James McCudden VC the working-class fighter pilot of WW1

James McCudden (VC, DSO & Bar, MC &Bar, MM) brief extracts from his memoirs ‘Flying Fury’ published 1918

James McCudden was born on 28 March 1895 to an Irish family living in Gillingham Kent England. His family had a long tradition of serving in the British military and at the time of his birth his father was a corporal with the Royal Engineers.  In 1910, at the age of 15 James enlisted into the Royal Engineers and served as a bugler.   

In 1913 James decided to transfer to the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) and like his older brother William who was already serving in this new branch of the army James decided to follow his lead and train as an aircraft mechanic.  After becoming a qualified mechanic, he was promoted to corporal.

After war was declared in 1914 James was sent to France with 3 Squadron and first saw combat whilst flying as an observer armed with a Le Enfield rifle in November 1914. At the age of 20 he was promoted to sergeant and a month later was informed his older brother William had been killed in a flying accident and his younger brother Anthony had recently enlisted into the army.

Sergeant James McCadden then applied to become a pilot but was told he was too important as an aircraft fitter and could not be spared. During this period social class was considered more important than ability and to be considered suitable for pilot training the applicant was expected to have been educated at public school and be from a ‘respectable’ family. McCadden was rejected because he was working class, and this made him unsuitable for a position reserved for gentlemen!

Newly promoted Flight Sergeant McCudden on leave in London with his sister Mary.

When there were no aircrafts in need of repair or servicing, James flew as an observer and in a letter to his mother described seeing his first enemy aircraft.

 “It came over us like a flash, with the black crosses on his fuselage as plain as daylight. I managed to get off half a dozen rounds at him as he passed.”

Whilst flying with his commanding officer their plane was attacked by a German fighter and McCudden stood up in the cockpit firing his Lewis Gun. Due to his dogged determination during this action his commanding officer made him a full-time observer, and this caused resentment among some officers because of McCadden’s lowly working-class background.

During his new role as observer James McCadden continued showing the same determination to bravely fight off enemy aircraft and in January 1916, against the protests from some social elites, his application to become a pilot was finally approved, he was  promoted to flight sergeant and returned to England for pilot training.

After qualifying as a pilot, he returned to France and served with 20 Squadron and flew a two-seat F.E.2bs. A month later he was posted to 29 Squadron which were equipped with the Airco D.H.2, a rotary-powered pusher. This was “a very cold little machine,” McCudden remembered, “as the pilot had to sit in a small nacelle with the engine a long way back…no warmth from it at all.” During one patrol he recalled being “so intensely cold and miserable that I did not trouble to look around at all to see whether any Huns were behind me or not; in fact, I did not care whether I was shot down or not.”

Arco DHR

It is not known what aircraft he was flying on 6 September when he attacked a German two-seater aircraft over Houthem-Gheluwe in Belgium. He later wrote in his journal, “Closing to 400 yards, I opened fire. I fired one drum of Lewis at him, and he continued to go down while I changed drums. I then got off another drum and still got no reply from the enemy gunner, but the German was going down more steeply now….” This was his first recorded kill.

He also described a dog fight where he made a mistake and was almost killed. He and a   German pilot came at each other head-on at high speed whilst firing their machine guns.

 “I now did a silly thing. I put my engine off and dived, but not straight… I could hear his bullets coming far to close to be healthy. Although the German hit my aircraft twice… if the German pilot had been a little skilful, I think he would have got me.”

This and other near fatal mistakes McCadden called “little incidents” and said they caused him to be very furious with himself and he devoted time to what he called the science and training of air warfare. He spent time aligning his guns and made modifications to his aircraft to improve its performance.


After a dogfight with a German fighter pilot flying an Albatros which was far more superior than the British and French aircraft he wrote in his journal.

“I heard a terrific clack, bang, crash, rip behind me, and found a Hun was firing from about ten yards in the rear, and his guns seemed to be firing in my very ears.”  McCadden escaped by doing a half-roll. After landing safely he counted 24 bullet holes in his shredded plane.

The same day he was involved in what he described as a rough dog fight with a very skilful fighter pilot. Only much later was his opponent identified as Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, who apparently claimed him as his 15th victim after McCudden spun down 9,200 feet to escape the legendary Red Baron.

