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St. Angelo Airport -

The best preserved WWII airfield in all of NI?

(Perhaps it was...)

WWII E-Pen, St Angelo, Co. Fermanagh

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Best Preserved Wartime Airfield in Northern Ireland -
Article by Bob Crookes - 25th March 2004

It's easy to understand why Northern Ireland landowners were once keen to remove all traces of wartime architecture once they’d been reunited with their property at the end of WWII. For many it was a need to remove what they saw as eyesores; for others it was an act of getting rid of any form of reminder of that grim period that had oppressed their lives.

Little was thought in the immediate post-war era about preservation; who in their right mind would want to keep a collection of slabby grey buildings that were often literally ‘thrown up’ overnight and which plainly had no architectural merit?. The few that did remain through the years were mostly retained because of their value as agricultural buildings; others remained because they were just too difficult to dismantle.

We are all now much more aware than ever before of historical value. So little is left to see these days of that significant period in our history, that any location with all its parts almost perfectly preserved should rightly be considered a site of national importance. Such is Enniskillen's airport at Rossihilly, 3 miles North of the town, better known to all as St. Angelo.

The runway at St. Angelo Airport, Co.Fermanagh
Bomber's eye view of the Runway at St. Angelo aerodrome

St. Angelo became a military airfield in April 1941 and, because of poor drainage and boggy conditions, grass landing strips were out of the question and solid runways were built; one on a North/South axis the other East to West. The RAF took it over in August 1941 and it opened as a fighter station on September 15th with parts of 133 and 134 squadrons, equipped with Spitfires and Hurricanes, who used St. Angelo as a base to intercept enemy reconnaissance aircraft off the west coast of Ireland.

Listen - James O'Neill of Environment & Heritage Service was visiting St Angelo, making a survey for Defence Heritage as part of the process to preserve these now rare wartime buildings. He told Bob Crookes that St Angelo had been a very busy airfield from the early days in 1941

 

During the advance of Hitler’s forces through the Low Countries, intelligence showed that the use of paratroopers - never seen before - had influenced a change in tactics in capturing airfields. Where attacks had once come from outside the airfield now the inside too was vulnerable.

Listen - One of the stranger things the casual observer notes is that most of the defensive pill boxes face inwards towards the airfield.

 

Command post on Hilltop, St Angelo Airport, Co. Fermanagh
Hilltop Command Post with overview of St. Angelo aerodrome

So St. Angelo is likely to have been one of the first airfields where protective pill-boxes, housing machine gun crews, were built facing inwards facing towards the runways, ready for the attack from within. On top of the hill at the side of the N/S runway, with a commanding view over the whole area, stands a massive blockhouse that was the battle headquarters from where any battle for the airfield would be directed. (To afficianados of such buildings, this was built to the 11008/41 design).

In August 1943, Coastal Command took over the station and it became a satellite of the Catalina and Sunderland flying boat base at Killadeas.

Listen - Later the emphasis at St Angelo moved towards supporting the search for the U-boat packs in the Western Approaches in the Atlantic...

 

Catalinas over Lough Erne,  1943 - picture courtesy Breege McCusker
Catalinas over Lough Erne, 1943 - picture by courtesy of Breege McCusker

The airfield also became the home for 235Sqn in October 1943 and they flew the long range torpedo bomber, the Beaufighter, in the ceaseless war against the U-Boat packs who were harrying the convoys fighting their way across the Atlantic with desperately needed supplies.

One recorded incident out of St Angelo reads:
On 10th March 1944 Short Sunderland MKIII, RAF s/n EK591, aircraft “2-U” of No. 422 (General Reconnaissance) Squadron based at St Angelo, County Fermanagh, Ireland with Warrant Officer 2nd Class W.F Morton and crew, sank U-625 at 52-53N 20-19W. This was W/O Morton’s first operational mission as an aircraft commander

Listen - With all the hills around Enniskillen the sight of a large hill topped by a church with a tower sitting right at the end of the main runway must have frightened the wits out of new arrival at St Angelo. James O'Neill thought it might not have been the most popular airfield to visit.

 

Beaufighter
Beaufighter, in the ceaseless war against the U-Boat packs

 

One of the best preserved areas around St Angelo airfield is well away from the public gaze and a trek alongside the main runway is needed to find the ‘e-pens’ or blast shelters. These were called e-pens because, in shape, they looked like today’s symbol for the euro. These were built around the airfield and places where bombers would have been dispersed to make them harder targets to find should an enemy attack occur. The safety of maintenance crews was paramount too and the blast shelters were never more than a few yards away from where they worked on the aircraft – somewhere to take cover during an attack. Although now overgrown these are well preserved and most probably the last in existence in Northern Ireland.

Listen - The significance of St Angelo is that it is in such a fine state of preservation with so many buildings intact.

 

A number of E-Pens remain in almost perfect condition
A number of E-Pens remain in almost perfect condition -25th March 2004

During the war the airfield – or aerodrome as it was known locally – was known as Rossihilly and, sometimes, Ballycassidy but the name Saint Angelo is derived from the nearby Bishop’s residence, called St. Angelo, which was commandeered, apparently for the use of the Station Commander, and the name became attached to the airfield.

On 1st May 1944 the RAF opened No12 (Operational) Flying Instructors School with the sole purpose of training ex operational pilots as instructors who would then go on to instruct basic trainee pilots . They started with Wellingtons, Beaufighters and Mosquitos but it was quickly decided that they would included instructors on Sunderlands and Catalinas who would do their training out of Killadeas.

Listen - Moving further down the airfield we see some of the protective shelters that were built to protect maintenance crews in the dispersal areas.

 

At the end of the war the airfield became a maintenance base and before it was officially disbanded in February 1947 it was used as a place for storing and breaking up the Avro Anson transport aircraft.

The fact that St. Angelo played an important part in the defence of the Western Approaches is largely understated but there is little doubt that aircraft from St. Angelo and the bases at Castle Archdale and Killadeas played a significant part in the strategy to overcome the menace of the U-boats.

Listen - James tells how he was visiting St Angelo as part of an official survey...

 

At the time or writing, this airfield is scheduled to become an historic monument which will be a fitting tribute to all those men who lived, fought and died in this small area of County Fermanagh and, although the architecture of the time might not be described as beautiful, it deserves to be preserved as a record for future generations.

___________________________________

Note from the Editor:
Sadly, just two days after this article was written, virtually all of the WWII structures on the St. Angelo site were destroyed. You can read about their destruction here on
BBC Online news

 

How the above structures looked just two days later, after the diggers had been

 

 

Relevant weblinks:
See the YP&M WAR homepage here
Fermanagh District Council


Have you any special memories of this or other airfields around NI? Please let us know by using the form below.


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