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Castles and Flying Boats

Castles and Flying Boats

Alison Alderton visits the now peaceful shores from where wartime crews flew patrols over the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Nestling comfortably on an island in the River Erne, Enniskillen, the county town of Fermanagh, separates the lakes of Upper and Lower Lough Erne. Guarding one of the few passes into Ulster, its strategic importance is reinforced by the impressive Castle and Watergate looming over the narrow waterway.


The impressive Watergate of Enniskillen Castle

In the 17th Century, it became an English garrison, later serving as a military barracks. Today it houses two museums, and the peaceful town with plenty of tourist attractions is the main cruiser base on the Erne. Here, boaters will find a good choice of mooring places offering easy access to the town, supermarkets and modern Erneside Shopping Centre.


Moorings in Enniskillen

Below Enniskillen, Portora Lock usually stands open, allowing unhindered access into Lower Lough Erne. Beyond the lake, its beautiful wooded shores are a feast for the eyes, a boater’s paradise with navigable routes weaving between the numerous islands where safe anchorages and pretty ports of call are accompanied by dreamy views.

However, the peaceful scenes encountered here today are deceptive, doing little to reveal the importance this most westerly of lakes played during the Second World War when it was used extensively by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a base for Coastal Command and its flying boats patrolling the Atlantic.


Memorial to the lost flying boat crew at Castle Archdale

Despite Eire remaining neutral throughout the war, the Allies were secretly permitted to use the ‘Donegal Corridor’ a narrow strip of airspace, allowing direct access from Lough Erne to the coast, avoiding a detour of over 100 miles across home soil.

The first remnants of these important operations can be found on the east shore of Gublusk Bay. Once the site of RAF Killadeas, an extensive base with its own hospital, it also housed an Operational Training Unit from where service men came to learn the skills needed for maritime patrols.

Since 1950, the site has been home to the Lough Erne Yacht Club, which overwinters its historic Fairy keelboats in one of the original structures known simply as The Hangar, while occupying the former flying boat service bay is the Enniskillen RNLI Station.

At Rossclare Bay, boaters will find a public jetty and slipway where the RAF once operated a salvage unit using civilian divers. The original flying boat mooring blocks, some inscribed with the casting date of March 1943, still remain. Flat, calm, glassy conditions proved to be the most difficult for crews to land in, as judging the aircraft's height above the water became deceptive. There are several marked war graves due to the many crashes in and around the lake which sadly resulted in fatalities.

As the lake widens, it passes Castle Archdale, the most impressive of all the former RAF sites and from where Coastal Command operated Consolidated Catalina’s and Short Sunderland flying boats. Opened in February 1941, the site housed up to 2500 personnel and had offshore moorings for 108 flying-boats as well as 40 boat moorings. The flying boats would regularly depart on Atlantic patrols searching for German U-boats in an attempt to protect allied shipping lanes.


Castle Archdale Marina

In May 194, a Catalina from Castle Archdale was out on a routine patrol when it located the German battleship, Bismarck which subsequently led to its sinking.

Second World War stone jetties at Castle Archdale

The last operational patrol from Castle Archdale was on 3rd June, 1945, and while many of the Sunderland’s and Catalina’s were scrapped, others were scuttled on the lake. It finally closed as an RAF base in 1958 and now forms the Castle Archdale Country Park. The courtyard buildings are all that remain of the 1773 constructed Archdale Manor which houses an informative Castle Archdale at War exhibition and tea rooms.

A wartime beacon erected to assist landing plane

With its popular marina, camping and caravan site sitting on the former concrete aircraft maintenance area, the park can be a hive of activity during the summer. In the grounds, there are walking trails and cycle paths taking in many of the base’s remains, including the aircrafts refuelling dock and memorials to crews lost.

Finally, at the northern end of the lake is the site of RAF Boa Island, often referred to as Rock Bay. A satellite base for RAF Killadeas, this opened on 31st May, 1944, and was Northern Ireland’s last military airfield to open during the Second World War.


Seaplane tender passing a Sunderland of No 201 Squadron 20th May 1943. PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM COLLECTION (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The last patrol to operate from Castle Archdale 3rd June 1945 IWM. PHOTO: IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM COLLECTION (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

When cruising these now peaceful waters, spare a thought for those who once served here. There may no longer be flying boats but there are plenty of other craft and that is partly thanks to the heroic efforts of the men and women who served on Lower Lough Erne.

Useful Information

Castle Archdale (Day) Boat Hire

Castle Archdale Caravan Park & Camping Site

Enniskillen Castle

Lough Erne Yacht Club

For more information on Flying Boats try:

A short distance inland from the lake is Enniskillen Airport. First known as Rossahilly Aerodrome, in 1941 it became a military site and renamed St. Angelo Airfield. Due to the boggy conditions, grass landing strips were unsuitable so solid runways were constructed and it became home to 133 and 134 Squadrons who flew Spitfires and Hurricanes used to intercept enemy reconnaissance aircraft.

Coastal Command took over in August 1943 and it became a satellite base for RAF Killadeas. At the end of the war the airfield became a maintenance base and was disbanded in 1947. Relics including machine gun pill boxes, air raid shelters and an underground battle headquarters remained until 2004 when they were sadly demolished before a preservation order could be obtained. Up until this time it was considered the only intact WWII airfield in Northern Ireland.

Several former flying-boat tenders can be found on Irish waterways; many of these have now been adapted for leisure cruising. One of the best known is the Lady Corrib which started life as a flying boat refuelling vessel. It was owned for many years by the late Maurice Semple, author and one of the founder members of the IWAI’s Corrib Branch.

More contemporary photographs from the Imperial War Museum Collection can be seen at:

This article was first published in Towpath Talk, the UK’s number one read for all waterways users (July 2014) and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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Comments (1)

Roger Harrington - 30/03/2019

Very interesting article - Flying boats, one of my favorite subjects!

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