On 1 January 1917 after eight months of combat, flying 115 air patrols and shooting down five enemy aircraft McCudden was commissioned second lieutenant and awarded the Military Cross. In June he was promoted to captain and posted to Joyce Green Airfield at Long Reach, near Dartford and was an instructor teaching German tactics. Here he met Edward Mannock and they became close friends. Both were from working-class Irish backgrounds; both were fighting the social barriers of the period and Mannock like James McCudden would later become a highly decorated fighter pilot. To his surprised he also found himself training his younger brother Anthony.

Apart from teaching pilots McCudden was also flying air defence patrols over London looking out for Zeppelin bombers, but he was eager to return to France. After his request to return to the front was approved, he joined 66 Squadron and developed his tactic of flying on lone patrols at 15000 feet or more (without oxygen!) to hunt for German aircraft and other targets.  On 21 July he was serving with 56 Squadron flying a SE5 when he shot down another German aircraft during a dogfight.

In the middle of August, he was given command of B Flight 56 Squadron and flew a S.E.5a, McCudden wrote that he “liked the machine immensely…  it was far superior to the enemy because of its top speed of 126 mph, great strength, its diving and zooming powers, and its splendid view. Apart from this, it was a most warm, comfortable and easy machine to fly.”

On his first day with the squadron instead of having breakfast MacCudden spent time aligning his guns and sights. An aircraft mechanic recalled, “he must have fired the best part of a thousand rounds from each gun before he was satisfied”.  When McCudden came into the mess for lunch some of the officers booed him after mistaking his professionalism for showing off and some continued to look down on him because of his working-class roots and questioned why he had been made a flight commander while others more socially superior had not been promoted.

Undeterred by the social snobbery McCudden continually modified his aircraft to maximize its performance. He had a Sopwith Camel joystick installed, which he believed enabled him to fire his guns more accurately. He also shortened the exhaust pipes and later had a spinner taken from a German aircraft he had shot down fitted to his aircraft to streamline the stub nose. This was painted red so his men could identify him in the air.

To fly higher he made alterations to the wings and had its engine fitted with high compression pistons to allow it to fly at 20000 feet. But he found that flying at that height for too long resulted in headaches, faintness and exhaustion due to a combination of oxygen starvation and the start of hyperthermia.

From December 1917 to March 1918 he shot down a further 32 aircrafts.

On 18 August 1917, McCudden shot down an Albatros D.V that had attacked him head-on, this was his eighth kill. He shot down another the next day and on the evening of the 20th, after he positioned himself 50 yards behind the aircraft and fired bursts into it from both guns the German fighter caught fire and went down. He wrote in his journal, “That was my first Hun in flame… As soon as I saw it, I thought, poor devil and really felt sick….”

McCudden also took part in what some historians consider one of the most famous dog fights during the war. On 23 September he led B Flight against German ace Lieutenant Werner Voss who was flying a Fokker F.1 triplane. Within ten minutes from the start of a vicious dogfight Voss had shot up seven British fighters before he was shot down and killed by Rhys Davis, McCudden wrote, “As long as I live, I shall never forget my admiration for Voss… his flying was wonderful, his courage magnificent. “A month later Rhys Davis was shot down and killed.

In his journals James McCadden documented the horrors he witnessed. For instance, on 27 September after firing at an aircraft it burst into flames over the British trenches he later wrote, “The plane rolled over, he watched in horror as the enemy gunner either jumped or fell out and saw him following the machine down, twirling round and round, all arms and legs, truly a ghastly sight.”

The next morning McCadden shot the wings off an aircraft and its pilot also tumbled out and fell to his death. Moments later another German aircraft came towards him but suddenly broke off his attack.

McCudden explained when attacking a two-seater aircraft, he would be high above them before diving and pulling up underneath their tail section, which blocked the observer’s field of fire. Many victims died in a sudden hail of bullets, not knowing what had hit them. He usually tried to kill the observer first to silence his gun, then went after the pilot or engine. “I cannot describe the satisfaction,” he mused, “which one experiences after bringing a good stalk to a successful conclusion.”

