Meanwhile, back in March 1944 no fewer than 3 Seafire squadrons, which made up the 4th NFW disembarked to Long Kesh. On March 20th 809 squadron arrived from RNAS Dale with 20 IIc’s and a few LRIIc’s followed four days later by both 807 and 879 squadrons from Grimsetter and HMS Attacker respectively, bringing with them no fewer than 34 Seafires! During there stay at Long Kesh all three squadrons trained in Army Co-Operation and amphibious support together with some tactical reconnaissance – the reason for the type of training soon became apparent.
All 3 squadrons left as quickly as they had arrived, 807 departed on April 30th for HMS Attacker, 879 also departed on April 30th for HMS Hunter with 809 following on May 2nd for HMS Stalker. All three carriers later sailed for the Mediterranean to take part in “Operation Dragoon” – the invasion of the South of France. All three squadrons flew dive-bombing, reconnaissance and bombardment spotting sorties and afterwards took part in operations in the Agean Sea against shore installations and shipping.
The final two operational Seafire squadrons to visit NI during WWII were 885 and 808 squadrons, the latter initially being part of No. 3 NFW along with Nos 886 and 897 squadrons.
The Wing later absorbed No.885 squadron which had reformed at Lee-on-Solent on 15th February with all four squadrons now forming the Air Spotting Pool of No.34 Reconnaissance Wing, 2nd Tactical Air Force. The four squadrons of the Wing provided bombardment –spotting, fleet escort, offensive sweeps and anti-sub patrols for the D-Day invasion fleet. Following the Normandy invasion the Wing was reconstituted with 885 absorbing 897 and 808 absorbing 886.
Initially equipped with a mixture of Seafire FIII’s and LIII’s when 885 arived at Ballyhalbert on August 4th 1944 it was now equipped with 20 Seafire LIII’s. Amongst the 885 pilots was a young Ulsterman by the name of George Boyd, born in Belfast, George joined the service when he was just turned 18. [Boyd’s War ISBN 1-898392-06-4 tells George’s story as only an Ulsterman can.]
808 squadron arrived at Ballyhalbert on August 9th having spent the previous few days at Ayr and similar to 885 was also equipped with 20 Seafire LIII’s. Over the next few months at Ballyhalbert both squadrons continued to work-up, concentrating on dive-bombing (a lot of which was ‘live’) and low-level cross country flights together with air to air and air to ground firing.
On Saturday 21st October 1944 a brand new type of aircraft arrived at Ballyhalbert for 885 in the shape of Grumman Hellcat I serial FN399 followed two days later by FN322 for 808 squadron. The Hellcat’s arrival spelt the demise of the Seafire with both units and by the end of October the Seafires had more or less vanished with 885 transferring it’s aircraft to both 709 and 715 training squadrons at St.Merryn in Cornwall. A virtually new 3NFW was formed at Ballyhalbert with the addition of No’s 1840 and 800 squadrons both of which were Hellcat equipped. Both 885 and 808 were to see action with the East Indies Fleet with 885 on board HMS Ruler providing air cover for the Fleet whilst 808 on HMS Khedive took part in shipping strikes off Malaya and Sumatra.
Whilst the operational Seafire squadrons were here, Short’s Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) at Sydenham was tasked with carrying out repairs, which for one reason or another could not be undertaken at the squadron base or on board ship. The first aircraft was received on August 4th 1943 and between then and the last aircraft arriving on the 8th March 1945 approximately 18 aircraft were received, despatched or scrapped.
With so many front line squadrons operating from the Province it was inevitable that a training squadron would at sometime pay a visit and on February 7th 1945 No. 787 squadron ‘Y’ Flight arrived at Ballyhalbert from Machrihanish with Seafire III’s. The Flight had formed at Arbroath in June’44 as a Fighter Affiliation Flight, its task to visit front line squadrons to keep them up to date on fighter tactics. The Flight remained for just two weeks, its time at Ballyhalbert coinciding with the presence of the 14th Carrier Air Group (CAG) consisting of 1846 squadron (Corsairs) and 827 squadron (Barracudas), destined for embarkation on HMS Colossus. The CAG embarked on February 20th with 787 ‘Y’ Flight returning to Machrihanish the same day.
Seafire III of 899 Squadron, NF441 "K-W"
on HMS Khedive, on 11th April, 1944
Seafire nose over
Seafire from 767 Squadron
"G31" indicates a 761 Squadron (Henstridge) Seafire — wheels up at Eglinton