During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. We present one of these narratives, an account selected from more than 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men was Flight Lieutenant Brendan Eamonn Fergus ‘Paddy’ Finucane.
By the time he was killed in July 1942, Wing Commander Brendan Eamonn Fergus Finucane DSO, DFC and Two Bars – known to many as ‘Paddy’ – had achieved a tally of 28 ‘kills’, though accounts vary with some sources giving the number as high as 32.
Born in Dublin, and the eldest of five children, most of Finucane’s successes occurred during operations over northern France. In the broadcast he recorded for the BBC, Finucane revealed a little about such missions as well as what it was like to serve in 452 Squadron RAAF, the first Australian squadron formed in Britain during the Second World War.
The introduction to Finucane’s recording stated: “An Irish Flight Lieutenant who was recently awarded a second Bar to his DFC and who leads a flight of a famous Australian squadron, shot down his 21st enemy aircraft today (Thursday), just a few days before his 21st birthday.” The Bar to the DFC mentioned here was gazetted on 26 September 1941, whilst his 21st kill had been achieved on 21 October. What follows is part of Finucane’s broadcast:
“I’ve been on about 50 sweeps, and most of my victories have been gained over France. I’ve got my bag because I’ve been blessed with a pair of good eyes, and have learned to shoot straight. I’ve not been shot down – touch wood – and I’ve only once been badly shot up. And for all that I’ve got a lot to thank the pilots in my section.
“They are Australians and I’ve never met a more loyal or gamer crowd of chaps. They’ve saved my bacon many a time when I’ve been attacked from behind while concentrating on a Messerschmitt in front of me, and they’ve followed me through thick and thin. On the ground they’re the cheeriest friends a fellow could have. I’m sure that Australia must be a grand country if it’s anything like its pilots, and after the war I’m going to see it. No, not flying, or farming. I like a job with figures – accountancy or auditing. Perhaps that doesn’t sound much like a fighter pilot. But pilots are perfectly normal people.
“Before going off on a trip I usually have a funny feeling in my tummy, but once I’m in my aircraft everything is fine. The brain is working fast, and if the enemy is met it seems to work like a clockwork motor. Accepting that, rejecting that, sizing up this, and remembering that. You don’t have time to feel anything. But your nerves may be on edge — not from fear, but from excitement and the intensity of the mental effort. I have come back from a sweep to find my shirt and tunic wet through with perspiration.
“Our chaps sometimes find that they can’t sleep. What happens is this. You come back from a show and find it very hard to remember what happened. Maybe you have a clear impression of three or four incidents, which stand out like illuminated lantern slides in the mind’s eye. Perhaps a picture of two Me 109s belting down on your tail from out of the sun and already within firing range. Perhaps another picture of your cannon shells striking at the belly of an Me and the aircraft spraying debris around. But for the life of you, you can’t remember what you did.
“Later, when you have turned in and sleep is stealing over you, some tiny link in the forgotten chain of events comes back. Instantly you are fully awake, and then the whole story of the operation pieces itself together and you lie there, sleep driven away, re-living the combat, congratulating yourself for this thing, blaming yourself for that. The reason for this is simply that everything happens so quickly in the air that you crowd a tremendous amount of thinking, action and emotion into a very short space of time, and you suffer afterwards from mental indigestion.
“The other week I was feeling a little jaded. Then my seven days’ leave came round, and I went back bursting with energy. On my first flight after getting back I shot down three Me’s in one engagement, and the next day bagged two more. That shows the value of a little rest.
“It’s a grand life, and I know I’m lucky to be among the squadrons that are carrying out the sweeps. The tactical side of the game is quite fascinating. You get to learn, for instance, how to fly so that all the time you have a view behind you as well as in front. The first necessity in combat is to see the other chap before he sees you, or at least before he gets the tactical advantage of you. The second is to hit him when you fire. You mightn’t have a second chance.
Soon half a dozen of us were flying at 400mph in line astern, everybody, except the leader, firing at the chap in front of him
“After a dogfight your section gets split up, and you must get together again, or tack on to others. The straggler is easy meat for a bunch of Jerries. Luckily, the chaps in my flight keep with me very well, and we owe a lot to it. On one occasion recently I saw an Me dive on to one of my flight. As I went in after him, another Me tailed in behind to attack me, but one of my flight went in after him. Soon half a dozen of us were flying at 400mph in line astern, everybody, except the leader, firing at the chap in front of him.
“I got my Hun just as my nearest pal got the Hun on my tail, and we were then three Spitfires in the lead. When we turned to face the other Me’s we found that several others had joined in, but as we faced them they turned and fled.
“The nearest I’ve been to being shot down was when another pilot and I attacked a Ju 88. The bomber went down to sea level, so we could only attack from above, in face of the fire of the Ju’s rear guns. We put that Ju into the sea all right, but I had to struggle home with my aircraft riddled with bullets and the undercarriage shot away. I force-landed without the undercarriage and was none the worse for it. But it wasn’t very nice at the time. Well, as I said just now, one day I’m planning to go to Australia — and audit books.”
Though Finucane survived the encounter with the Ju 88 his luck would not last, as the events of 15 July 1942 testify. That morning, the pilots of 122 Squadron took to the air from RAF Hornchurch. Accompanied by 81 and 154 squadrons, the pilots were instructed to undertake a mass ‘Rhubarb’ operation.
The Hornchurch Wing was led by Wing Commander Brendan “Paddy” Finucane DSO, DFC and Two Bars. At 21, he was the RAF’s youngest ever Wing Commander.
The main target was a hutted encampment near Étaples and the aim was to attack at lunchtime when it was hoped the defenders would be relatively relaxed. Sadly, this was not the case. The formation headed out over Pevensey at zero feet and set course for Étaples. When landfall was made just north of the French coast, still at zero feet, 81 and 154 squadrons turned to port whilst 122 Squadron made a wider turn round the town at 2,000 feet then headed back out to sea. En route a number of targets were attacked.
During the sweep, Finucane’s Spitfire Mk.Vb, BM308, was hit in the radiator and his wingman, Pilot Officer Alan ‘Butch’ Aikman of 154 Squadron, radioed up to report that there was a white plume of smoke coming from the engine. Finucane acknowledged this with a ‘thumbs up’.
Aikman apparently heard his CO remark, “This is it, Butch”
The two flew slowly out to sea, with Finucane talking calmly to Aikman as he glided northwards. Finally, some eight miles off Le Touquet, Wing Commander Finucane sent his last message. Aikman, flying alongside, saw him pull back the canopy. Before taking off his helmet, Aikman apparently heard his CO remark, “This is it, Butch”.
Before Finucane’s Spitfire touched down on the surface of the English Channel both Aikman and Pilot Officer Keith Chisholm of 452 Squadron had observed the Wing Commander either tightening or releasing his parachute release harness and straps. Moments later BM308 struck the water, both aircraft and pilot disappearing in a wall of spray. If Finucane had released his straps then it is possible he was thrown forward and struck the gun sight. In such circumstances he may have been killed outright or knocked unconscious and drowned.
To this day he is reported as “missing”.
We are grateful to the Finucane family for making available (via Chris Goss) images used in this feature. For more information, see ‘Paddy Finucane: Fighter Ace’ by Doug Stokes, re-published in the last few years by Crecy Books.