In December McCudden destroyed 14 aircrafts during dog fights. On the 23rd he destroyed four enemy aircraft in one day.  During one dog fight in under 30 minutes he shot the wing off a Rumpler flying at 16,000 feet, he then turned his attention to another aircraft which during his attack caught fire and then attacked another at 9,000 feet which exploded in flames.

These dog fights were very close and personal and McCudden said in his journal after one fight his windscreen was spattered with German blood.

James McCudden was now a national hero and his photograph was appearing on the front pages of newspapers and after another double victory his score reached 46 and this further increased his hero status.

Apart from not liking public attention he was deeply concerned his young brother might feel compelled to take unnecessary risks to support the famous family name. In late February 1918 he flew to his brother Anthony’s squadron to tell him not to recklessly take chances. After gaining five kills during aerial combat Anthony was killed a month later. James McCudden had now lost his two brothers and his father to the war.

Later in February McCudden shot down a further 11 aircraft. One of these aircraft is known to have been flown by Corporal Julius Kaiser who fell or jumped to his death after it burst into flames. Later that day he shot down another Albatros, his score was now 54 and by the end of the month he had 57 confirmed kills.

James McCudden, popularly called Mac, was now respected by the pilots under his command who came from so-called ‘respected’ families. Under his command and guidance the flight had a total score of 123 kills and had only lost four pilots.  This was seen as testimony to his outstanding leadership.

After receiving orders to return to England to train pilots the squadron gave him a farewell dinner. The next day, the man who had previously been written off for being working class was entertained by generals and was presented with a silver model of an S.E.5a.

Shortly after being awarded the Victoria Cross James McCudden wrote his book ‘Flying Fury’ and in late June was promoted to major and given command of 60 Squadron.

On the morning of 9 July James, the only surviving male member of the McCudden family, said goodbye to his mother and sister Mary in London and ask them to look after a small box containing his medals. Later that afternoon he crossed the channel in his new S.E.5a to take command of 60 Squadron.  

Aware the German front line may have changed during his time in England after reaching France James decided to land at the British airfield at Auxi-le- Chateau and ask them to mark his map with the British and German lines. After landing and having his map marked with the relevant information and being given useful intelligence from other pilots, he took off to continue his journey.

Eyewitnesses at the airfield remember his aircraft was in a steep climbing turn when they suddenly heard the engine cut-out before it crashed into nearby woods. He was found unconscious near the wrecked aircraft and was suffering from head injuries. Although he was quickly rushed to a field hospital 23-year-old James McCudden died that evening and was buried at Wavens.

Pilots and the British public were shocked to hear James McCudden who was one of Britain’s most decorated pilots and had survived many dogfights had been killed in an accident. 

Several months before his death James McCudden wrote in his journal

 “It seems to me that the very best fellows are always those who are killed…. Sometimes one sits and thinks, ‘Oh, this damned war and its cursed tragedies. After all, I suppose it is to be, and we cannot alter destiny.”

 Suggested further readings: James McCudden Flying Fury

Alex Revell (McCudden expert) Victoria Cross: WWI Airmen and Their Aircraft

 Alex Revell, High in the Empty Blue: The History of 56 Squadron RFC/RAF 1916-1920; and James McCudden VC.

British Army in Northern Ireland 1969 to 2007

EDITORIAL NOTE – I agree with a recent comment pointing out the title is misleading and it should be noted all branches of the military played an essential role in this operation, not just the army.

Operation Banner, the official name of the British military campaign in Northern Ireland, is among the most controversial and misunderstood British military engagements in recent history and this is not surprising due to the propaganda promoted by the IRA and other republican movements.   

The narrative of Operation Banner seldom mentions the IRA was not the only terrorist organisation during the 30 years of violence and often neglects to mention the majority of those living in Northern Ireland remained loyal to the crown. The predominantly protestant community insisted Ulster remain British and also engaged in acts of terrorism against anyone they considered endangered their British citizenship.  It is also seldom stated not all Catholics called for a united Ireland but expressing such thoughts were violently discouraged by the IRA and other republican movements within their community.

