Located in Hall 1 of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset sits a rather unsuspecting aircraft. Compared to the Phantom, Buccaneer and Sea Harrier jet fighters this rather utilitarian looking amphibious biplane is a Supermarine Walrus; arguably one of the least glamorous names ever bestowed on an aircraft. The Supermarine Walrus is one of those aviation oddities where on the surface it seems uninspiring, unexciting and even uninteresting but the fact of the matter is it was also an aircraft that engaged in some truly daring exploits. Its unassuming exterior camouflages the heroic efforts of its crews be they spotting for the Royal Navy’s guns or pulling downed airmen out of the English Channel while under heavy enemy fire. The aircraft at Yeovilton too has its own fascinating history but perhaps not the type you would normally expect of such an aircraft.
The story begins in 1939 before the outbreak of war when the Irish Air Corps ordered three examples of the type from the UK. One of these aircraft was the example now at Yeovilton and at the time carried the number “18”. However things didn’t go entirely according to plan when on the delivery flight bad weather forced the aircraft down in to a very angry Irish Sea. During the course of the water landing the wings were damaged rendering it unable to take off again leaving the poor crew to try and taxi its way to land. Fortunately a passing fishing boat saw them and took them under tow before a lifeboat launched from the shore came to their assistance and brought them home. It made the final leg of its journey to Baldonnel Aerodrome on the back of a truck where work began on repairing the aircraft.
In the meantime Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland and after years of appeasement the British and French finally took action declaring war on the 3rd September 1939. For the relatively infant Republic of Ireland (Eire) it was an unnerving and difficult time despite declaring itself neutral. On the one hand the Irish had as much to fear from Nazi Germany as the rest of Europe. The German invasion of Belgium and the lowlands proved that neutrality, no matter how strongly it was proclaimed, was no guarantee of protection. Worse still the Irish defence forces were small and ill-equipped to face a German attack. To ally themselves with Britain would invite German reprisals especially by 1940 when it seemed that even Britain would fall under the Nazi Jackboot.
But there was another, more passionate reason for not working with Britain against the Germans. The Republic of Ireland itself was born out of rebellion against centuries of British domination where English landowners became rich off the backs of the Irish people. With the Republic not even two decades old there was barely an Irish family that didn’t have some story of their part in freeing themselves of the “English yoke” and to be drawn in to a conflict that at the time was seen as a predominantly British problem would appear to be a step back. Even more worrying for the British position was that many in Ireland remembered German support for the 1916 uprising and viewed Nazi Germany as a potential ally in “finishing the job” (i.e. taking over Northern Ireland making the Emerald Isle entirely Irish again).
The situation had largely changed by the time America entered the war but a few hardliners remained and wanted to fight against the British on the side of the Germans. One such man was Irish Air Corps pilot Alan Thornton who by late 1941 had become increasingly frustrated with his country’s position and he convinced three of his fellow servicemen to join him in defecting to the German Luftwaffe. With the promise of adventure fuelling the spirit of resistance against the British the three men agreed to follow him.
On the 9th of January 1942 the four men made their move; secretly fuelling Supermarine Walrus No.18 and then quickly taking off. There was much confusion at Baldonnel as to what was happening but when it was realized that the aircraft didn’t have permission to take-off an Irish Air Corps Westland Lysander was quickly scrambled to go after them. However the defectors had got too much of a head start and the Lysander was unable to locate the lumbering Walrus as it flew south east. Thornton and his followers were aiming for Cherbourg where they intended to display their aircraft’s neutral colours to any intercepting Luftwaffe fighters in the hope this would be enough to avoid getting shot down on sight. This was an extremely dangerous thing to do as Luftwaffe pilots were well aware of the shape of the British-designed and built Supermarine Walrus aircraft that regularly operated in the channel. Knowing they couldn’t fly directly over the extremely heavily defended UK they planned to fly around the tip of Cornwall and then make a dash for the French coast.
While they had passion and enthusiasm by the bucket-load it soon became apparent that they were somewhat lacking in their skills as navigators particularly over the Irish Sea where there are few landmarks to plot. They began wasting valuable fuel trying to get their bearings but with a large landmass in sight they decided to risk flying over it to try and identify just where they were. To their horror they soon found they were heading straight for Cornwall itself and no sooner had this realization come to them that they truly experienced what a country at war is like when four high speed monoplanes swooped down on them. They were another Supermarine product – Spitfires.
RAF St. Eval was a busy RAF base during the war despite being on the western side of the country away from occupied France where much of the action was taking place. Primarily a Coastal Command base, aircraft flew from St. Eval predominantly on anti-submarine and convoy protection missions. On January 9th the air traffic controllers received word that a formation of Spitfires were escorting an aircraft to the base which was to have priority landing. The high speed fighters contrasted sharply to the lumbering biplane amphibian that solemnly lowered its landing gear and touched down, its crew knowing they had failed in their attempt to join the Luftwaffe. As the aircraft was taxied off the runway it garnered a lot of fascination by the RAF personnel many of whom were unfamiliar with the orange, white and green Irish markings which led to some believing they were looking at a Dutch aircraft despite Holland having been overrun by Germany almost two years earlier.
Thornton and his men gave no resistance as they were arrested by the RAF Police. After being held in the UK for a short while both the men and the Walrus were returned to Ireland. Thornton himself was found guilty of theft and as the leader of the group received a 16-month jail sentence. Walrus No.18 continued serving with the Irish Air Corps until the end of the war at which time it adopted a civilian registry apparently for use with Aer Lingus although this never happened. It changed hands several times including a brief stint with No.615 (County of Surrey) squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It was retired in 1948 and left to rot at a dump in Oxfordshire until it was recovered in 1963 and handed over to the Fleet Air Arm Museum where it now resides painted as FAA Walrus L2301.