A group of Doonbeg residents organised a special commemoration ceremony recently for the 80th anniversary of the crash landing of an RAF flying boat in Doughmore Bay. Dan Danaher chronicles this fascinating tale involving the tragic death of nine airmen, the heroic rescue of two colleagues, an eye witness account of the wreckage, salvaged items such as a 1940 aircraft tool kit box, and relatives’ accounts of the extraordinary bravery of those who risked their own lives to help save the lives of others.
HISTORY hung heavily in the Doonbeg air recently as Colm Gowran commemorated the loss of nine airmen following a tragic crash-landing 80 years ago.
A hush descended on the crowd gathered on Doughmore Beach during a minute silence after the Ennis Brass Band member played “The Last Post” on his trumpet, marking the end of a soldier’s day.
This signalled the finale of a poignant ceremony organised by a local committee remembering the 11 airmen involved in Short’s Royal Air Force Sunderland Mk-II flying boat W3988 crash in Doughmore Bay on December 3, 1941.
Only two of the airmen survived the plane crash – the pilot, Flight Lieutenant James Grant Fleming and Sergeant James Cannell Masterson thanks to the heroic efforts of locals.
The remaining nine occupants were drowned. The aircraft was later washed ashore on the strand in a wrecked condition.
This tragedy is significant for a number of historical reasons. There were 17 crash and forced landings in Clare during the Emergency from 1939 to 1945.
However, the Doughmore plane crash is the only incident that resulted in loss of life involving crew members.
Four locals, Simon McCarthy, (34), carpenter, Michael John Stack, (42), labourer, Michael Stack Junior, (21), labourer and Patrick Shanahan, (34) farmer were awarded parchments by the British Royal Humane Society (RHS) for their efforts in helping to save the lives of RAF airmen.
When the flying boat hit a submerged rock, the impact ripped off its huge Pegasus Mark XVIII engine. Embedded on Doughmore rocks, it is now covered in marine growth, but is still partially visible at low spring tide 80 years later.
Parts of the Pluto plane are still in houses throughout the Doonbeg parish including a 1940 tool kit box that was salvaged from the wreckage by James O’Halloran at the time.
Pat Donovan found a piece of the plane while walking the beach about 35 years ago with his daughter directly in line where the engine struck the rocks on landing. His grand daughter, Hannah, Lynch brought the plane part to Clohanes National School recently where it prompted a lot of discussion about the crash landing.
At the start of the ceremony, which was live streamed on Facebook for a national and international audience, master of ceremonies, Aideen O’Mahony, welcomed everyone gathered at Doughmore Beach on the 80th anniversary of the plane crash, and those watching on the internet, particularly relatives and friends of the airmen.
Ms O’Mahony sent greetings to Grant Fleming in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, a cousin of Flight Lieutenant James Grant Fleming while the ceremony was also watched by James Masterson’s daughter, Elizabeth, sons, Richard and Tony and their families.
This event was attended by Brian Duffy, District Chairman of the Royal British Legion in the Republic of Ireland, Kevin Donovan of the Royal Airforce Association in the Republic of Ireland and Pat Mulcahy Vice-Chairman of the Royal British Legion Limerick branch.
Message From Ontario
IN a pre-recorded message played at the ceremony, William Grant Fleming recalled his cousin, James Grant Fleming, a RAF pilot during the Second World War, was shot down in action in September 1944 over a German village when he was just 27.
He praised the organisers of the ceremony for honouring all of the airmen, in particular the nine who died.
“Our hearts go out to their families and their brothers and sisters in arms. I am so glad the other survivor, Sgt Jim Masterson experienced the joy of visiting Doonbeg a number of times. I would like to think that Grant Fleming would have loved to have spent some time with you to thank you for your heroic efforts to rescue him, to save his life and to try and save the lives of others.
“On behalf of my own family and in memory of Grant, thank you for this tribute to the eleven airmen. May each one of them rest in peace. A heartfelt thank you to the fine people of Doonbeg.”
Message from Jim Masterson
A message from Jim Masterson’s family was read by Linda O’Callaghan, grand-daughter of Patrick Shanahan.
Ms O’Callaghan said the Masterson family thanked everyone involved in organising this ceremony and stressed they were extremely proud the plane crash was commemorated 80 years later.
“When Aideen contacted me last week, I was quite emotional thinking about all those young men including my dad who was only 21 years old at the time of the crash, how frightening it must have been to be in the cold December sea and how my dad’s strong swimming ability brought him to your shore.
“His time in your care and in your country was always remembered with great fondness and his wish to have his ashes scattered there in the bay after he passed was a duty we as a family were so pleased to fulfil. We were made so very welcome by the Shanahan family.”
How The Plane Crashed
Eddie Cotter provided a historical account of this tragic plane accident.