Author 1972 – Operation Banner

I served in Northern Ireland in 1972 the year officially listed as the most violent and the conflict was popularly called the troubles by people on both sides of the Irish border. Although the so-called troubles was constantly reported in newspapers and by television news networks across the world it was seldom explained the British army was upholding the democratic wishes of the majority who demanded to remain part of the United Kingdom.  Acts of terrorism by loyalists believing they were defending their British citizenship were also seldom mentioned.  Unbalanced and often biased reporting greatly assisted republican propagandists to reinforce their lie of being engaged in a popular uprising to force the unification of Ireland but in reality, the republican movements were non-democratic and rejected the political wishes of the majority.  Throughout the troubles news editors seldom asked the obvious question, if the British army are oppressors and the IRA are fighting for the people of Ireland why are the IRA bombing crowded civilian targets where the only victims will be men, women and children?

To protect the flow of finance and other support from some Irish Americans who believed the propaganda, the IRA did everything they could to hide the fact they were also being armed and financed by Libya’s Gaddafi who was the main sponsor for international terrorists.  Apart from hiding the fact they were sponsored by  an enemy of the United Sates and Israel,  members of the  IRA were trained at middle eastern terrorist camps financed by Gaddafi and trained alongside  members of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and European terror groups including the Red Army Faction (RAF) of Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy. The start of the conflict in Northern Ireland had nothing to do with the unification of Ireland, the IRA simply seized an opportunity to politicise legitimate issues connected with human.

Segregation based on a narrative of hate, intolerance and paranoia

Segregation along religious lines has always been the major issue in the political and social life of Northern Ireland and this has been the cause and effect of violence.

John H. Whyte (Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999, p8) illustrates this division by explaining the two factors separating Northern Ireland are endogamy and separate education. Separate schools, he says, resulted in the majority of people up to the age of 18 having no conversation with members of the rival creed and Nick Cohen (Guardian 23 July 2007) described this as ‘educational apartheid’. Whyte also says, employment was also highly segregated, particularly at senior management level.

Polarisation as a result of inequality was made worse by the Northern Ireland Parliament, based in Stormont, being dominated for over 50-years by unionists (Loyalists) and its attempts to solve political and social issues such as institutional discrimination against Catholics being regarded as too slow by Catholics and too quick by the Protestants (Loyalists). This, it is widely argued, gave rise to growing tensions and violence between the two communities.

Loyalist flags showing solidarity to Israel because the IRA had been trained by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and received arms and finance from Libya’s Gadaffi
IRA supporting the Palestine Liberation Organisation

After being inspired by the 1960’s counter-culture and the civil rights movement in America the Catholic community organised a series of peaceful civil rights marches in which thousands attended. These marches were met with violence from the Protestant community and as the number of marches increased so did the level of violence against them.

In 1968 Northern Ireland saw regular violence and rioting between Catholics and Protestants with the Royal Ulster Constabulary being attacked by both sides. Over 150 catholic homes in neighbouring protestant communities were burnt by Loyalist mobs resulting in 1,800 families being made homeless, and the Catholics quickly retaliated by burning protestant homes. This intercommunal violence resulted in families moving from mixed neighbourhoods to one’s exclusively housing members of their own religion and makeshift barricades guarded by members of their community were erected to protect them from sectarian violence. This was the start of the so-called ‘No Go Areas’ where no one outside their community, including the Police, were allowed to enter.

The UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) protecting a loyalist area

By the end of the year 19 people had been killed, a large number of police officers had been injured during riots; the community had been totally polarised, violence and arson against homes and commercial buildings continued.  Due to parts of Belfast resembling photographs of the London Blitz the British Government had no option but to send troops to Northern Ireland, dissolve the Northern Ireland Parliament and rule Ulster from London and the role of the army appeared straight forward: to remain neutral whilst protecting the two communities and supporting the police.  

Burnt out homes in Belfast
The sort of photograph the IRA did not want the world to see

British soldiers were welcomed as protectors by both communities and were given tea and toast by grateful residents.  In stark contrast to the British soldiers Catholics despised the IRA who had bragged they would protect them and made their feelings known by calling the IRA I ran away and painting this on walls.

Whilst the army brought a degree of stability to Northern Ireland there was violent infighting within the ranks of the Official IRA. This resulted in a split within the organisation and the creation of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and this new version of the IRA was not interested in a peaceful Northern Ireland. Although Catholics were demanding civil rights and were not interested in becoming part of the Irish Republic, PIRA seized the opportunity to use the prevailing widespread hate, intolerance and paranoia to fuel their own political agenda for a united Ireland.

