucane’s wing regrouped to return to Hornchurch. As the group passed low-level over the beach at Pointe Du Touquet, Finucane’s Spitfire was hit by machine gun fire that severely damaged his radiator. The engine overheated and quit, and the Spitfire was too low to allow Finucane to bail out. Losing altitude swiftly, Paddy was heard to say; “This is it, Chaps.” Witnesses reported that after a near perfect "splash" the Shamrock-Spit sank like a stone, and despite all efforts, was never to be seen again. At the time of his death, Wing Commander Finucane’s score stood at an amazing 32 victories.
The fact that Ireland's WW2 veterans and heroes have been forgotten is a shame that blights the island, and it is a fault seen in equal measure North and South of the border. In the South, we seemed inclined to ignore these men and women simply because most of them fought in British uniform, while in the North, rememberance of the Second World War has been sidelined by the mythology and fable of the Somme and Ulster's role in the trenches of the Great War.

It is, I feel, high time that Ireland, North and South, remember those men and women who fought not for the Queen, nor the Republic, nor Ireland, nor Britain, but for the simple rights of all peoples to live free from fasicist tyranny. The Battle of Britain was not simply a battle for Britain: it was a fight for the survival of the Europe we now take for granted, and for those ideals that have been Europe's greatest gifts to the world. That Ireland, or at least Irishmen and women, played some part in it should be a source of quiet pride.

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