The village of Eglinton lies just off the Causeway Coastal Route, it dates from the Plantation of Ulster when the surrounding land was granted to the Grocer's Company, one of twelve London companies committed to the Plantation of Ulster by King James 1st. They subsequently leased the land to Edward Rone in 1615 with a covenant that he built a Bawn (fortified homestead) and twelve houses. By 1619 a bawn and eight houses stood here, the settlement was called Muff ('Mhagh - the plain) the same name as the river, glen and townland. Nothing remains of the original settlement except for the ruins of the Parish Church of Faughanvale which was built in 1626, the gable and window arch still stand in the graveyard of St Canice, the present parish church which was built in 1821.
The fortified bawn stood until 1823 when the Grocer's Company remodelled the village and built a Glebe house (rectory) on the site, they also built a schoolhouse, courthouse, manor house, market house and cottages. Several of these are still to be seen today including the Erasmus Smith schoolhouse built in 1812.
During the rebellion of 1641, the bawn was taken by insurgents under the command of Colonel McDonnell, they held out under siege through the winter of 1641 eventually being relieved by allied troops from Derry in the summer of 1642. The Parliamentarians then took the bawn and destroyed its fortifications. Later in 1690, it was taken over by the troops of King James II during the Siege of Derry, they set up camp here and went foraging the surrounding countryside for livestock to eat.
A couple of kilometres outside the village on the Old Coach Road you will find Faughanvale Presbyterian Church, the current church was built by public subscription in 1894, some of the money being sent back by those who had emigrated from the area to America, it replaced an earlier church founded in 1730. The church and graveyard sits on an elevated site in a beautiful rural setting with excellent views over the airport to Lough Foyle and Donegal, well worth a visit to see.
The name of the village changed from Muff to Eglinton in 1858 after the Earl of Eglinton, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland paid a visit to Templemoyle Agricultural School. The school had been founded by the Grocer's company in 1826 to teach modern farming. The school could accommodate 70 borders and had 175 acres of land which was farmed. They had a novel way of management, while half the school studied theory in the morning the other half did practical work on the farm, they would then swap roles for the afternoon. A fair day was also held here in Feb, May, Aug and September of each year, the school closed in 1865.
St. Canice, named after the local saint, is another location well worth visiting, especially if the sun is shining. The Grocer's company commissioned the architect John Bowden of Dublin to design and build the church in 1821, he was also responsible for the Foyle College in Derry and St. George's Church in Belfast. The church had a close affinity with the airbase here in the 1940 and 50s, evident by over thirty headstones of young men and women who lost their lives while on duty at Eglinton.
When you start to look around the landscape here you will start to notice many buildings which date back to the war years, including one collection close to the village which still has a network of concrete roads around numerous abandoned and overgrown buildings. Here you'll find billet huts, mess hall, briefing room, lookout towers, training halls and workshops. I just cannot understand why our local government has not moved to preserve and protect these important relics of our heritage.
The area around Eglinton was first surveyed by the Airfields Board in 1940 after which the Royal Engineers moved in and construction began. People living in the immediate area were issued with special permits to cross the airfield. This came about after the main runway and layout was built over existing country roads effectively cutting off the road that led to people's homes. Bases were also developed at Ballykelly, Aghanloo and Maydown (a satellite of Eglinton). Although flat and perfect on a clear day, the dangers in adverse weather is evident by the high loss of aircraft on surrounding hills. The airfield opened in April 1941 as a fighter base with Hurricanes of 504 Squadron to protect Londonderry. The next squadron that arrived here was the 133rd 'Eagle' Squadron which was made up of American aviators who had volunteered to join the RAF which had a shortage of pilots after the Battle of Britain. This was before the United States had officially entered the war. Recruits were sent to England for basic induction before being assigned to the 133rd at Eglinton for operational training and convoy patrols. The squadron was based here from October 1941 to January 1942 before relocating to the south of England. Several 'Ace' pilots were associated with the 133rd squadron at Eglinton and others after they moved to England.
A total of 244 Americans volunteered for active duty with the RAF and these made up the 71st, 121st and 133rd Squadrons. They were nicknamed the 'Eagle' and 'American Eagles' due to the fact that the squadron was virtually all American and many had joined up for adventure. The RAF policy at the time was to have English Squadrons and English flight commanders with the Eagle Squadrons. This changed in September 1942 after the United States joined the war, the 'Eagle' squadrons were eventually incorporated into the USAAF (the 133rd became the 336th Fighter Squadron).