In the early hours of December 3, 1941, the flying boat left its base at Castle Archdale on the shores of Lower Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Its mission was to act as an anti-submarine escort to an outbound convoy from Britain.
However, it failed to meet the convoy and on return to Castle Archdale ran into bad weather and with failed navigation equipment, the aircraft drifted off course.
That afternoon it was seen flying off the West Clare coast and heading north along the Clare coast. However, with fuel running low, it returned later to Doughmore Bay.
Fleming reported that he succeeded in landing in the sea but the float on the port wing snapped off and he took off again.
He landed a second time and the outer engine of the port wing broke off having struck a rock.
This caused the boat to list and she began to sink. The crew abandoned the plane and each was at the mercy of the Atlantic Ocean.
Fleming was rescued and taken ashore by Simon Mc Carthy, Michael Stack and Michael Stack Junior across the sandhills to Michael Stack’s house where he was cared for and remained overnight.
He was transferred to Mallow Military Hospital, Cork the following day where he remained until he was interned in the Curragh.
In August 1942, Fleming escaped from the Curragh and re-joined the RAF. He was promoted to Squadron Leader and was transferred to missions over Europe.
Aircraftman AC1 Arthur E. Bennett and Leading Aircraftman LAC Arthur Doncaster, who also came ashore at Doughmore were buried in Doonmore Church of Ireland cemetery.
Wireless operator, Sgt Masterson was found unconscious by Patrick Shanahan outside a window of his home. Having seen the light in the window from the sea, Masterson swam towards it and made his way across the rocks to the Shanahan house. He was taken inside, cared for and remained there overnight.
Masterson was transferred along with Fleming to Mallow Military Hospital and was also interned in the Curragh where he served out his time. After the war, he returned to his home in Norfolk, England, taking over his father’s fish business.
In the late seventies, Masterson returned to Doughmore to find the location of the plane crash he had survived years earlier. He visited the graves of his comrades and met with Patrick Shanahan. Jim always attributed his survival to the fact that he was a strong swimmer. Aged 85, he died on July 25th, 2006, following a morning swim.
Later that year, his wife, Betty, daughter, Elizabeth and his sons, Richard and Tony, scattered his ashes on the rocks at Doughmore.
Airmen Washed Ashore
In the days and weeks following the plane crash, four more bodies were washed ashore near Quilty. These were the bodies of Sgt Sydney James Epps, Sgt Maurice Walter Gerald Fox, LAC Frederick Walter Lea and a fourth unidentified body. These airmen are buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery in Miltown Malbay.
The bodies of Pilot Officer Wilfred Sefton Emmett, Sgt Eric Willows Jackson, Pilot Officer Eric Gerald Marker and LAC Andrew Patrick Walker were never recovered, although the unidentified remains buried in Miltown is likely one of them.
Roll of Honour
Senan McCarthy, a son of Simon McCarthy, one of the three local men who rescued Fleming, read the roll of honour.
The crew of eleven airmen comprised of three pilots and support personnel.
Ten were members of the Royal Air Force and one from the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The Squadron Operations Record Book for 201 Squadron records the details on that December 3rd operation.
Fleming who survived the plane crash, was interned in the Curragh Internment Camp, escaped in 1942, later killed in action on September 6th, 1944, and is buried in the Rheinberg War Cemetery in Germany.
Sgt James Cannell Masterson, wireless operator/air gunner. Masterson also survived the plane crash. He was interned in the Curragh Internment Camp, released in 1943 and returned home after the war. He died on July 25th, 2005 and his ashes were scattered on the rocks at Doughmore.
P Offs Wilfred Sefton Emmett, pilot, (26), New Zealand, Sgt Eric Willows Jackson, pilot, 24, Leeds, Yorkshire and P Offs Eric Gerald Marker, observor (20), Devon, LAC Andrew Patrick Walker, fitter, (19), Glasgow are missing in action.
The remains of Sgt Sydney James Epps, wireless operator/air gunner, (25), Essex, and Sgt Maurice Walter Gerald Fox, wireless operator/air gunner, (20), Kent, LAC Frederick Walter Lea, rigger/flight mechanic (21), Norfolk, were washed ashore near Quilty and are buried in Miltown Malbay cemetery and their funerals were accorded full military honours.
LAC Arthur Doncaster, fitter, (30), Nottingham, and AC1 Albert Everall Bennett, rigger, (19), Liverpool are buried in Church of Ireland cemetery, Doonmore, Doonbeg. Their funerals were also accorded full military honours.
Christina Haugh, a granddaughter of Michael Stack laid a wreath in the bay for those lost at sea.
Senan McCarthy laid another wreath in Doonmore Church of Ireland cemetery, while a third wreath was laid in the Miltown Malbay Church of Ireland cemetery by Patrick Shanahan’s son’s Kevin.
