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Foynes Flying Boat Base

– Air Terminus in War Time. – 

The background to Foynes: In 1935 the Irish government began to see the very important role that the country would play in the development of transatlantic air services. In December that year a three man group of government members attended the Ottawa Conference. At this, the British, Newfoundland and Canadian governments agreed to co-operate in the development of transatlantic air services. A route was decided that would fly between Ireland and Newfoundland and a target date of 1938 was set for its start. Following this conference, the Irish delegation traveled to the USA and signed a similar agreement with the US government.

Thus the Irish government went ahead with their part of the development plans which included the construction of a flying boat base. In an effort to choose a suitable place, a six man group from Ireland and England toured the coast looking for a suitable location on the west coast for the base. It was finally decided to build facilities in the Shannon Estuary at Foynes. This location was chosen because the area was very flat and provided a good location for a normal airfield also. This airfield was to become Rinneanna airfield and is the present day Shannon International Airport.

The first US-Ireland service was on 28th June, 1939 by a PanAm Boeing 314. The plane was welcomed by the Toaiseach Eamonn DeValera and members of the government. The first British service got under way on 5th August 1939 when a Shorts 'C' Class flying boat named "Caribou" flew from Southampton to Foynes and thence on to Newfoundland. As they had not enough range on their own these aircraft had to be air-refueled by HP Harrow tankers based at the new Rinneanna airfield across the estuary from the flying boat base.

War Begins

The beginning of the war was to put a scupper on the great plans of the US and Britain to develop civil air routes across the Atlantic. This did not of course stop the flights!

One would assume that with Ireland neutral and with the countries at war, that the flights would have ceased. This was not so. In 1941 BOAC had been formed from the main British pre-war international carriers. They re-opened the route from Foynes using the redesigned 'C' Class, boat's, the Shorts S.33 types. The planes were fitted with extra fuel tanks and were thus able to make the transatlantic crossing unaided. Also utilized by BOAC on the transatlantic route were three Boeing B.314 Flying boats purchased in the US. These served on this and the equally testing UK - West Africa service. By April 1944 BOAC were able to put these aircraft into exclusive use on the North-Atlantic route. Also to be found at this time were the two surviving Shorts S.26, G-Class boats, the Golden Hind and Golden Horn. Following a period of service with the RAF they were given back to BOAC for use on the Foynes-Lisbon -Lagos (Western Africa) route. These planes often had to run the gauntlet of German fighter's in the Bay of Biscay. It was there that the Golden Horn crashed on 9th January 1943. The remaining G-Class boat finished up the war flying in South Africa.

The passengers were by necessity all wartime VIP's such as allied government members or armed forces members. There was also a great deal of diplomatic mail and freight. The Irish security services deemed it necessary to request that almost all the now BOAC staff be returned to England and their place be taken by Irish personnel. It was considered that they were a security threat. By 1942 Foynes was a hive of activity what with the entry of the US into the war. Because of our neutrality all this work was carried out in the greatest secrecy so as to avoid trouble. 1942 saw a new US airline enter the fray on the route. American Export Airlines joined the route in competition with PanAm.   This airline had intended opening the service prior too the war but on its outbreak, the US Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) gave AEA a contract to operate flights across the Atlantic. On 10 February 1942 they were given their temporary civil certificate for the New York - Foynes route. The first service was on 22 June 1942.  Their equipment were the mighty Vought-Sikorsky VS-44 flying boats. With their great range they could fly direct from New York or Bermuda to Foynes. After the war, Captain Charles Blair, AEA's chief pilot disclosed in his book that the planes had been committed to fly for the US Navy! and were doing so under the guise of the airline. He recalled in the book one occasion when he flew from Foynes to New York with among others on board, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the 1942 commander of the British Mediterranean fleet. Blair's description was that "The neutral port of Foynes, a sleepy Irish village on the south bank of the River Shannon ranked in the war years as one of the world's foremost air terminals.

In order to maintain the secrecy of the operations and, there by, the neutrality of Ireland, there was based at the port a small group of Irish Army G2 (Intelligence) officers whose task it was to maintain this secrecy. Strict customs procedures existed for passengers and crews. Military VIPS were forbidden from wearing their uniforms whilst on land at the base. Despite this, it was thus common to see, in civilian garb, Generals and Admirals relaxing in the Shannon Bar on the main street in Foynes or in the Dunraven Arms in Adare where the crews were accommodated. Because of the nature of the weather on the Atlantic (and especially around Limerick!!) or because of German air-activity, planes were sometimes held up for days at the base unable to fly. Because of such bad weather, a plane carrying Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, once nearly had to land! The pilot reported after that he was 'delighted' at the prospect of landing in Eire but alas the weather cleared and he continued on to Bristol. Another visitor at Foynes was King George of Greece. The war-time British foreign minister, Anthony Eden, was a frequent visitor at Foynes and once attended the Limerick Show as a guest of an official at Foynes.

The armies 7th Motor Squadron was based at Mount Trenchard over looking the port with the task of preventing sabotage at the base. Across the Shannon, the 8th Infantry Brigade was in place to defend Rinneanna if a landing was attempted. The boats generally arrived at dawn and departed after sundown to prevent exposure and German air or naval patrols. Often the boats would be taking messages to the British Embassy in Lisbon, Portugal. This type of mission meant the planes had to pass through the Bay of Biscay with it's German fighter patrols. A number of boats were lost on this kind of mission.

After 1940, the only weather reports coming to Foynes came from the aircraft or from Spain and Portugal. All weather data was exchanged in code and cypher and staff based at Foynes deciphered this for use. Foynes broadcast weather information twice a week by open broadcast. Also 'in order to confuse the Germans' coded messages were sent out also containing nursery rhymes or other nonsense. This particular action would appear very 'un-neutral in appearance and I will try to find out more about why it was done and who ordered it

The end of the war also brought with it the end of flying boat operations at Foynes. The last AEA flight was made by VS-44 "Excambian" piloted by Captain Blair on October 2nd and the last PanAm by Boeing 314A, NC18609 was on October 29th. The war had made Foynes a major hub for transatlantic transport. However it was for the transport of military passengers and not civilian that this occurred. The development of long-range conventional aircraft had made flying boats unnecessary and soon the focus of aviation activity in the estuary was to transfer across the river to the airfield at Rinneanna, meaning 'Point of the Marshes' in Irish.

Postscript

On August 16th 1945, a group of officials crossed the Shannon by launch in order to be in place for the first scheduled land plane flight into Rinneanna. Eight days later, 24th October, this flight by an AEA Douglas DC-4 landed at the airfield thus opening up a new chapter in post war flying in the Shannon area. It is unlikely however that some would not for a long time forget those heady days when the worlds statesmen and war leaders passed through the "sleepy village on the south bank of the River Shannon". Visit the

The Foynes Flying Boat Museum
on the web.

Sources: Ireland and World Aviation, 1988

Other related links are:
Irish Coffee Festival
The Foynes Festival Website