When American pilots descended on village
by the Rev Canon Alex Cheevers
THIS week Rev Canon Alex Cheevers continues his look at the history of Maghaberry Prison, which began life as an airfield during the Second World War.
AS an airfield for ferrying aircraft, Maghaberry's role developed even further when the airfield was handed over for a time from the Royal Air Force to the United States Army Air Force.
The Americans began to use the airfield as a Transit Base for ferrying aircraft from America in to the European theatre of operations.
Countless American aircraft, from Mustang fighters to Flying Fortress Bombers, and Liberators, all landed at Maghaberry. Some of them were flown by lady pilots. These were courageous ladies whose job it was to deliver the planes to their combat airfields. When the planes were re-fuelled at Maghaberry these pilots took off again and flew the planes on to wherever they were needed.
Maghaberry had many other roles over the years of the war. At one time the airfield was used as a place for safe storage of aircraft. A local resident remembers how at times there were 250 or 300 aircraft stored on the runways there, simply because at that time the aircraft were too vulnerable to German bombs while sitting on runways in England. And for a time it was used by a Royal Air Force Coastal Command Training Unit. Then it was the departure point for evacuating casualties from the Military Hospital situated in Moira, just a little bit out the road towards Lurgan. And at one time paratroops did their initial training at Maghaberry.
The final role of Maghaberry airfield came with the end of the war. The airfield was run down as a flying base and became a place to which now-redundant aircraft were flown for the last time - to be broken up. The Government called in a firm called International Alloys, and they broke up these surplus aircraft at Maghaberry. A former parishioner of mine used to tell me about how he had worked there at that time, breaking up Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancasters and so many other aircraft, some of which had never been flown in anger. He said it seemed to be such a waste to be breaking up perfectly good aircraft. When they were broken up they were fed in to the smelters of International Alloys.
The Second World War has now long since passed, and, together with Maghaberry airfield, it has disappeared into history. But as a conflict, the war cost so many lives. Those who fought in it, and those who died in it, secured for us the freedom we enjoy today. And for those men I have enormous respect. That is why I organise and lead tours to the battlefields and some of the Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries of Europe.
This year's two tours are already booking up well, each tour going to different areas, taking in both First and Second World Wars, trying to make it possible for as many people as possible to visit these areas for themselves. I know that such a visit is an experience of a lifetime. The first tour this year is from May 20 to 26, and will be to the area of the Battle of the Somme, taking in the Ulster Tower and the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, as well as the trenches at Beaumont Hamel. And then going on to the D Day Landing Beaches, and the Air Landing areas of the Battle of Normandy in 1944 - visiting places like Pegasus Bridge, Merville Gun Battery, and all five of the D Day landing beaches, both British and American. We also visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Ranville, the Pointe du Hoc and the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.
The second tour is from September 9 to 15. It begins with a visit to the beaches and memorials of Dunkirk where the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated in 1940, then moving on to the battlefields of the Ypres Salient (Passchendael, Messines). We attend the Menin Gate Sunset Act of Remembrance, visit Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the world and visit so many places which are today household names. Included as well in this tour is a visit to the First Airborne Division's 'Bridge too Far' at Arnhem, and the nearby battle area at Oosterbeek, with all of its memorials - as well as Arnhem C.W.G.C. Cemetery.
If anyone would like more information on the tours please contact the Rev. Canon Alex Cheevers on 0289269 0701