The Catalina was an American seaplane that was used during World War II. It was essential because it could take off and land on water. This helped the U.S. combat the German U-boats that were wreaking havoc in the Atlantic by targeting navy vessels and merchant ships. Many of these seaplanes were based at the Royal Air Force Castle Archdale (RAF). The ships were used by the Canadians, the British, and many others.
In the early stages, the Catalina was designed to bomb enemy shipping. During World War II, its versatility made it essential because it could act in a variety of roles, such as being a convoy escort, acting as an anti-submarine plane, transporting, and being a search and rescue aircraft. The aircraft was named the Catalina in November 1941 after California’s Santa Catalina Island. When the British ordered 30 of these planes, the U.S. sent them to the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.
One of the planes was co-piloted by an American airman named Ensign Leonard B. “Tuck” Smith. He was born in May 1915 in Mayview, Missouri, and he and other Americans were in Northern Island to train British aircrew to operated the seaplanes. The U.S. airmen loved flying these planes so much that they flew on missions, acting as co-pilots, and Tuck was one of them. The reason that the U.S. shouldn’t have been flying those planes at the time was that the U.S. was not part of the conflict yet. When Tuck flew the aircraft on May 26, 1941, it was six months before the U.S. joined the fight, before Pearl Harbor was bombed months later.
The Chief of Naval Operations told nine of the U.S. airmen that they should be flying the planes. They believed that the United States would soon be joining the war, and they should take every opportunity to learn about combat duty. The American airmen took this to heart, and they took every opportunity possible to fly. When nine of the British troops went on leave, they were replaced with U.S. fliers.
The Blind Leading the Blind
According to Tuck, when the U.S. troops taught the British to fly, it was the blind leading the blind. He knew something about the Catalina but had no experience with operational flying. One of the pilots he flew with was Dennis Briggs.
May 1941 Flight
The reason that the 1941 flight with Tuck and Briggs flying was so important was that they were spotted while on patrol. The German battleship, Bismarck, was one of the German Navy’s most advanced ships. When they were spotted, co-pilot Smith was at the controls. Before their flight, nobody knew where the Bismarck was. After pinning down the location, Swordfish planes armed with torpedoes took off from the HMS Ark Royal, and a vital attack was launched on the German vessel.
The attack damaged the ship so severely that it couldn’t steer. The Bismarck was finished off on May 27th, and it sunk to the bottom of the sea. Of the 2,200 crew members on board, only 114 were rescued. Tuck won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in the mission. He also became the first American to participate in a naval victory during World War II.
There was a problem with where the base was located. In order for the planes to get from Lough Erne to the Atlantic, they had to fly across the air space controlled ty the Republic of Ireland, which was neutral during the war. The only alternative was to fly across the Republic’s County Donegal, which was a 100-mile detour across Northern Ireland to get to the Atlantic. Although the Irish Republic was neutral, they prepared to stretch a point when it came to the fight against the Nazis. Soon, an agreement was made so that the planes could fly over the neutral territory.
Long after the war ended, scientists were mapping Lough Erne, which is actually two lakes that were linked. They were from the Charts Special Interest Group, and they were there to survey the lough. It was then that they spotted a structure about 150-feet beneath the surface of the water. The team knew that the area was a significant part of World War II, so they assumed that it was a downed plane or a sunken ship. A year later, they returned to the area with sonar equipment. Experts scouring an Irish lake with sonar discovered the lost wreck of a WWII seaplane. This was something that the historians were very interested in.
A local historian named Joe O’Loughlin told the Impartial Reporter in July 2019 that there are records of two planes crashing in the late. One was a Sunderland flying boat, and the other was a Catalina. He learned that On May 7, 1941, a Catalina AH 536 returned from a patrol over the Atlantic. As it was ready to land, it took a nosedive into the lake and sank near Gay Island. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Peter Cecil Thomas, died along with nine other crew members. Only one body was recovered. It was Leslie Roy Homes, and he was buried in Newport, Herefordshire. Further searches are planned to find more planes and pilots.