Plaques mark secret wartime air corridor in Donegal

Anita Guidera

A SECRET wartime deal enabling Allied planes to over fly the Republic on Atlantic convoy protection missions was commemorated yesterday in special ceremonies in counties Donegal and Fermanagh.

The then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, secretly relaxed Ireland's neutrality to enable the planes to overfly the Republic after top-secret discussions with Sir John Maffey, Britain's representative in Ireland in 1941.

Yesterday, granite memorial plaques were erected in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, and across the border four miles away in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, to publicly acknowledge for the first time the passage of flying boats along the 'Donegal Corridor' to the Atlantic from their bases on Lough Erne.

In 1940, when flying boat bases were first established in Lough Erne, aircraft going on patrol to the mid-Atlantic had to fly north until they reached the coast at Derry. They then flew westwards to protect shipping convoys bringing essential supplies from America to Britain.

Their range was limited, as was the range of planes flying from America.

Consequently, there was an unprotected section of ocean known as the 'Black Gap' where U-boats could operate free from detection.

But in January 1941 this changed after hush-hush talks between de Valera and Sir John led to Sunderland and Catalina flying boats being permitted to fly from Lough Erne across the portion of the Free State, as the Republic was then known, between Belleek and Ballyshannon.

This meant the planes could extend their range by over 100 miles and cover a large portion of the 'Black Gap'.

The first official flight along the four-mile 'Donegal Corridor' took place on February 21, 1941.

A total of 320 men died in 41 missions involving Erne-based flying boats.

The plaques carry identical inscriptions commemorating airmen and seamen from America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain and Ireland who flew along the corridor.

The Ballyshannon memorial was unveiled by local man Sean Slevin who recalled pulling bodies from wrecks at nearby Abbeylands and Tullan Strand when he was a wartime member of the LDF.