Crash Historical Accounts
Historical accounts of the crash have been researched by local families and Dennis Burke, a Sligo aircraft technical support engineer, who has complied a website w2irishaviation.com with details of foreign aircraft and their crews involved in crashes or landings in and about neutral Ireland during the Second World War 1939 – 1945.
Fleming provided this account of what happened when he decided to land on the sea off the coast due to low fuel.
“I succeeded in doing this, but the float on the port wing snapped off and I found it necessary to take-off again.
“I was then undecided what course to adopt, but finally came down on the sea again. This I accomplished, but unfortunately the outer engine of the port wing broke off.
“This caused the boat to list and she began to sink. I ordered the other members of crew to abandon the plane, which they did. I left the boat last, but was carried under water and had to dive deeper to extricate myself. I came to the surface and managed to climb on to one of the rubber boats which I found floating.
“I was almost immediately washed off this and had to keep myself afloat the best could, after what must have been a couple of hours, I felt sand under my feet, I was washed ashore by the breakers and taken to a house nearby.”
“While in the water I saw, Sgt Masterson and Sgt Bennett. Masterson was trying to help Sgt Bennett, who became panicky, and had to let go of him.”
Plane Crash Report
Captain P Daly, Irish Army 13th Cycle Squadron, provided the following plane crash report for Sarsfield Barracks, Limerick, praising the “heroic and noteworthy” acts of the rescuers.
“Simon McCarthy, Michael John Stack and Michael Stack Junior rescued Flight Lieut Fleming, whom they observed struggling in the rough sea. At a risk to their lives they entered the water and brought him safely ashore to the house of Michael Stack. It was their quick activity and resourcefulness that was responsible for saving the life of Fleming.
“Michael O’Donovan reported to me that the plane had crashed at Doughmore and that two men had been brought ashore. He cycled five miles to carry this information to me. It was his initiative that resulted in I getting to the scene of the crash as quickly as possible, with my military party, before the civilian population arrived and so we were able to keep unauthorised persons from interfering with the wreckage.
“Patrick Shanahan found Sgt Masterson unconscious outside the window of his home. He brought him into the house and gave him every attention and care possible. Mr Shanahan, had a brother killed by the Black and Tans during the “Troubles” in Ireland and still had no ill feeling against this British Airman and gave him every thing possible to make him comfortable.”
Royal Humane Society ledgers recorded when Pluto crashed into the very rough sea during a dark and foggy evening, the crew were thrown into the water. They stated the rescuers with water up to their waist were in “danger of being swept off their feet”, while there was deep holes in the vicinity.
Using a torch, McCarthy rushed into the water, seized Fleming and called the two Stacks for help. The trio got Fleming out, took him to Stack’s cottage and revived him.
Shanahan saw the body of Doncaster and brought it out but he was already dead. The Doonbeg farmer also gave treatment to Masterson, who got ashore unaided, dressed his wounds and summoned a doctor.
Tool Kit Salvaged
Jimmy O’Halloran, who lived just a stone’s throw from the beach, was a 20 year-old member of the Local Defence Forces, who was called on to protect the plane, which was carrying small explosives and depth charges, until bomb disposal experts arrived. Members of the Local Defence Forces were trained at the time by Paddy Cotter, a local firearms’ expert.
Jimmy O’Halloran managed to salvage a tool kit box dated stamped 1940 from the plane wreckage including a wide variety of navigation instruments such as a silver binoculars, helmet, compass, square, rule, screwdriver and pliers,
Measuring about three foot long, two foot wide and 18 inches high, the box is made out of rosewood. Mr O’Halloran also obtained two unusual brown and grey overcoats with Scottish tartan lining.
His son, James, (65) who still has the tool kit box in his own house 80 years later, recalled in a Clare Champion interview the army were delayed arriving on the scene after their lorry broke down on the way from Limerick.
“A lot of the plane had disappeared by the time the army arrived. A lot of people had taken items from the plane. Paddy Neenan, a local man, got a horse and cart from Patrick Shanahan so he could move them to a safe place on the sand where they were detonated by the bomb disposal experts.
Eye Witness Account
Dolores Murrihy recalled people could set their clock by the Flying Boat “Clipper” that transported mail from Foynes to Newfoundland and passed overhead the village regularly at 5pm.
On the afternoon of the crash, Ms Murrihy was travelling on the Rhynagonnaught road to get water from a local well with her brother, Noel when they heard a plane with a different sound from the “Clipper”.
“We could see it over Rhynagonnaught. I was terrified of planes during the war and ran home. Several times that evening we went to the door of the house to see the plane. At one stage it shone its lights on a field and I believe it was looking for a place to land.”
“All the wires were up for the coursing meeting in December. The plane went off and came back again.”
Her father, Jackie O’Donnell had a shop in the village and operated a hackney car regularly transporting the local gardai, the Doonbeg and Cooraclare GAA teams to different locations.