During the 'Eagles' time at Eglinton, the story of Roland 'Bud' Wolfe took place. He had taken off on a mission from Eglinton with two other spitfires, the weather was overcast as the trio climbed up through the cloud. As they made their way out over the Donegal coast for a convoy patrol, his plane started to overheat and lose power, he radioed to his fellow pilots that he had to return to Eglinton and that was the last they saw or heard of him until after the war. He baled out over Inishowen and landed safely on bogland near Gleenely, his plane buried itself into the soft peaty landscape. Trying to make his way back to the shore and Eglinton, he was stopped and arrested by an Irish Defence volunteer. Ireland was neutral during the war and had a policy which interned any foreign military personnel caught on their soil. He ended up being sent to the Curragh Internment Camp in Kildare. Here he was the only American in the camp and joined 140 Germans,100 Allied servicemen from Poland, Canada, New Zealand and Britain plus 400 IRA internees.
Internment in Ireland was surreal to say the least, they were allowed visitors to the camp, could sign in and out of the camp if they had earned parole time. They also could take part in sports like golf, fox hunting and fishing but they were not allowed to escape, as outlined in the Geneva Convention for neutral countries. Bud desperate to get back to what he had volunteered for walked out of the camp, he headed for Dublin where he caught a train to Belfast, from here he took a bus to Eglinton arriving back two weeks after going missing. What happened next came as a shock, he was detained by the RAF for ten days while a whole diplomatic situation was debated at the highest level of government. The issue was the fact that he was an American who had been captured on active duty with the RAF, five days before the US were officially at war. Not wanting to upset a neutral country and being in violation of the Geneva Convention, the government ordered his return to the Irish authorities. So he ended up back at the Curragh but after a while was sent to the United States where he joined the USAAF and continued flying during the war. The story does not stop there, in June 2011 the Spitfire he was flying at the time was located by Johnny McNee, an aviation historian and subsequently excavated from the bog. Remarkably after cleaning and swapping parts between the wing guns, a complete browning machine gun was test fired and worked. The remains of the plane are now on display at the Waterside Workhouse Museum in Derry. The tail wheel which left Eglinton runway seventy years previous, was found still inflated and returned to the City of Derry Airport for display.
The main role of RAF Eglinton was operational training and convoy escort , they also looked for and chased off long range German FW 200 which were seeking convoy targets to relay to U Boats. During 1942, the 95th, 96th and 97th Fighter Squadrons were here with P-38 Lightnings which later moved on to the 12th USAAF in Algeria. In May 1943 the base was handed over to the Fleet Air Arm and became the first shore base unit for HMS Gannett. The base continued in is role training aircrew in anti submarine warefare, carrier landing training and active convoy patrols. It received Battle Honours for its part in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1943 to 1945. Another pilot who spent a short spell at Eglinton in 1943 was the 'Ace ' Hellcat pilot Stanly Orr who came here with the 804th Squadron, they transitioned from Sea Hurricanes to Hellcats at Eglington and trained hard for carrier landings before being moved on for a couple of carrier assignments in preparation for the raid on the German battleship, the Tirpitz.
There are so many stories connected to the base through the lives of those who came here or had connections to the squadron that came here. One pilot of the 133rd squadron was Gordon Brettal, he joined the 'Eagles' in 1942 after they had moved to the south of England. He was shot down and severely injured on a mission over France, after lengthy treatment in Paris he was sent to Stalag III. While here he escaped with another prisoner but both were recaptured and returned. Later he was selected as one of the prisoner's to take part in 'The Great Escape' (recounted in the film of the same name starring Steve McQueen). He was again recaptured, and tragically along with fifty other servicemen, shot by the Gestapo. Hitler was furious about the scale of the breakout ordered that every one recaptured should be executed.
Another 'Eagle' pilot from Eglinton, Don Gentile (Dominic Salvatore Gentile) went on to become an 'Ace', he was the first pilot to beat Eddie Rickenbacker's WWI record by shooting down 27 enemy planes. President Roosevelt nicknamed him 'Captain Courageous' and Winston Churchill called him 'Damon' from Greek mythology. After the war he became a test pilot at Wright Field. He died in 1951 aged 30, when his T-33 'Shooting Star' trainer crashed. In 1995 he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
One headstone in St.Canice that drew my attention belongs to Elizabeth Gladstone, a wren, aged nineteen who died on 5th November 1948. She had joined the Royal Navy in England when she was 17 and was posted to HMS Gannet, Eglinton. An opportunity arose for her to get a flight aboard an Avenger to Hatfield, where she could then go to see her family. Tragically she lost her life when the plane crashed on Divis mountain, Belfast. After the war Eglinton continued as a Fleet Air Arm base until 1959 when it closed, part of the base reopened in 1960 as HMS Sea Eagle for helicopter use. It finally closed as a military base in 1966. The civil airport we see today started in 1978 and has grown since then. In 1994, after investment the name of the airport was officially changed to the City of Derry Airport.