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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Fighter Pilot “Paddy” Finucane

brendan-finucaneWing Commander Brendan Eamonn Fergus Finucane, World War II Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilot and flying ace known as Paddy Finucane amongst his colleagues, dies on July 15, 1942 when he is forced to ditch his aircraft in the English Channel. He is also noted for being the youngest person to ever become wing leader of a fighter wing.

Finucane, born on October 16, 1920 in Rathmines, Dublin, is credited with 28 aerial victories, five probably destroyed, six shared destroyed, one shared probable victory, and eight damaged. Included in his total are twenty-three Messerschmitt Bf 109s, four Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and one Messerschmitt Bf 110. Official records differ over the exact total. After the war, two of Finucane’s victories that had been credited as probables had, in fact, been destroyed, but are not officially included. His total victory count could be as high as 32.

On July 15, Finucane is killed at the age of 21 while leading the Hornchurch Wing in a fighter “Ramrod” operation targeting a German Army camp at Étaples, France. He takes off with his wing at 11:50 AM. The attack is timed to hit the Germans at lunchtime. Crossing the beach at Le Touquet, they target machine gun positions. His plane is hit in the radiator at 12:22 PM. His wingman, Alan Aikman, notifies him of the white plume of smoke and Finucane acknowledges it with a thumbs up. Standard regulations insist the wing carry on the mission even if the leader is in trouble. Radio silence is maintained so the enemy radio-interception services do not become aware that a person of importance has been hit.

Finucane flies slowly out to sea, talking calmly to Aikman as he glides along in his stricken fighter. Finally, some 8 miles off Le Touquet on the French coast, he breaks radio silence and sends his last message. Aikman, flying alongside Finucane, sees him pull back the canopy, and before taking off his helmet, say “This is it Butch.” It is a well–executed landing, but the waves are difficult to predict and the Spitfire‘s nose strikes the water and disappears in a wall of spray. Before he hits the water, witnesses Aikman and Keith Chisholm of 452 Squadron see him release, or perhaps tighten, his parachute release harness and straps. If Finucane did release them, it is possible he could have been thrown forward onto the gun-sight and killed, or knocked unconscious and drowned. The exact circumstances remain unknown.

Over 2,500 people attend his memorial at Westminster Cathedral. A rose is planted in the memorial garden in Baldonnel Aerodrome in Dublin, home of the Irish Air Corps. Finucane’s name is also inscribed on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. The memorial commemorates airmen who were lost in World War II and who have no known grave. The Battle of Britain Monument on London‘s Victoria Embankment also includes his name as one of The Few. His flying logbook can be viewed in the Soldiers and Chief’s exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks. The Finucane family donated Brendan Finucane’s uniform to the Royal Air Force Museum London.

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Birth of Audie Murphy, Decorated Soldier & Actor

audie-leon-murphyAudie Leon Murphy, one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of World War II, is born to sharecropping parents of Irish descent in Kingston, Texas on June 20, 1925.

As a child, Murphy is a loner with mood swings and an explosive temper. He grows up in Texas, around Farmersville, Greenville, and Celeste, where he attends elementary school. His father drifts in and out of the family’s life and eventually deserts them. He drops out of school in fifth grade and gets a job picking cotton for a dollar a day to help support his family. After his mother dies of endocarditis and pneumonia in 1941, he works at a radio repair shop and at a combination general store, garage and gas station in Greenville.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murphy’s older sister helps him to falsify documentation about his birthdate in order to meet the minimum-age requirement for enlisting in the military. Turned down by the Navy and the Marine Corps, he enlists in the Army. He first sees action in the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Then, in 1944, he participates in the Battle of Anzio, the liberation of Rome, and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France. He fights at Montélimar and leads his men on a successful assault at the L’Omet quarry near Cleurie in northeastern France in October.

Murphy receives every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. He receives the Medal of Honor for valor that he demonstrates at the age of 19 for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945, then leading a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition.

