"This is it, chaps", the final words of Wing-Commander Brendan "Paddy" Finucane, the Dublin-born RAF fighter ace, were remembered this month on the 70th anniversary of his death. The much-decorated Finucane, who at 21 was the youngest wing-commander in the Royal Air Force's history at the time of his death, became a much-written about hero in the first years of the Second World War and was one of nine Irish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain.
Last Wednesday the Daily Telegraph devoted its Britain at War column, which prints contemporaneous accounts of the hostilities, to the final flight of Finucane. He was born on October 16, 1920 in Rathmines attending Synge Street and O'Connell Schools until 1936 when he moved with his family to London. Among his classmates in O'Connell's were two famous sports commentators, Micheal O'Hehir and Philip Greene. Thomas Finucane, his father, had fought beside Eamon De Valera at Boland's Mill in 1916.
Brendan Finucane, who was soon given the epithet Paddy and had a shamrock painted on his Spitfire, joined the Royal Air Force in May, 1938. He claimed his first victory in the Battle of Britain on August 12, 1940, a Messerschmitt Bf 109.
By the time of his death near Pointe du Touquet, France on July 15, 1942 he had shot down at least 32 enemy planes and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross and two bars (each signifying a repeat award).
Finucane's fame spread beyond RAF ranks and model airplanes of his Spitfire with the vivid green shamrocks were sold in London. He became the youngest Wing Commander in the RAF on June 27, 1942, leading the Hornchurch Wing.
According to the report in the Daily Telegraph printed on July 18, 1942 his last words were "This is it, chaps". The report goes on ". . . these were the last words, spoken in a quiet self-possessed voice of Wing Cmdr Brendan "Paddy" Finucane, Fighter Command's 21-year-old ace, before he crashed in the sea off the coast of France."
The report continues: "The pilot of the following machine watched Finucane struggling with his harness as the plane came down and saw the machine sink as it crashed on the water. Finucane was unable to extricate himself.
"It was not the Luftwaffe who ended the career of the young Irishman who in two years fighting had shot down at least 32 enemy planes. To the end he was unbeaten in aerial combat.
"In the words of his comrades it was a "million to one" chance shot from a German machine gun on the beach."
"'Paddy did not know he had been hit until his No 2 called up to tell him', said a station commander.
"He went on to attack his target and I heard him say to his wing 'Take the right target, chaps. Here we go'.
"As he was coming home he continued to talk calmly over the radio. He was self-possessed and his last message --probably as his engine stopped was, 'This is it chaps'."
A rose -- the Spitfire Paddy -- grown by horticulturalist Sean McCann, was named in Finucane's memory. In November, 2004, the rose was planted in the memorial garden in Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin beside the garrison church. And toymakers Corgi created a model in 1/72 scale of his Spitfire -- complete with shamrock.
Finucane's name is inscribed on the Air Force Memorial at Runnymede in England. The memorial commemorates airmen who were lost in the Second World War and who have no known grave. The Battle of Britain Memorial on London's Embankment also includes his name as one of The Few. His flying logbook can be viewed in the Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, on loan from the Finucane family. His uniform is on display at the RAF Museum in Hendon, London.
According to Father Sean Coyle, who has written a tribute to the airman, when Finucane returned from a sortie, he would say the rosary for any German whose plane he had shot down. In a programme on RTE Radio 1 broadcast in 2004, In Search of 'Paddy' Finucane, one of his brothers, Raymond, speaks of Brendan being "a good Catholic", taking after their father whom he describes as "a very keen Catholic indeed".