DEATH OF A CANADIAN AIRMAN IN 1941
THE REMAINS OF Sergeant Douglas Albert Woodman, known as Dougie Woodman, lie a few metres inside the gates of Gould's Hill Cemetery, Mallow. Most who pass that way to funerals or when visiting the graves of loved ones, take no notice of the maple leaf carved above words that record his name and that he was an air observer with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died on 24th October 1941, a young lad, aged only 24. Every November poppies and little wooden crosses are placed against his headstone by locals who ensure that his memory is not forgotten. But beyond that, nothing is remembered in Mallow about Sergeant Woodman. This is the story of how I became aware of his fate.
In 1997, I was attending a conference in Wales as a representative of Ballyhoura Development when I met up with John Brock, then aged about 80, who had a lilting Welsh accent and was one of those rare species in local heritage – a doer rather than a talker. It was not the first time that we had met. Our first encounter had been some years earlier when I was with another Ballyhoura group visiting the old radio control station at Royal Air Force Carew Cheriton. RAF Cheriton was a World War II airfield attached to Coastal and Training Command near Carew, in Pembrokeshire, about ten kilometres north of Tenby. On the occasion of my first visit, we were told about how a group of local volunteers had acquired the disused control tower which until the 1990s had been used as an animal shed by a local farmer. Within a relatively short time they had turned RAF Cheriton into the only restored World War II radio control tower in Britain.
On my second encounter with John, I enquired about how things were progressing at Cheriton. With enthusiasm he told me how they had created a local tourist attraction and how this, in turn, had led to donations of all sorts of memorabilia associated with the old airfield. John, who repeatedly referred to me as ‘brother’ and ‘my Irish friend,’ said that they had not known of what became of a Blenheim Mark IV bomber which flew out of Cheriton in 1941. It had, so to speak, ‘gone off the radar’ and never returned. He had only recently discovered that it had crashed off the south coast of Ireland. As far as he knew the crew had been taken as prisoners of war by the Irish and one of them later died of injuries from the crash. John assured me that he would have some more details for me when our group visited Cheriton.
On the following morning at RAF Cheriton, I listened quietly in the audience while he spoke about the restoration of the radio control tower. Early in his talk, he notice me. ‘Ah, my Irish friend, I have something for you,’ he remarked, as he passed down a sheet of paper. As I read the text I thought of how my pursuit of history has given me the joy of serendipity – ‘the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident’. When he finished speaking, I said, ‘John, not only do I know where the flight went down but I know the cemetery where Sergeant Woodman is buried. I live about 20 miles from Mallow’. There began a quest to find out more about how a World War II Canadian airman came to be buried in Mallow.
At the end of 1941, Britain stood alone against Hitler, and world opinion believed that Russia would fall before an apparently unstoppable German army. America remained firmly neutral, declining to take part in a war. Churchill was doing his best to get America into the War but President Roosevelt, responsing to public pressure, kept his country firmly neutral. However, the president signed the ‘Lend-Lease Act’ which allowed his government and American companies to sell supplies to Britain. This became a shameless exercise for opportunists in America who made ‘a fast buck’ from Britain, which lost all its gold reserves in paying for war materials (much of it out-dated) and other essential supplies from the Americans. Meanwhile, German u-boats inflicted terrible damage on the convoys to Britain, sinking 212 ships between February and March, sending 818,000 tons of supplies and equipment to the bottom of the Atlantic. Not a week passed without ships being sunk by German submarines and one of the primary objectives of the RAF was to engage in u-boat hunting and to provide convoy protection. Irish neutrality (inadvertently assured by Britain with the return of its naval ports in the south of Ireland to the Irish Government in 1938), had denied the RAF and British navy the ability to protect a large part of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, British aircraft were able to fly relatively closely to the Irish coast while on protection duties.
On the morning of 23 October 1941, the Bristol Blenheim IV (F) (V5728) left RAF Cheriton to take part in convoy patrol duty off the southern Irish coast. On board was an all-Canadian crew consisting of Sergeant Charles (Chuck) Brady from Toronto who was dorsal air gunner; the pilot was Sergeant Paul Webster from Vancouver; and the navigator, Sergeant Dougie Woodman, was from Ontario. The events of that day were later described by Sergeant Brady.
'We were flying the Blenheim Mk 4F which had four forward-firing guns. I operated a single gun in my cramped turret. The day before we ditched, one of our squadron had lost an engine but managed to get home safely. We were suddenly faced with the same problem when our starboard engine suddenly packed up, and a few minutes later, the port engine’s oil pressure started to shoot up – we had no alternative but to ditch.'
However, because they were located over a convoy, they were prohibited from sending out an SOS signal or turning on their Indicator Friend or Foe (IFF) Responder which would have alerted their position to other ships and aircraft. To have done so would also have revealed their position to u-boats in the area. This would then have made the position of the convoy known to the enemy and an easy target for submarine attack. In the moments that followed, the Blenheim crew headed for the Irish coast, crash landing into the sea at Calf Island, near Schull, close to where a Luftwaffe Condor had crashed several months earlier.