From the start of 1971 Northern Ireland was turning into a war zone:  there were frequent gun battles with the army and police, the use of car bombs, the bombing of factories and public buildings and all were increasing each month. In the countryside and close to the border the IRA started using large IED’s capable of destroying armoured vehicles.  

Robert Curtis

On 6 February 1971, 20-year-old Gunner Robert Curtis of the Royal Artillery was shot in the head by a PIRA gunman whilst on foot patrol in the New Lodge area of Belfast. He was the first soldier to be killed during Operation Banner.  One month later (10 March 1971) brothers John McCaig, 17 and Joseph 18, along with 23-year-old Douglas McCaughey, who were serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers, were lured from a Belfast pub to the isolated Brae off the Ligoniel Road by a PIRA ‘honey trap’, and the unarmed soldiers were  shot dead by waiting gunmen. 

The McCaig brother and Douglas McCaughey Murdered during IRA ‘honey trap’

From January to 9 August 1971, 13 soldiers, 2 police officers and 16 civilians had been killed and there had been 94 bomb explosions in July.  During a seven-month period the total number of terrorist bombs were 311, this does not include those which failed to explode, and more than 100 civilians were injured as a result of these indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

IRA – bombing civilian targets

During a single night there were 20 explosions and these coincided with gun attacks against the army and police, and in October there was a two-hour gun battle between 30 PIRA gunmen and 12 soldiers. 1971 was the start of the shooting war, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and the regular use of car bombs against military and police patrols.  However, the worst was yet to come.

IED’s were a major hazard in rural areas

1972 was the most violent year of Operation Banner, with multiple attacks against the army and police being considered normal.  Many who served during this period remember the sounds of multiple gun battles, the metallic sound of the terrorists Armalite rifles, followed by the distinctive sound of the army’s SLR’s returning fire, and the rumble of distant explosions.

The following figures from the CAIN Project conducted by the University of Ulster show the intensity of the conflict during 1972:

Casualties due to terrorist action in 1972

Army      148 injured (106 killed)

Police       17 Killed

Civilians 248 Killed

 Total number of deaths 371

Injuries due to terrorist action (Security forces and civilians) 4,876

Shooting incidents 10,631

Explosions                  1,382

Bombs defused            471

Total number of explosive devices 1,853

Another indication of the violence of 1972 are documents authorising in extreme cases the use of heavy weapons including the Carl Gustav 84mm anti-tank gun.

The history of the Troubles continues to be dominated by extensive reference to the IRA but this is understandable because the organisation took every opportunity to publicise their political agenda through a constant stream of propaganda and disinformation. Due to this publicity many people tend to forget there were only two republican terrorist organisations, PIRA (the Official IRA was now little more than a name) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

Despite representing thirty percent of civilian deaths in Northern Ireland and their attacks inside the Irish Republic, the four main Loyalist terror groups, often referred to as paramilitaries by the press, have drawn far less publicity and international attention than the IRA.

Although due to the very nature of terrorism it is always difficult to obtain accurate membership figures the following are estimates from a number of researchers including the CAIN project.

Republican terrorists

PIRA 1,500


TOTAL 1,550

Loyalist Terrorists

UDA (Ulster Defence Association)  40,000

Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)               100

Red Hand Defence (RHD)                      50

Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF)               40

Red Hand Commandos                         30

Ulster Vanguard                                       Not known (links to Loyalist terrorists)

TOTAL                                                        40,220 (Potential active members)

Compared to the loyalists the IRA and INLA combined had an insignificant number of supporters and the loyalist community had a much greater potential for widespread violence. Loyalists were able to call on a large number of Protestants to support their political agenda and if necessary, fight to retain their British identity. For instance, after the British government took power away from the Northern Ireland Parliament the UDA organised a rally numbering 100,000 during the Parliament’s last sitting and on 10 March 1972, the Ulster Vanguard (which had strong links with Loyalist terror groups) held a rally in Ormeal Park which was attended by an estimated 60,000. During this rally William Craig, leader of the Vanguard, announced, “We must build up the dossiers of men and women who are a menace to this country, because one day, ladies and gentlemen, if the politicians fail, it will be our duty to liquidate the enemy”. (Boyd, Anderson: Falkner and the Crisis of Ulster Unionism. Anvil Books, Tralee, Republic of Ireland 1972. P100)

1 Para 1972

The widespread support this declaration of violence received from the loyalist community and only the army and RUC preventing a civil war, raised major concerns among senior politicians in the Irish Republic and among officers of the Irish Defence Force.

