May 2018………A few years ago, we were in south Wales and dropped into the excellent Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre (see Connections). Like Castle Archdale on Lough Erne (Chapter 24), Pembroke Dock was a major base during the war for Sunderland flying boats. Indeed it was the world`s largest ever Flying Boat port.
By coincidence we met one of the driving forces behind the project, local journalist John Evans. John is the Project Manager of the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust and his work has been recognised with the award of the British Empire Medal. We talked about some of our military flying experiences as journalists (he with an enviable trip in a Hunter from RAF Brawdy) and he explained the work of the Trust and talked about the Sunderland.
So when I was researching the story of Flt Lt Francis Wilfred Smith who died with his crew in the Sunderland crash in February 1942, I contacted John for some pointers about the Sunderland squadrons during the war. He was aware of the aircraft serial number and that it had been lost with the 12 men on board. What I found out all went into Chapter 24 – Death off Donegal.
In mid-April 2018, a couple on holiday in Pembrokeshire visited the Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre. John Evans, who now usually goes into the Centre once a week, happened to be there and fell into conversation with the visitors from Kent. The man said his father died in a Sunderland crash off Ireland early in 1942 and that he and the other eleven men on board were never found. This began to ring some bells with John Evans who checked back on our email exchanges.
The visitors were Frank Smith and his wife Lynn. Frank was indeed the son of Flt Lt Francis Wilfred Smith who died at the controls of Sunderland W3977 of 201 Squadron not long after midnight on the 6th February 1942. He was also my mother`s cousin. Flt Lt Smith`s wife Rhoda was three months pregnant with Frank (Francis) when the flying boat pilot lost his life. He died just over two weeks after Colin Curtis and his crew were shot down off the Dutch coast. Their names are three panels apart on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.
It was a coincidence that I came across the photograph of the Sunderland pilot with his name in my mother`s handwriting before I completed the story of Colin Curtis. Consequently the story of the Sunderland crash became a late addition to Deadlines. Otherwise it would never have been told.
It was a coincidence that John Evans was at the Heritage Centre when Frank and Lynn dropped in. It was a further coincidence that they fell into conversation with someone who knew about the doomed Sunderland – and that he knew someone with whom they really should make contact! The families of Frank Smith and Mike Curtis now have new relatives that we never knew about. Frank and Mike finally met on a Saturday lunchtime in June 2018 in The Shambles pub in Lutterworth.
More information has come to light on the rest of the crew who died with Francis Smith on the Sunderland flying boat W3977. Photos and some basic information have been collected by the Irish aviation historian Dennis Burke and posted on his website about foreign aircraft and their crews involved in crashes or landings in and around neutral Ireland during the Second World War. The page on W3977 can be found here.
In November 2019, I was contacted out of the blue by Louise Mason, the niece of Flt Sgt Harold Mason who was on the crew of the Sunderland. He was from Monkseaton in what is now Tyne and Wear and had apparently joined 201 Squadron at Castle Archdale only three weeks earlier.
Louise raised the idea that the Sunderland may have gone to the aid of a convoy and a couple of Royal Navy corvettes that were being attacked by U-boats. A so-called Wolfpack of German U-boats (this one called Schlei) was understood to be active off the Irish coast on the night of 5th February 1942. The timings and the fact that the Sunderland would have been low on fuel probably means this did not actually happen and W3977 did not have any exchanges with U-boats that night.
June 2018……..A new plaque to commemorate over 300 aircrew who lost their lives operating from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland during the Second World War has been unveiled. Flt Lt Francis Wilfred Smith was one of those aircrew – his Sunderland flying boat crashed into the sea off Ireland on 6th February 1942 (full story in Chapter 24).
Castle Archdale, also known as RAF Lough Erne, was one of Coastal Command`s most important bases during the war. Sunderlands and Catalinas operated from the base, which is now a holiday park. The plaque was unveiled on 2nd June by Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth. The ceremony took place in front of 1000 guests at the site of the former RAF Killadeas, a few miles south of Castle Archdale, which is now the Lough Erne Yacht Club. An RAF Tornado GR4 and a Catalina staged a flypast.
AVM Smith said: “The Battle of the Atlantic was a strategically important battle during World War II and the bases we had here in County Fermanagh were essential to ensuring all of the UK had food and supplies which ultimately helped us win the war. I’ve been really keen to be part of the RAF100 events in Northern Ireland. Just from here at Lough Erne more than three hundred aircrew gave their lives as part of Coastal Command. We have a great many young people here today and I hope events like this will inspire them to think about both our history and the way the RAF keeps the skies around our islands safe today.”
Captain Frank Smith of the Royal Engineers – a cousin of Flt Lt Francis Smith. A teenage firefighter in the war, he joined the Army and became a senior bomb disposal officer. He was badly injured in Korea by `friendly fire`. He also suggested (unsuccessfully) a change to the new border between North and South Korea (his story Chapter 20)