World War II hero Brendan Finucane flew with shamrock on side

BRENDAN FINUCANE may not be as well known in his native Ireland, but in Britain, he is remembered as a hero of the Second World War.

Born in Rathmines, Co Dublin in 1920, Brendan Finucane spent his formative years in the capital. However at 16 years of age, his parents decided to move the family to England. The move would be pivotal for the young Finucane, who had ambitions to become a pilot since he was just 12 years old.

When he finished school in England, Brendan went on to work as an accountant, which he hated, craving more excitement.

At 17, Brendan joined the Royal Air Force’s short-service commissions programme, where he could learn to fly over a four-year period. His flying lessons were not plain sailing however, and his early days in the skies were littered with accidents and near misses — he almost crashed into an airfield boundary hedge and, four days later, his tyre burst while landing.

Despite his shaky start, Finucane soon learned how to handle various aircraft and amassed 100 hours of practice flying. From there, he was sent on to advanced flying school in Scotland to enhance his skills.

Although he scored low marks in his flying exams, Finucane was called to action when war broke out in 1939. His skills were initially not seen as adequate to become a fighter pilot, however on the Fall of France an influx of pilots was sorely needed.

The Irishman was sent to Chester to train in the Spitfire while awaiting his posting. On 3 July, 1940, he flew the plane for the first time.

His time as a fighter pilot provided Finucane with the excitement he craved, although it was not without its challenges. His first scramble almost ended in destruction when the Spitfire developed a leak while in flight, filling the cockpit with vapour. Immediately afterwards, his radio transmission failed. He managed to pull off an emergency landing and survived the encounter.

Throughout the war, and his many stunning victories, Finucane became a symbol of hope for the British public. A young and very handsome man, his successes were a morale boost for Britain at war.

The term ‘flying ace’ was awarded to a pilot who downed five enemy planes in aerial combat — Finucane had an incredible 28 ‘kills’, all in the Spitfire, while some authorities say that figure was as high as 32.

In June 1942, aged 21, he became the youngest wing commander in RAF history, but the following month came his final mission.

His plane was damaged as he headed for a German army camp in France. His wingman, Alan Aikman, notified him of a plume of smoke coming from his plane, to which he reportedly replied with a thumbs up. He flew slowly out to sea in the destroyed vessel, and lost radio contact off the French coast. He apparently attempted to land in the channel but was unsuccessful, and his plane crashed nose-first into water.

Despite his short life, Finucane is remembered today as one of the most celebrated pilots of the Battle of Britain. His memorial was attended by over 2,500 people. His Irish heritage was always important to him, and he flew with a shamrock emblazoned on the side of his planes as a constant reminder of his home country. A rose was planted in the memorial garden in his native Dublin at Baldonnel Aerodrome. At EPIC, he is remembered in our Conflict gallery, dedicated to remembering the contribution made by Irish people who fought in foreign wars.

Written by PATRICK KELLEHER as part of our special magazine series in the Irish Independent