One of many hundreds of civilians killed or injured by IRA bombs

Republic of Ireland fearful of a British Withdrawal from the North

Declassified government papers show at the height of the troubles Prime Minister Harold Wilson held a number of meetings with members of his cabinet to discuss the feasibility of a military withdrawal and repartitioning the country in favour of the Irish Republic.

More civilians in Ulster were killed and injured by IRA bombs than the army and police combined

Senior civil servants warned such a proposal may result in civil war throughout Ireland. Widespread intercommunal violence, they said, may lead to an influx of Irish American volunteers supporting the IRA and members of the Orange orders from Scotland and England joining the Loyalists. They were also concerned that such a decision would provide opportunities for intervention from unfriendly governments such as the Soviet Union and Libya.  After listening to these concerns the proposal was dropped.

Although the meeting was classified top secret senior politicians in Ireland were made aware of the proposal and this was met with serious concerns regarding the future security of the Irish Republic.

Gerrett Fitzgerald, the Irish Foreign Minister who later became Taoiseach (Prime Minister of the Irish Republic) said “if that had happened, we would not have been able to deal with the resulting backlash from avenging Loyalists.  There was a clear danger that such a withdrawal might be followed by full-scale civil war and anarchy in Northern Ireland with disastrous repercussions for our state as well as for the north and also possibly for Great Britain itself… We in the Republic had an important common interest with the Northern Ireland political party {SDLP}, which was a powerful barrier against the IRA, the openly stated agenda of which at the time was the destruction of the democratic Irish state and the submission by force of an all-Ireland social republic. .. We concluded that the choice lies between British rule and Protestant rule and it was quite clearly in our interests to do everything possible, which may not be very much, to try to ensure that the British stay…” …” (The 1974-5 Threat of a British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland, Garrett Fitzgerald former Taoiseach, Irish Studies in International Affairs, Vol.17 , 2006 , p141-150)

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet of the Irish Republic, Dermot Nally said, “The possible consequences of Northern Ireland becoming independent were so horrific that we should on no account give any support to the proposal…” (Ibid)

1 Para

Garrett Fitzgerald also said, In the event our concerns about a possible British withdrawal were eased during the following months. Our efforts to alert informed British opinion indirectly of the dangers involved seemed to have paid off (Ibid)

Soldiers under fire

Looking back, Fitzgerald said, at the fraught period 30 years later, what remains most vivid in my mind about the time is the terrible sense of virtual impotence that I and others immediately involved felt in the face of the dangers which a British withdrawal would have created four our island and our state. Neither then nor since has public opinion in Ireland realise how close to disaster our whole Island came during the last two years of Harold Wilson’s premiership.” (Ibid)

Omagh bomb victims after the IRA left a car bomb in a road crowded with shoppers
Stephen Resorick, shot dead in 1997 holds the tragic distinction of being the last soldier killed during Operation Banner.


It is clear British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland to protect both communities and it was not, as the IRA propagandists claim, an army of oppression. We also see the IRA constantly rejecting democracy, the majority made it clear they wanted Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom and firmly rejected any talk of being governed by the Irish Republic which they regarded as a foreign country.   

 Finally, senior politicians, civil servants and military officers in London and the Irish Republic were in no doubt a British military withdrawal would have resulted in a civil war which was likely to engulf both sides of the border.  As Garrett Fitzgerald put it, “I think the state {Irish Republic} was more at risk than at any time since our formation” (Ibid)

  Statistics – Northern Ireland during Operation Banner

The CAINE Project, at the University of Ulster have published the following figures in relation to operation Banner:

Civilians killed                           3,600

Soldiers killed                1,500

Royal Ulster Constabulary killed   302

Security Forces Injured      6,116

Civilians injured                47,541

Bombing incidents           16,208

Shooting incidents           39,923

(Note: During the research for this post I found a large variation of figures relating to deaths and injuries. Further independent research is required)

The unknown female war hero

On 2 September 2010 police were called to a small house in Torquay after local residents reported a strong smell coming from the property. After forcing their way into the house officers found the decomposed body of an 89-year-old female lying on the floor in one of the rooms and they estimated she had been dead for several weeks.

