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Was Irish ace who shot down 430 enemy the RAF's greatest ever?

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JUST 37 Irish fighter aces shot down more than 430 enemy aircraft in World War One.

The impact of the Irish in the Allied flying services over the shell-pocked moonscape of the Western front was out of all proportion to their numbers.

Men including Edward 'Mick' Mannock, one of the war's best known aces with 61 'kills' – an 'ace' usually meant a fighter pilot who had scored five or more aerial victories.

Mannock's life is clouded in controversy, with even his birthplace disputed.

The son of an English soldier, Mick's mother, Julia Sullivan, came from Ballincollig, Co Cork, and he may have been born there – or in a garrison town in England.

His service papers always quoted Ballincollig as his place of birth.

He had a curious accent with Irish, Indian and Canterbury influences and the outbreak of war found him interned in Turkey where he had been working on cable laying in a telephone company.

 

Hatred

Mannock – the legend says he had sight in only one eye after an infection picked up in India – was eventually freed but developed a hatred of the enemy.

He had been an active socialist before the war and his later ruthlessness seemed to be at odds with his earlier beliefs, where he once represented Waterford in a mock parliament in London.

In the Royal Flying Corps, Mannock, with his Irish Catholic working-class background, was not popular with his fellow pilots at the start of his career with No 40 Squadron, partially due to his outspokenness when the culture was one of understatement and 'stiff upper lip'.

At the time, with the Arras offensive underway, an RFC pilot's life was measured in just 18 hours of flying time.

On May 7, 1917, Mannock barely escaped with his life when his plane was badly shot up, but he scored his first victory by shooting down a German observation balloon.

Despite his bloodthirsty reputation, he showed his humanity after he shot down a German two seater, killing one of the crew.

He went to the crash site: "The machine was completely smashed and rather interesting also was the little black and tan terrier – dead – in the observer's seat. I felt exactly like a murderer.

"The journey to the trenches was rather nauseating – dead men's legs sticking through the sides with putties and boots still on – bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off and tons of equipment and clothing lying about.

"This sort of thing, combined with the graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot combined to upset me for a few days," he wrote.

In another incident, he spoke of the "horrible sight" of a German plane going down in flames, after he fired on it, which made him feel sick.

Later, he wrote to the parents of a German pilot he killed.

The stress began to tell and Mannock had a morbid fear of being shot down in flames, although that did not stop him doing just that to Germans.

He was promoted to take command of a squadron in 1918 but broke down completely while on leave.

On July 26, 1918, as he took a rookie New Zealand pilot out to get his first kill, Mannock (31) flew too low and was hit by rifle and machine gun fire from German trenches and killed.

He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for valour.

"Overall, Mannock accounted for at least 61 enemy aircraft and remains one of the RAF's highest ever scoring aces.

"He is Ireland's greatest fighter pilot ever," Dubliner Joe Gleeson (41) writes in a new book, Irish Aviators of World War 1, Volume 1, Irish Aces.

"In all likelihood, Mannock was the greatest RAF pilot of all time," says the author, who wrote Volume 1 of a three-part series while on a career break from the civil service.

 

Poem

While 240,000 Irish served in World War One and almost 40,000 died, just 6,000 joined the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, which later amalgamated to become the Royal Air Force. Some 500 Irish died in the flying services.

They included pilots such as William Robert Gregory from Co Galway, the son of Lady Gregory and the subject of a WB Yeats poem, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, who scored eight aerial victories.

Gregory came from an artistic background and his family acquaintances included George B Shaw, Hugh Lane and Yeats, among others.

He too served in 40 Squadron, where he met Mannock, but, contrary to some reports, there was apparently no animosity between them.

Gregory flew and fought in France and Italy and on January 23, 1918, was killed in an aircraft crash. One legend held he had been shot down by mistake by an Italian pilot.

His family repeated this for many years but Italian records prove there were no aircraft active in the area that day.

Lady Gregory received the news of his death by telegram when returning from a holiday in Galway with his wife Margaret and the children.

Within days she had requested Yeats to write something by which the family could remember him.

He wrote four poems about the Gregory family tragedy, the best known of which is An Irish Airman Foresees His Death from the Wild Swans At Coole.

"Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight

Nor public men, nor cheering crowds

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds."

It was an epitaph which could equally apply to Irish pilots fighting the first air war in history.

Irish Aviators of World War 1, Volume 1, Irish Aces is self published by Joe C Gleeson at CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, North Carolina. It is available on Amazon, Kindle and other online retailers


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