The Dubliner who became an RAF air ace

 

By the time the much-decorated Dubliner, Brendan Finucane, was shot down by German gunfire in 1942, he was already the RAF's youngest Wing Commander - yet little is known in his homeland about his exploits, writes Brian Madden

During the second World War a great many Irishmen fought with distinction in the British forces, perhaps few more so than a Dubliner, Brendan "Paddy" Finucane. Aged only 21 when he was shot down over the English Channel 60 years ago, on July 15th, the Royal Air Force pilot was already a much decorated fighter whose tally of confirmed enemy aircraft at the time of his death was 32, making him the fourth highest- scoring RAF pilot of the second World War. He was also the RAF's youngest Wing Commander.

Although relatively unknown in his native country, Finucane's heroics moved Britain's war leader, Winston Churchill - angered by Ireland's neutrality - to say after the war: "If ever I feel bitter feeling rising in my heart about the Irish, the hands of heroes like Finucane seem to stretch out and soothe it away."

Brendan Finucane was born in 1920 in Rathmines, Dublin, to Andy and Florence Finucane. His father was Irish, his mother English. Brendan was the eldest of five children. When the family moved to Dublin's Northside, he attended the O'Connell Schools CBS in North Richmond Street. He excelled at sport, becoming captain of the school's first team, his leadership qualities being evident. He was a proficient boxer, rowed with Neptune Rowing Club and was a competitive swimmer.

In 1932, Brendan and his brother Raymond made a short flight at an air display at Baldonnel Aerodrome on the outskirts of Dublin. That year was also the start of a series of summer holidays in Southampton, where their aunt lived. There, Brendan and Raymond watched aircraft at nearby Eastleigh airfield and Brendan formed an ambition to be a fighter pilot. He left school in 1936. In November of that year, the family moved to Richmond, Surrey and Brendan took a clerical job in London. In 1938, his application to the RAF for a short service commission was successful and he was sent to flying school.

In June 1940, he was sent for training as a Spitfire pilot before being posted to 65 Squadron at Hornchurch in Essex. In August, he showed a glimpse of what was to come when he scored his first kill, an ME109 shot down over the English Channel. In a later sortie that day, he claimed one damaged and one probably destroyed. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in April 1941 and was posted as a Flight Commander to 452 Squadron,which was in the process of being set up at Kirton-in-Linley in Lincolnshire. This was the first of the Royal Australian Air Force squadrons to be formed in the UK, and its pilots had little experience.

His qualities as a fighter leader were now becoming apparent. Later that month he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his performance with his previous squadron. The citation referred to "his courage and enthusiasm being a source of encouragement to other pilots of the squadron".

In the absence of the squadron leader, following an accident, Brendan, as the senior Flight Commander, was left in charge of training the squadron for combat. The squadron was then posted to Kenley in Surrey, and became engaged in a new type of operation - large-scale fighter sweeps over northern France - as part of the Kenley Wing. The intention was to draw Luftwaffe fighters into combat. On July 11th, Finucane shot down an ME109 fighter. This was 452 Squadron's first kill.

In August, Finucane was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross, with a citation that read: "This officer has led his flight with great dash, determination and courage in the face of the enemy. Since July 1941 he has destroyed three enemy aircraft and assisted in the destruction of a further two. Flight Lt Finucane has been largely responsible for the fine fighting spirit of the unit."

A former intelligence officer of 452 Squadron said of Finucane: "He never had any personal animosity towards anyone. He was simply shooting them down because they were the enemy and therefore had to be shot down." A second bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded in September.

In October 1941, he gave a talk on the BBC about his career as a fighter pilot. With characteristic modesty, he attributed his success "to his being blessed with a pair of good eyes and having learned to shoot straight". He paid a warm tribute to the Australian pilots and went on to say: "One day, I'm planning to go to Australia and audit books."

In January 1942, he was promoted to Squadron Leader and was given command of 602 Squadron, part of the Kenley Wing. Shortly afterwards, he was wounded while on a mission over France. He managed to get back to Kenley, but was then out of action until mid-March.

In June 1942, he was promoted to the rank of Wing Commander, in command of the Hornchurch Wing. He was now, at 21, the youngest Wing Commander, and the most highly decorated and top-scoring "sweep" pilot operational in Fighter Command.

On July 15th, 1942, he led his Wing on a mission to attack a German army camp in northern France, a few miles from Le Touquet. They crossed the English Channel at sea level, through a mist. As they flew over the French coast, a burst of German machine-gun fire from the ground hit the wing of Finucane's Spitfire, puncturing the radiator. His Canadian wingman, Alan Aikman, called him over the radio and advised him that his aircraft was losing engine coolant. Finucane acknowledged the message and turned back over the Channel towards the English coast.

Escorted by Aikman, he ditched his Spitfire in the sea about 10 miles from Le Touquet. It sank immediately with Finucane still on board. It is thought that he may have been knocked unconscious by the impact.

Aikman sent a radio message and he and others searched the area without success. When news of his death became known, hundreds of tributes were received at the family's home in Richmond. Thousands attended his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral. The Mayor of Richmond launched a national appeal for a Finucane memorial.

At the very end, Wing Commander B. E. Finucane DSO, DFC was coolness itself. As his Spitfire plunged towards the sea, he calmly radioed his comrades, with the words: "This is it, chaps."

Fighter Pilots of World War II by Robert Jackson, published by Arthur Baker Ltd (1976).

Paddy Finucane: Fighter Ace by Doug Stokes, published by William Kimber (1983).