Irish heroes of RAF during WWII recall days 'on a wing and a prayer'
Liam Collins meets members of the Irish branch of the Royal Air Force Association at their reunion
'The Few' - those who were in the Royal Air Force during World War II - are getting fewer, but some of the remaining veterans are feisty as they were in those far-off days when Europe was in turmoil.
Geoffrey Medcalf, who joined the RAF in 1941, was among those present when the Republic of Ireland branch of the Royal Air Force Association held their annual dinner in the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, last week.
"I was an apprentice electrician and I just decided to go up to Belfast and enlist," says Geoffrey, who will be 94 on St Stephen's Day and who has lived all his life in Dalkey, Co Dublin.
"They weren't going to accept me at first, the medical officer put a tape around my chest and told me to breath deeper and I just squeezed in," he says. He came back to Dublin on the train and a couple of weeks later got a ticket in the post that would take him over to Holyhead and on to Warrington for training.
Because of his electrical experience he was in demand, working on Bea Fighters and later Mosquitos, know in the service as 'Wooden Wonders'.
It was, he says, an exciting time, without exaggerating his part in the conflict. Because most of the aircraft he worked on were on coastal patrols rather than bombing missions over mainland Europe, he didn't often have the experience of waving young men off in the knowledge that they would probably never be seen again.
He was later posted to Iceland working with aircraft patrolling the North Atlantic or escorting the Russian convoys going to Murmansk.
He recalls the young Australian and American pilots - and especially the Yanks who were flush with all kinds of commodities that hadn't been seen in Europe since the outbreak of the war.
He was allowed to send two packages home to Ireland - and usually managed to send nylons and a pound of tea - the ration in Ireland was a half an ounce a week.
"It was an exciting time and I was glad I went," he recalls. Eighteen months after the war, he was discharged and came back to Ireland.
Living in Dalkey, there wasn't much comment about his joining the war effort.
"Some people say that comments were made about them, but I never heard anything. I was born and bred in Dalkey and everybody knew everybody and it was never an issue."
He remembers the post-war years in Ireland as very depressing but he eventually got a job with the Fuller cake company and later a cash and carry, and worked until his retirement in 1986.
"I've been unemployed, or retired, longer than I worked," he says with a laugh.
He is delighted that Brigadier Paul Fry of the Irish Air Force was the guest of honour at Tuesday's dinner, as he has been for a number of years.
"We're mainly a benevolent organisation," he says, but he does get to swap old war stories with veterans like Don Mooney (92) and Ted Jones (93), who both served during the war.
"I didn't really see any blood and guts," says Don, who also joined up in Belfast and ended up in the Royal Engineers and served as an embarkation officer in Naples Harbour and in the Middle East.
"They're a dwindling bunch," says a much younger member of the RAF Association, Thomas Blake.
"They were all young men, many of them just 19 or 20, and they went off on a wing and a prayer," he says, recalling the many who went off and never came back.
The RAF Association has benefited, like many organisations, from the thawing of Irish/British relations and the Republic of Ireland branch is now able to toast the President of Ireland and the Queen of England without any rancour.
Hopefully, 'the few' will still be around for next year's dinner and, if Geoffrey Medcalf is anything to go, by there's a good few years of dinners left for the veterans of the RAF.