Sean McKee, a farmer from the shores of the lough near Toome has a wooden horse with a story. He remembers as a small child the visits of some German POWs to his farm to get eggs on a Sunday morning. At the end of the war, he was presented with a beautiful carved and painted wooden horse on wheels for him to pull around. Imagine the delight of the child at getting this gift at a time of war rationing and lack of any treats for a child. The realistic representation and scale of the horse with the still vivid paintwork gets the imagination into overdrive. I had no idea of the WWII POW connection with the airfield. Sean tells of how the German POWs had the freedom to roam the countryside really so different from my images from the likes of the Great Escape or Colditz films.
Rebecca Milligan from Queens and I are embarking on this collection of stories from military airfields around Lough Neagh. With the invaluable help of Una and Thomas at TIDAL a great gathering on the night of 10th Jan 2017 took place in the hall at TIDAL. We had expected four or five folk to come along but instead the room was filled to capacity. Objects were brought – which was a great idea to get the conversation going and soon it all began to flow. We could have been there to the next day !
John Hurl brought a mounted light bulb filled with miniature carvings of ships just as the old “ Ship in a bottle design “ made by German POWs. Leather aircraft technicians mitts were produced as were heavy calibre aircraft ammunition.
I am still amazed at the stories of the German POW’s – on Christmas Eve night all the soldiers, German, Allied forces, Catholic and Protestant were marched to the chapel by Fr Hughes and Silent Night was sung in both English and German.
Stories from the base, warts and all were told. Stories of heroism emerged too – the Bellaghy woman who rescued an Allied airman from a burning plane at Church Island. The importance of Toome as a site was mentioned a lot, from it’s flat location beside the lough to the ample availability of sand for building the runways. Tales of mischief can out – the young boys running across the runways as planes approached for a dare. And the common tales of romance and visits by locals to the cinema on the base and much more.
Most of the people attending were not members of any history society and yet they are profoundly interested in their place and the distinctive history of it.