Secret of Spitfire crash near Derrymacash revealed for first time

Tom Matthews with the piece of a crashed spitfire he salvaged during WWII near Derrymacash. In the background is a photo of the pilot who died. INLM23-202.
Tom Matthews with the piece of a crashed spitfire he salvaged during WWII near Derrymacash. In the background is a photo of the pilot who died. INLM23-202.

Two Lurgan pensioners have lifted the lid off wartime censorship and a page of local history which was closed by regulations in force more than 70 years ago.

In doing so, they’ve provided personal memories of a tragedy which saw a Second World War pilot give his life when his Royal Air Force Spitfire crashed at Derrymacash, three miles northwest of Lurgan.

The replica Spitfire of the Ulster Aviation Society, which will be on display Saturday, June 11th, at Brownlow House.  It is finished in the exact markings of Walter McManuss original Spitfire.

The replica Spitfire of the Ulster Aviation Society, which will be on display Saturday, June 11th, at Brownlow House. It is finished in the exact markings of Walter McManuss original Spitfire.

That accident killed Canadian Pilot Officer Walter McManus in January, 1942, but wartime restrictions meant not a word of it was published or broadcast at the time.

“There were thousands of troops around here in those days, but you wouldn’t have known it from the press,” said Clive Higginson, a volunteer at the American Forces museum at Brownlow House.

“Everything that happened around Lurgan was kept under wraps. Absolutely no mention in the paper.”

But on Wednesday (June 1st), two elderly men met and swapped memories about how they — as children — witnessed the smoking wreckage of the famous fighter that winter day long ago.

Mickey McAlinden, who turned 87 Sunday (June 5th), said he was pulling turnips from his grandfather’s field when he and his father heard the Spitfire’s engine.

“My father said to me, ‘There’s something wrong with that plane.’ And then we heard a bang,” he recalled.

His father sprang to his bicycle and carried Mickey, perched on the bike’s crossbar, to farmer Dominic Kane’s field three miles away.

They were met by the still-smoking crater caused by the doomed Spitfire.

“I think we were one of the first to get there. There was very little wreckage about,” he said. “I remember seeing about 20 feet of the wing, the right-hand wing. It was all a bit of a shock, so it was.”

Tom Matthews, 86, agreed it was quite an amazing event.

Tom, who used to live in Derrymacash but now lives in Larkfield Square, Lurgan, had just come home from school that day, January 7th, and heard about an aeroplane crash at Derrymacash.

He mounted his bike and pedalled to the crash site.

“For a young fellow, it was something unbelievable,” Tom said in an earlier interview.

“The fire was still burning a bit and there were .303 bullets (from the Spitfire’s armament) scattered all around the hole.”

He said he thinks his father George Matthews, who was a fireman, also attended the crash.

“There was a big hole in the ground and the plane was blazing and there were bullets all over the place,” he said.

It was a scene that Mickey McAlinden recalled as well.

There were no media reports, he said, “but it was the talk of the country around for a long time.”

Tom Matthews picked up a couple of shards of Perspex from the aircraft’s canopy and left for home as police and air force personnel secured the site. One of the canopy pieces is now at the Brownlow House museum, but there are apparently no other remnants of the crash.

In fact, the only visible evidence of the tragedy is a grave marker 40 miles to the east, in a tiny churchyard near pilot McManus’s home base of Ballyhalbert, Co Down, where his remains were buried.

The cause of the crash itself was never determined. However, a tribute of sorts will be open to the public on Saturday, June 11th, as a full-sized replica of the young main’s Spitfire will be on show in the courtyard of Brownlow House during a classic cars festival.

The detailed replica was acquired three years ago by the Ulster Aviation Society for its hangar collection at Maze/Long Kesh, an RAF air base during the war.

Photos and other memorabilia relating to Walter McManus will also be on display.

“We’re very proud to have our Spitfire coming to Brownlow House,” said Ray Burrows, Chairman of the Ulster Aviation Society.

“In a sense, the aircraft is coming home, as it’s never been to Lurgan before — and after all, this is where the original Spitfire ended its days.”

“That local connection is very significant,” said Clive Higginson. “We’re very pleased that the Society’s Spitfire will be present.”

As for Mickey McAlinden and Tom Matthews, their recent meeting together was an opportunity to recall together an isolated microcosm of the Second World War, in the shape of a tragic incident which neither of them has ever forgotten.