After the war, Murphy embarks on a 21-year acting career. He plays himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back, based on his 1949 memoirs of the same name, but most of his roles are in westerns. He makes guest appearances on celebrity television shows and stars in the series Whispering Smith. He is a fairly accomplished songwriter. He breeds American Quarter Horses in California and Arizona and becomes a regular participant in horse racing.

Suffering from what would today be described as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Murphy sleeps with a loaded handgun under his pillow. He looks for solace in addictive sleeping pills. In his last few years, he is plagued by money problems but refuses offers to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials because he does not want to set a bad example.

Audie Murphy is killed on May 28, 1971 when the private plane in which he is a passenger crashes into Brush Mountain, near Catawba, Virginia, twenty miles west of Roanoke in conditions of rain, clouds, fog and zero visibility. The pilot and four other passengers are also killed. On June 7, 1971, he is buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In attendance are United States Ambassador to the United Nations George H.W. Bush, Chief of Staff of the United States Army William Westmoreland, and many of the 3rd Infantry Division. His gravesite is the cemetery’s second most-visited gravesite, after that of President John F. Kennedy.

(Pictured: Audie Murphy as Tom Smith in the television series Whispering Smith, 1961)


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Birth of Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Cryptanalyst & Chess Player

Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Irish-born British cryptanalyst, chess player, and chess writer, is born in Cork, County Cork, on April 19, 1909. He works on the German Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during World War II, and is later the head of the cryptanalysis division at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for over 20 years. In chess, he twice wins the British Chess Championship and earns the title of International Master. He is usually referred to as C.H.O’D. Alexander in print and Hugh in person.

Alexander is born into an Anglo-Irish family, the eldest child of Conel William Long Alexander, an engineering professor at University College Cork (UCC), and Hilda Barbara Bennett. His father dies during the Irish War of Independence in 1920, and the family moves to Birmingham in England where he attends King Edward’s School. He wins a scholarship to study mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1928, graduating with a first in 1931. He represents the University of Cambridge in the Varsity chess matches of 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932.

From 1932, Alexander teaches mathematics in Winchester and marries Enid Constance Crichton Neate on December 22, 1934. In 1938 he leaves teaching and becomes head of research at the John Lewis Partnership.

In February 1940 Alexander arrives at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre during the World War II. He joins Hut 6, the section tasked with breaking German Army and Air Force Enigma messages. In 1941, he transfers to Hut 8, the corresponding hut working on Naval Enigma. He becomes deputy head of Hut 8 under Alan Turing and formally becomes the head of Hut 8 in November 1942. In October 1944, Alexander is transferred to work on the Japanese JN-25 code.

In mid-1946, Alexander joins GCHQ, which is the post-war successor organisation to the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. By 1949, he has been promoted to the head of “Section H” (cryptanalysis), a post he retains until his retirement in 1971.

Alexander is twice a winner of the British Chess Championship, in 1938 and 1956. He represents England in the Chess Olympiad six times, in 1933, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1954 and 1958. At the 1939 Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alexander has to leave part-way through the event, along with the rest of the English team, due to the declaration of World War II, as he is required at home for codebreaking duties. He is also the non-playing captain of England from 1964 to 1970. He is awarded the International Master title in 1950 and the International Master for Correspondence Chess title in 1970. He wins the Hastings International Chess Congress 1946/47 with the score 7½/9, a point ahead of Savielly Tartakower. His best tournament result may have been first equal Hastings 1953/54, where he goes undefeated and beats Soviet grandmasters David Bronstein and Alexander Tolush in individual games. He is also the chess columnist of The Sunday Times in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many knowledgeable chess people believe that Alexander had Grandmaster potential, had he been able to develop his chess abilities further. Many top players peak in their late twenties and early thirties, but for Alexander this stretch coincided with World War II, when high-level competitive opportunities were unavailable. After this, his professional responsibilities as a senior cryptanalyst limited his top-class appearances. He defeats Mikhail Botvinnik in one game of a team radio match against the Soviet Union in 1946, at a time when Botvinnik is probably the world’s top player. Alexander makes important theoretical contributions to the Dutch Defence and Petrov’s Defence.

Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander dies on February 15, 1974, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England.