During the war years, he was allocated petrol coupons to transport people. The only people who had cars were the parish priest, the doctor and Mr Ash in Doonbeg. There were four hackneys in Doonbeg at the time.
“Micko Donovan cycled down to the gardai. My father brought the gardai up to the area, came home and told us a plane had crashed.
“He had to go to Kilrush to bring out Dr Counihan from Kilrush and to go back again to bring out more gardai from Kilrush.
“A lot of the army were stationed in village were cutting turf in Shragh and Derryard that was taken to the local train station for transport to Limerick or Dublin.”
After coming home from national school early, her father took her up to see where the plane had crashed because his home was located next to Shanahan’s.
Plane Crash Wreckage
“We could only walk so far as where the gardai and the army had cordoned off. The plane must have hit the hills before it went out to sea because there were bits of the plane around there.
“One of the engines that fell off was stuck in the sands for years.
“My father told us one of the airmen had climbed over the rocks, had seen the light over old Mrs Shanahan’s window. Patrick Shanahan went out and brought him in.
“When we left the area around the hills we went to Stack’s house. I can remember seeing another surviving airman standing to the left of the fireplace in his socks. I heard afterwards the gardai would not give him his shoes in case he tried to run away.”
The next day, she recalled two deceased airmen were buried in Doonmore Churchyard. They were laid out in the old hall and had an army funeral with full military honours. She heard the army band playing from her own house.
“I remember seeing various bits of the plane in every house in the locality. In Donovan’s house, they had a sugán armchair with bits of the plane attached to the sides. Bits of the plane were scattered everywhere.
“The saddest part of it is one person is unaccounted for.
Liz O’Dea, nee Stack, said it is believed the plane went up to Lahinch to find a place to land, went further up the coast before returning and circling overhead Doonbeg, crashed in the water before it came ashore.
Her father, Michael Stack, his nephew, Michael Stack Junior and Simon McCarthy, who couldn’t swim, waded out to waist high, saw a man struggling in the water, brought him to the beach were Simon resuscitated him before bringing him to Stack’s house.
Her mother told her the army kept guard all night while Fleming slept in the house.
Regardless of who was in the plane, Ms O’Dea stressed the three men were going to help the occupants, despite the fact neither of them could swim.
“They wouldn’t have seen it at the time as an act of heroism as they just felt they need to rescue the man and just did it. My father was involved in the old IRA but once the man was drowning they were going to try and save him.”
“It was very heroic because it was very dark when it happened at 7pm. Can you imagine how cold the water was when they went into the water and then they brought the man over across the hills?”
There were three children in the house, my mother was pregnant with Chrissie who was born a few weeks later.
She said Masterson did well to climb over rocks in the dark and was fortunate he saw and followed the light in Shanahan’s house.
“It was a miracle that he saw and followed the light in the house. There was no electricity in houses at the time.
Two deceased men, Doncaster and Bennett were brought on to the beach. She said they were left outside Stack’s house until the undertaker laid them out in repose overnight in the local hall.
“When the plane hit the water, I think it is very sad that part of the plane that should have floated got broken off with the high wind. The sea was very rough that night and then it turned over. There were bombs on the plane.
“If they airmen had stayed on the plane, they would have been safe and it would have been washed in. My father was a fisherman so he would have been used of the water.
“When Fleming came to the house he wouldn’t have known that all the nine men in his crew had drowned.”
While Simon McCarthy was providing resuscitation to Fleming, his son, Senan said the two Stacks went back out to the sea to see if they could find anyone else and brought Sgt Bennett in but were unable to revive him.
“Nobody around the shore was able to swim in those times.”
Senan recalled his father, a carpenter, was working on a two-storey house in Doonbeg when he saw the plane was in trouble and went off on his bike later to investigate when the plane crashed.
“Within a few minutes of going on to the beach, the two Stacks came behind him. He would have passed the Stack cottage on the way to the beach, so they may have seen him and followed him.
“The amazing thing is if they airmen had all stayed on the plane they would have survived because it was eventually blown back in quite near the shore with the wind.”
Aideen O’Mahony said reading death notification telegrams for the airmen really hits home how difficult this devastating news must have been for their relatives.
The ceremony, she explained was held to remember what was a major event in the locality.
“Doughmore Bay would be known for strong currents. But the airmen had no way of knowing this on that stormy night.
“My grandfather, Patrick Shanahan said he was on the beach that night and helped bring one of the airmen in from the sea. He didn’t see this man as the enemy, just a human being that needed help. Patrick was on the beach, his clothes got wet so he went up to his house to change.
“His mother who was an invalid was in bed. It was to her window that Masterson came to. When Patrick came back into the house she said there is somebody knocking at the window. He went out and found Masterson who was unconscious at that stage”.