Sergeant Sydney Ireland (745103) served with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. During World War Two, he flew with RAF 610 Squadron.
Born in Newtonbreda, near Belfast, Sydney enlisted with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in November 1938. He was one of “The Gang” of three grammar school boys who signed up aged eighteen years old. His friends Noel Corry and George Calwell signed up alongside him. All three gained their pilot’s wings at RAF Sydenham No. 24 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School in January 1939. Their instructor was Flight Lieutenant Charles Lindsay.
Sydney Ireland enjoyed playing rugby and had a love of playing guitar. He would play in the evenings at RAF Sydenham with friends Noel Corry, George Calwell, Herbie Megarry, Victor Skillen, and Johnny McAdam.
Singing with Sydney
In mid-November 1939, the RAFVR had been mobilised and the friends from Belfast were on their way to war. Sydney met with thirty other men at York Street Railway Station in Belfast. His friends enquired where his guitar was. Sydney had left it at home.
The young men in the Volunteer Reserve refused to depart without a farewell song, so Noel Corry asked the train driver to delay for 30 minutes. They taxied off to Matchett’s Music, at 44 Wellington Place, only a few doors down from where the guitar shop still stands. A guitar was purchased, the train driver waited, and the men had their singalong as the train departed for Larne.
Before the men left from Larne, the men tried to sign their names on the guitar. Pencils and fountain pen would not work so Cecil Smylie produced a pen-knife and the men duly engraved their names.
He received his posting to RAF 610 Squadron on 19th June 1940 from the Flight Training School at RAF Sealand, Flintshire. On 12th July 1940, Sergeant Ireland took off in Spitfire P9502 DW-Q. The Mark 1A was built at the Eastleigh factory near Southampton and first flew on 19th April 1940. A Merlin III engine powered the young pilot’s plane.
The Spitfire lost control as it dived through cloud on a dogfight training exercise with another pilot Sergeant HH Chandler. Before the crash, the young pilot was observed carrying out steep turns in the skies over Biggin Hill. After performing a half-roll, he descended into a steep dive. Struggling to regain control, the plane did not recover from this manoeuvre.
Sergeant Ireland died aged 22 as the plane came down at Pitchfont Farm, Titsey Park on the southern slope of the North Downs, four miles south of Biggin Hill, Kent. Extensive damage was visible after excavation of the plane from the crash site by London Air Museum. The plane was written off. He was the first of eighteen pilots from Northern Ireland killed during the Battle of Britain.
After Sydney’s death, his friend Noel Corry, who had attended his funeral, gave the engraved guitar to Sydney Ireland’s mother. She returned it to Noel as a mark of the men’s friendship. Sergeant Corry held onto the guitar until 1998. A later chance meeting with the son of Wing Commander Cecil Smylie reunited the guitar and the knife used to inscribe the names of the twenty-one men on the Larne train in 1939. Both items are now held in the Somme Museum, Newtownards.
As well as Sergeant Ireland, nine more of those men died before 1943:
- Sergeant Stanley Allan Fenenmore
- Sergeant Herbert Reginald Megarry
- Sergeant Noel Raymond Allenby Hawthorne
- Sergeant Samuel Sanderson
- Pilot Officer James Maxwell McCausland
- Sergeant Victor Skillen
- Pilot Officer Thomas Andrew McCann
- Flying Officer Victor Stephenson Neill
- Flying Officer Alan George Wood
Eleven signatories of the guitar survived the war.
- Squadron Leader Noel Henry Corry DFC AE
- Wing Commander William Winder McConnell DFC and Bar AE
- Flight Lieutenant Charles Crotchley Johnston AE
- Squadron Leader Robert Ronald Wright DFC AE
- Wing Commander Kenneth William MacKenzie DFC AFC AE
- Wing Commander John Howard Simpson DFC AE
- Flight Lieutenant George Calwell AE
- Flight Lieutenant Harry J Geary AE
- Flight Lieutenant J Lockington Lilburn AE
- Wing Commander Cecil Smylie DFC DFM AE
- Flight Lieutenant John Frederick Conway AE
Remembering Sergeant Sydney Ireland
Sydney Ireland’s grave is in Section E, Grave 78 of Knockbreda Cemetery, Belfast, Co. Antrim. Despite losing his life after the official start of the Battle of Britain, Sergeant Ireland is not listed as one of “The Few”. He had not yet flown an operational sortie as part of the battle at his time of death. The hub assembly and propeller blades from Sydney Ireland’s Spitfire make up a Battle of Britain Memorial Exhibition at the Shoreham Aircraft Museum. It can be found in the museum tea garden.