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Lost in the mists of time

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MEMORBILIA Part of the engine of the plane which crashed on Croaghan Mountain is still there to this day. Pic: Seán Molloy

Seventy years ago, all eight members of RAF 202 Squadron lost their lives when their plane crashed into an Achill mountain

Anton McNulty

As the thick summer mist and fog rolled in from the Atlantic and down the side of Croaghan mountain, John ‘Twin’ McNamara was helping his grandfather on the bog near their home in the village of Dooagh on Achill Island. In all tense and purposes it was a normal June afternoon and nobody could imagine the horror of what to unfold on the side of Achill’s highest mountain.
“You couldn’t see your finger that day,” John recalled of that fateful afternoon on June 16, 1950, when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy.
“The whole place was covered in pure thick fog and suddenly this rumbling started west in Croaghan. We were listening to this awful sound of rumbling and rumbling and my grandfather, his name was Pat Charlie O’Malley, said that’s another breach of Croaghan gone. A couple of years prior to that there was a massive landslide on top of Croaghan and that’s what it was put down to.”
What John and his grandfather heard that summer afternoon was the sound of a converted British Royal Air Force Halifax bomber striking the side of Croaghan and smashing into pieces before coming to rest. All eight of the crew lost their lives.
The Handley Page Halifax plane of 202 Squadron had earlier that day departed RAF Aldergrove in Belfast, to commence a meteorological survey on the west coast of Ireland and had completed the survey west of the Kerry coast.
It was returning to base when the weather conditions deteriorated and the aircraft flew into extremely thick fog before crashing on high ground on Croaghan Mountain around 4pm.
The crash initially had little impact on the people of Dooagh. Such was the thickness of the fog, nobody actually witnessed the crash. Those who had heard it, dismissed it for a bolt of thunder.
However, local man Martin Fadian had been tending to animals near Croaghan, and he knew from the sound something was amiss and decided to investigate further. Climbing through the dense fog, he came across part of the wreckage before racing towards Dooagh to raise the alarm.

Rescue mission
Guided by Martin, the initial search-and-rescue party – consisting of local doctor Edward King, Sergeant John Harvey, two local Gardaí and local priest Fr Clarke – started the climb at 11.30pm in difficult, still-misty conditions.
They came across an inflatable dinghy and a wheel of the plane before eventually reaching the main wreckage in which the remains of five bodies were found at 12.30am. So dense was the fog that it took almost eight hours to recover the remaining three bodies who were lying just 30 yards away.
The crew were later named as Pilot Ernest George Hopgood; Navigator Joseph Kevin Brown; C-pilot Michael William Horsley; Engineer Harold Shaw; Air Signaller Cornelius Joseph Rogan; Gunner Martin Gilmartin; Meteorological Observer James Charles Lister and Airman Bernard Francis McKenna, a native of Navan, Co Meath.

Newspaper accounts
By first light, the village of Dooagh was a hive of activity, with army personnel led by Captain PJ O’Callaghan from Renmore Barracks in Galway taking over what was now a recovery mission.
They were joined by thousands of people, who, along with reporters from the local newspapers, made their way to Achill to witness the recovery mission. The Mayo News correspondent described the scene.
“Little by little the cold fog drew back revealing the terrible destruction of the crash. Twisted piles of steel girders littered the mountain’s face. Ledges of rock were carried off and craters marked where the plane first hit. The battered fuselage was cut in two and thrown many yards apart. Near the tail the red white and blue markings remained unscrathed as did its numbers Halifax VI RG843.”
The bodies of the eight airmen were covered in their parachutes and stretchered down the mountain by young soldiers and volunteers.
“We had only four to each stretcher and the descent was slow and tortuous. Yard by yard we crept and sliddered on our way. We had to rest often and change hands every ten yards or so. Most difficult of all was scaling the slippery rocks but everyone was doing his best and if a foothold was missed a watchful comrade was always there to assist,” The Mayo News correspondent recalled at the time.
The bodies were removed to the dance hall in Dooagh known as The People’s Hall. John McNamara described how the locals were in shock and the atmosphere was highly emotional with great sympathy for the families of the eight men.
The inquest conducted by Dr CB Heneghan, then Coroner for West Mayo, was held in the hall that evening without a jury. Achill-based Sgt John Harvey told the inquest: “I reached the scene of the crash at 12.30am and amidst the wreckage and around it, I saw five bodies of males. One was badly charred.
“The plane had travelled for about 800 yards downhill. Parts of it were strewn along that distance. The plane apparently exploded at the place where the bodies were found, and parts of the ship were strewn over a wide area,” he said.
Dr King, who examined the bodies, said death was instantaneous in each case, and the Coroner recorded that they all died as a result of shock and multiple injuries following a plane crash.
The Mayo News also reported that this was the fifth plane crash to occur in the Clew Bay area in a short period of time. During World War II, an RAF Sunderland bomber crashed off the Clare Island coast with the loss of eleven crew, while a smaller Fairy Swordfish crashlanded three miles off the Achill coast close to Croaghan mountain. Fortunately, for its three-man crew they were spotted by the local Coast Guard, and they were picked up in the sea and survived to tell the tale.

Investigation
RAF experts who travelled from Aldergrove visited the wreckage on Croaghan quickly discounted reports that the plane had gotten into difficulty at the time of the crash or that the crew intended to make a forced landing in the sea.
The Irish Press quoted an air expert as saying that the plane crashed at 180 miles per hour and when the speed was reduce to nil in the merest fraction of a second it was common occurance for boots, socks and even clothes to be ripped from the bodies by the force of the impact.
“The collision with the mountains at such speed would automatically burst the bottles containing compressed air or hydrogen and the rubber dinghies would immediately inflate. For similar reasons parachutes would be ripped from containers.”
A report into the crash found that the plane’s last position report received from the aircraft (immediately before impact) had placed its position to the southwest of Shannon – in fact the aircraft was actually 148 nautical miles ahead of the position calculated by the navigator.

Eerie atmosphere
The plane was left on the mountain after the investigation. According to John, the blowing of the wind against he metal created an ‘eerie’ atmosphere around the crash site.
Still, he would often shelter in the tail piece in bad weather, even though it was ‘a spooky place’.
He recalled one encounter that he and his brother Pat had six months after the accident.
“When we went in it to take shelter there was this man sitting inside, and he never spoke or opened his mouth. He just stared. We stayed there until the shower was over. He didn’t say hello or anything, and we couldn’t figure if it was ghost.”
In fact the ‘ghost’ turned out to be a man who had gone on the run in Achill after robbing a jewellers in Dublin. He had been staying in nearby Corrymore House and would hide out in the plane until he was finally apprehended.
The plane remained on the mountainside for about a year after the accident, but over time, scrap merchants pillaged the majority of it. The four large engines remain on the mountain to this day, the only reminder on the slopes of the eight crew of 202 Squadron who lost their lives in the Achill mist.