Door to door enquiries failed to identify the woman: no one knew her name, she did not appear to have friends, and nobody was seen visiting the house. The only time she was seen in the street was when she was feeding stray cats.

Whilst searching the house an officer found a photograph of two women dressed in British army uniforms which were taken during the war and they later found an old shoe box containing several medals including an MBE, the French Croix de Guerre, other medals and more photographs of the two women taken during the war.

It was several weeks before the police discovered the dead woman was Eileen Nearne and the photographs of the two young women dressed in British army uniforms was Eileen and her sister Jacqueline who had served as agents with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The police and local community were further surprised to discover the elderly cat lover who had been ignored and went unnoticed in her community was also a war hero.

(Photographs found by police. Left Eileen, Right Jacqueline )

By the age of 22 Eileen was a trained clandestine wireless operator who had volunteered even after being warned her life expectancy, with a bit of luck, was about six weeks.

During the night of 2 March 1944, she arrived in France by Lysander aircraft at an isolated field and joined the Wizard circuit which specialised in sabotage operations and her job was to keep in touch with London.

It has always been acknowledged the work of wireless operators was the most dangerous job in SOE because the Germans had the technical capability to detect their signal and identify their location. Wireless operators were also aware they were in possession of important intelligence and if arrested they must expect to be tortured by the Gestapo and if they refused to talk, they would most likely be shot.  Consequently, survival meant being one step ahead of the German wireless detection teams by never transmitting from the same location and passing their messages as quickly as possible before moving to a safehouse some distance from where they had been transmitting.

During this dangerous game of cat and mouse where the Germans had all the advantages Eileen Nearne sent over 100 messages to London. According to Foot, SOE’s official historian, “she had transmitted a good deal of economic and military intelligence besides arranging for weapons, sabotage stores and other agents to be dropped by parachute. Eventually her transmissions were tracked down and she was arrested and handed to the Gestapo.

Her torture at Gestapo headquarters has been described as savage and intensive but she refused to talk and expected to be shot but instead was transported to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. At Ravensbrück she came across other women from SOE who were in a pitiful state due to torture and neglect.

In early 1945 Eileen Nearne escaped and used her training to evade capture as she made her way through war-torn Germany in the hope of meeting up with allied forces.  After being stopped by the SS in keeping with her training she calmly informed them she was a French volunteer working in a Factory and was allowed to continue her journey. After reaching Leipzig a German priest hid her until the arrival of the US army.

After the war Eileen lived in London with her sister Jaqueline who was the only person she knew and trusted. Eileen and Jaqueline had always been close, and her sister greatly helped her cope with the psychological difficulties of dealing with the memories of her treatment by the Gestapo and the horrors of Ravensbrück. In 1982 Jaqueline died of cancer and Eileen moved to Torquay.

With no friends, traceable relatives and with insufficient money in her bank account, after her death the local council was going to pay for a cheap funeral and cremation but after news of Eileen Nearne’s distinguished war career came to the attention of the British Legion, they paid the funeral costs and among those who attended to show there respects  were members of the military and the Foreign Office.  

Before her death Eileen Nearne (Left) attending a memorial at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. Sitting to her right is Odette Churchill GC another SOE agent who refused to talk under torture and survived this death camp.

Her sister Jacqueline will be discussed in a later post.

Female SOE agents in France

In September 2014 I published this small article examining a few female agents working for the Special Operations Executive and this was the start of my four-years of research into SOE in wartime France which is due to be published in September 2019.

This may be read by following the link or reading/downloading the Pdf version.


Operation Banner: British Army in Northern Ireland

There is no doubt the British Army in Northern Ireland is one of the most controversial British campaigns in recent history. This article which I published a few years ago received mixed feelings but I was surprised by the many positive feedbacks I received from both sides of this divided community.

All PDF files may be read online or downloaded