The Athenry Plane Crash 1943

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The Second World War is history but it is recent enough for stories to be passed on directly by people who lived through those years. Athenry has its own stories. The plane crash near Mellows Agricultural College on January 15th. 1943 is one that is remembered well and fuels some interesting questions.

This crash is documented in the Military Archives of Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin.

Forced Landing

On Friday 17th January 1943, an American Flying Fortress, Service Marking l9045 circled Athenry for over an hour before making a forced landing at midday in the grounds of the Agricultural College, one and a half miles from the town.

The plane, a converted, decommissioned bomber, was bound for Portreath, Cornwall, England having set out from Gibraltar. Americans had nicknames for their planes. This Flying Fortress was called “Stinky”.

Mission

The stated mission of the flight was to take passengers and mail from Gibraltar to Portreath. These passengers were a military party sent from the U.S.A. to report on battle fronts in the Far, Middle and Near East and included Lieutenant General Jacob Devers, Chief of the U.S Army Ground Forces. This was immediately prior to the invasion of North Africa and plans were still secret. While there were “a lot of letters” on the plane there was also “a sealed mail bag” believed to contain war plans for the invasion of Africa.

Cause of the Crash

The flight path was meant to be west of the Bay of Biscay to avoid possible interception by German fighters and then northwards to Portreath. The weather deteriorated with heavy cloud and that, along with faulty navigation and wireless trouble caused the pilot to fly a course too far west to the Irish coast. The pilot was completely lost and believed he was flying over Scotland. The plane was first spotted by Irish coast watching service just after 10 o’clock. It came in over Ireland on the Kerry coast and continued northwards, the crew totally unaware that Rineanna (now Shannon airport) was accessible. The navigation error combined with a shortage of fuel (less than 200 gallons in fuel tanks) caused the pilot to circle Athenry in search of suitable landing space. To put things in perspective for today, the plane came from the direction of the New Cemetery across the Department of Agriculture lands in Newford (now Teagasc lands) sweeping low and landing in the field on the Oranmore side of the Teagasc Rural Development Centre.

Mrs Detta Dobbyn, who then lived near the Agricultural College and now lives in Moanbaun, clearly recalls that day. She was in her garden, at the clothes line, when the descending plane came so low that it swept the line from her hand before crash-landing seconds later about four hundred yards away. (No wonder that fifty-nine years later Detta still looks up with some trepidation as planes fly by!)

Landing

The official report states that the “aircraft landed with undercarriage down. From the wheel marks it would appear that as soon as the brakes were applied the wheels locked and the machine skidded forward on the wet surface of the field. It then crashed through a loose stone wall and as a result the undercarriage was torn off.

After striking the wall the machine skidded forward on its belly for a distance of about thirty yards. The wheels were swept off; the undercarriage, propellers and wings were damaged”.

All crew and passengers emerged unhurt from the wreckage. The official report states “a close examination of the plane on the ground revealed two bullet holes, some empty ammo shells and a note in the plane apparently decoded which read ‘Enemy Action’. This would seem to indicate a brush with the enemy on route”.

Irish Response

Army Personnel, from Renmore 1st Batallion under Commanding Officer Major Jjames Timoney took charge of the crash scene. The passengers and crew were brought by Major Timoney to the Railway Hotel, Athenry for lunch, tea and a rest. This hotel is now VEC property known as Hotel Training School). That evening orders were received from Mr. Frederick H. Boland, Assistant Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs that transport arrangements were to be made to transfer the sixteen aircraft personnel to Northern Ireland. Commandant Power, Western Command accompanied the men to Belleek. He reported “l handed over the party at 02.00 hours on l6th January at R.U. C. Barracks, Belleek. Owing to the very large party and the amount of baggage a separate luggage truck had to be provided. Our cars crossed the border and the transfer was affected in the R.U.C. Barrack Yard. Three officers from Lurgan headquarters of the American forces welcomed the visitors and provided coffee and stimulants.

General Devers conveyed the most sincere thanks of the U.S. army for the hospitality and for the privilege of being allowed to telephone Mr. David Gray. US Minister. (After the war, Mr. R. H. Boland, then Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, while on State business to the U.S. was introduced to General Devers. A press report from Washington stated “General Devers was elated to meet Mr. Boland and to have the opportunity of again expressing his gratitude for kind treatment in Ireland.)

The Wreckage

The aircraft was dismantled but because of the lack of proper equipment for dismantling it was a long and difficult job for the Air Corps recovery crew. It was sent back to the US Army Airforce in Northern Ireland and subsequently scrapped.

It was one of the older models and had been withdrawn from operational service and used as a transport aircraft.

Site Visit

Kitty Lardner, Church Street, Athenry relates that the landing was greeted with huge interest and speculation. Droves of people went out to see the wreckage, gather souvenirs and generally take part in the party atmosphere that ensued when it was established that everyone was safe.

The crew distributed the fruit from the aircraft and it was the first opportunity since the war began to sample bananas and oranges.

Kitty recalls with some amusement, that the Americans were utterly fascinated by the local people using donkeys and carts for travel.

Military Archives

Staff at the Military Archives, to whom l am indebted for their kind assistance, indicate that their greatest number of queries relate to plane crashes, of which there were many. The Archive staff has huge interest in the crash at Athenry on 15/01/43.

They would like to add to the body of information that exists through photographs of the site or photographs of souvenirs or memorabilia that may have been collected. As the 60th anniversary approaches, any further information or personal recollections would be much appreciated so that the story is complete and available to anyone who is interested.

Nuala King works for Teagasc and volunteers in many social and community activities in Athenry.

See also – Flying Fortress Athenry 1943 by Paul Browne and A flying Visit by Paul Browne

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Written by Nuala King

Published here 19 Jul 2023 and originally published Summer 2002

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