Sergeant Brady said that:
'We struck the water at about 120 knots. I got out of my turret and crawled to the back where I was able to open the rear hatch and exit. Paul the pilot got out through the top, but poor Dougie Woodman, the navigator, who was in the nose and had forgotten to strap himself in, was flung right through the front of the aircraft into the water. We helped him into the dingy which we had launched, but his bones were sticking through his knee and his chest was all caved in. Despite his injuries he asked me for a cigarette.'
In those days, there was no rescue service. The Canadians were left floating around in the water for seven hours before they were rescued by a motorboat brought in by locals.
'By now Dougie was in agony and he was taken straight to hospital. Paul and I were in pretty bad shape and a priest came in to comfort us, bringing a bottle of brandy and the pair of us sank the whole damn bottle which, I guess, sort of softened us up! We were interrogated, and then started off on the long ride up to the Curragh internment camp. We had hit the sea at noon that day, 23 October 1944, and as midnight struck we were lodged in the Curragh.'
Webster and Brady had been initially questioned at Bantry House Military Station. Dougie Woodman, however, was not so lucky. He was taken to Bantry Hospital from where he was immediately transferred to the new general hospital in Mallow, 120 kilometres away. This was regarded as having one of the best surgical units in Ireland. Mallow also had the advantage of being designated a military hospital. However, he died at the hospital on the following day.
Mrs Anne Scannell's late husband remembered the funeral told her that it provided a great spectacle, with delegations from the British, American and Canadian embassies being present. The funeral also attracted considerable local attention, especially because a full British military funeral had not been seen in Mallow for twenty years.
Donal MacCarron in ‘Landfall Ireland,’ quotes an unnamed local boy who remembered the funeral in his adult years.
'The Catholic Church at the time was very strict, over strict in fact, as I will tell you. As his funeral passed through the main streets of the town with the bank playing "The Dead March," blinds were drawn and doors closed and large crowds lined the streets and followed the remains to the cemetery. "The Last Post" was sounded and three volleys fired. The following day at school we were addressed by the local parish priest in our assembly hall who said that all of us who had attended the Protestant burial were guilty, as Catholics, of a very serious transgression. We were all made to go to confession and afterwards the priest said that he was now prepared to accept that we were not aware of the gravity of our actions. The pressure put on people to remain well within the parameters of their own religion can only be fully appreciated by those, like me, who lived in those far-off pre-ecumenical days – it was religious bigotry at its worst which would not be tolerated today. I later gathered that the young airman… was in fact a Presbyterian. He still lies in the local cemetery where his grave is beautifully tended and marked by a simple headstone bearing his name, his rank in the Canadian Royal Air Force, and the date of his death. Anniversary services are sometimes arranged in Protestant churches and are attended by people of all faiths.'
Brady and Webster were subsequently interned in the Curragh, where a barbed wire fence separated German POWs from the British. Irish neutrality was, as is widely acknowledged, a ‘neutrality in favour of one side’. During the earlier part of the war, when Germany was enjoying victory after victory, the British had to put up with the German POWs singing Deutschland uber Alles (the German national anthem), on a regular basis. However, when the British won the Battle of El Alamein a year after Webster’s and Brady’s arrival in the Curragh, the British got their hands on fireworks and treated the Germans to fireworks display.
Life as an Allied POW in Ireland was not as awful as one might imagine. While food in the Curragh camp was dreadful and the daily routine boring, from early in the war, Allied POWs were allowed play golf in the Curragh, go to the Curragh races and enjoy day trips to Dublin – all paid for by their respective national delegations. Contrary to the long held view that the first duty of a POW is to escape, in neutral Ireland, there was an explicit understanding that this would not happen. 'Live and let live' were over-riding principles between the POWs and their captors. On one occasion, when some airmen escaped to Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary promptly put them into a police car, drove them back to the border and handed them to the Irish (with an apology). This status quo continued until de Valera’s Government decided that, as a matter of course, Allied combatants who found themselves on Irish soil ought to be quietly taken to the border with Northern Ireland and handed over to the RUC, who officers then repatriated them to their respective air force or navy.
The same courtesy was not accorded to German or Axis POWs held by the Irish State.
Some reports of what happened Brady and Webster after their capture state that they ‘escaped’ from the POW camp. But it is more likely that they were handed over at the border some time in early 1942. Webster was killed in action over Dieppe. Brady was released to his Unit and survived the war, afterwards returning to Vancouver.
Members of the Warplane Research Group of Ireland (WRGI) erected a small memorial plaque to Dougie Woodman outside Bantry House in 1987. His headstone in Gould’s Hill reads:-
R.60047 Sergeant D.A. Woodman,
Royal Canadian Air Force
24th October 1941 age 23.
At the going down
of the sun
And in the morning,
We will remember them.
Keywords: 1941, Bantry, Blenheim IV, Canadian, Cheriton, Dougie, Funeral, Goulds Hill, John Brock, Mallow, Ontario, POW, RAF, Sergeant Douglas Albery Woodman, Woodman, air observer, airman, crash
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