by Ray Burrows
Following on from Ernie’s quite detailed look at Spitfires in Northern Ireland, I thought it would be nice to produce the information on the other operators of the type… the Fleet Air Arm.
As was quite rightly stated at the end of his article, there were far more Seafires operated in the Province than their land-based equivalent – but that is not to say that every Seafire that flew in the Province, went to sea! Seafires were to be seen in the Province from early 1943 until the early 1950s and their story is quite a remarkable one.
Next Seafires to be seen were 10 Mk IIc’s belonging to 887 Squadron which along with 5 Swordfish II (818 Sqn) arrived at Sydenham on 18th April 1943. 887 was destined to join the new carrier HMS Unicorn which had just been completed at the nearby Harland & Wolfe shipyard and it would appear the squadron
The Seafires and Swordfish remained here until August 5th when they embarked the newly fitted out HMS Fencer and following a further period of working-up in the Clyde/Irish Sea area took part in “Operation Alacrity” (the occupation of the Azores) during the first week of October.
The importance of Sydenham to the various air forces during WWII cannot be over stressed, the fact that the airfield was adjacent to one of the only deep water wharfs in the UK and next door to a major shipyard probably made it unique in the UK.
This is clearly evidenced by the number of Fleet Air Arm squadrons that flew into/ from the airfield to embark/disembark carriers which had or were about to receive attention at Harland & Wolff.
Belfast, RAF Sydenham (HMS Gadwall from 21/6/43) was the first airfield to receive Seafires on March 19th 1943 when 807 Squadron arrived with 12 Seafire LIIc’s and possibly a couple of Spitfire Vb’s from Machrihanish. 807 Sqn was the first squadron to receive Seafires (June’42) and had recently returned to the UK, having taken part in the North Africa landings (Operation Torch) operating from the carrier HMS Furious. Whilst based at Sydenham the squadron continued working-up, undertaking Army support training, obviously in preparation for what lay ahead as on June 2nd they embarked HMS Indomitable and headed for the Mediterranean where they went on to provide Army support for the Sicily landings.
continued to work-up with the ship from the 19th April until they left Sydenham on April 24th. Both 887/818 Sqns continued working-up in the Clyde area until mid May whenever Unicorn set course for Gibraltar on convoy escort. When Unicorn returned to the UK, 887 once again flew ashore to Sydenham, arriving on June 18th and remaining until July 11th when the Squadron re-embarked, still equipped with Seafire IIc’s. This time Unicorn operated for a short time off the Norwegian coast before returning to operations in the Mediterranean.
18th July 1943 saw the arrival of 842 Squadron at Maydown with 6 Seafire Ib’s together with some 9 Swordfish II’s. 842 Sqn had formed on March 1st at Lee-on-Solent and was known as a ‘composite’ squadron ie; operating a mixture of aircraft types, later operating Seafire/Swordfish and Wildcat aircraft simultaneously. At Maydown the squadron practised ADDL’s (Aerodrome Dummy Deck Landings) and formation flying until on the 31st July they departed for Sydenham, now HMS Gadwall.
When 816 Squadron, another ‘composite’ unit equipped with 6 Seafire Ib’s and 9 Swordfish II’s arrived at Maydown from Machrihanish on August 1st 1943 it spent the next two weeks working-up in preparation for joining the carrier HMS Tracker which was receiving modifications at H&W. The squadron embarked Tracker on August 13th for a work-up period in the Clyde before taking part in Atlantic convoy duty. This was the last visit of the Seafire Ib type to the Province.
On October 7th 1943 it was the turn of RAF Ballyhalbert to receive yet another naval squadron returning from operations in the Mediterranean, this time 880 Sqn equipped with 12 Seafire LIIc’s.
This squadron had taken part in operations during the landings in Sicily
in July and then again during September at Salerno (Operation Avalanche) and flew to Ballyhalbert from the escort carrier HMS Stalker as she arrived back in the Clyde.
This squadron spent some four months here during which time some well earned R&R was taken before beginning the task of working-up again. Departing Ballyhalbert on February 6th 1944 the squadron set course for Skeabrae, Scotland from where it was to join HMS Furious for operations off the Norwegian coast which lasted some 6 months and included no less than four attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz.
Seafire taxied into NAAFI Wagon
Seafire SR469 "Hey Doc" taxies out for a flight test
Seafire on exercise over Lough Foyle