John Lavery was a witness to history

IT’S hard to get anything past John Lavery.

At 85 years old, he is fit as a fiddle, sharp as a tack and has a practically photographic memory, reeling off names, places and dates from the top of his head, far better than most people a fraction of his age.

He grew up at Corbally on the shores of Lough Neagh, with his parents, three brothers and two sisters.

School was in Aldergrove, under Miss Burns, and on the other side of the curtain, Miss Falls.

“There was a three-mile walk to school, in all weathers,” he said.

“We knew every inch of that lough. In summer, we were never out of it, but we knew how far to go before it got too deep.

“I tell you one thing, that lough was never warm.

“Lough Neagh would freeze and the winter of 1947 was the worst of all.

“We would walk on the frozen ice but not too far - our mothers would have us well warned.

“That frost lasted six weeks.

“The snow drifts were huge and we asked our mother ‘how will we get to school?’ and she said ‘you got over them all weekend, you can get over them on a Monday’.

“Miss Falls had a temper on her. She lived in Crumlin long after she retired, then went to Portadown. She is only dead a few years, and was buried near Coalisland, where she was from originally.

“There was a stove at one end of the room and a fire at the other and just a curtain dividing the room.

“We left at 8am and were not home ‘til 4pm - it was hard enough, especially in the winter time.

“My cousins, there were 13 of a family and with the mother and father, there were 15 in the house, with no running water or electricity, can you imagine?

“Walking half a mile to the well to get water.

“And with six or seven all at school at the same time, trying to feed them all, it was a tough life.”

Growing up beside Aldergrove Aerodrome, the young John was, and remains, fascinated by aircraft.

“They practised bombing targets at Ardmore Point,” he said.

“I loved watching the Hudsons, the Wellingtons, the American Liberators, the flying boats, Sunderlands and Catalinas.

“They came from Lough Erne, you could see the bombs on the Sunderland under the wings.

“The Hudsons would fly very low and a lot of them crashed.

“My cousins were out getting water from the well in 1943 and they saw a big Liberator coming down. It came into the field they were in and went into about three hedges. The story was that it had run out of fuel.

“The airmen climbed out and told my cousins to get out of there in case it blew up. I don’t know how, if it was out of fuel!

“The Spitfires would also fly very low.

“The McGarry family that owned the Maid of Antrim maintained the targets. They had a crane on a barge to lift up the damaged ones and a diver, Charlie Magee, who would go down and free them from their anchors.

“Mostly they were training to take out the German submarines, which were causing devastation in the North Atlantic.”

Like a cousin, David Whiteside, who has spoken previously to the Antrim Guardian about his own memories, John was a boy when he and his mother witnessed another crash, this time fatal.

On July 19 1941 a Bristol Blenheim piloted by Flying Officer Walter Hargreaves King struck an obstruction at low level.

“My mother and brother and I had been down at her hen house behind the house, watching this plane go up and around and turn, over and over again, going very low. All of a sudden we heard a bang and saw black smoke.”

The aircraft had hit a flagpole and crashed into the roof of the NAAFI building.

When the fuel tanks of the aircraft burst, the burning fuel set the building alight, killing some of the girls who worked there and injuring a number of others.

Some of the wreckage was thrown into a 23 Maintenance Unit Hangar where the Ground Defence Force was drilling – they were practising a Funeral March for a forthcoming funeral, and 13 casualties were sustained, including one fatality.

The three crew members of the aircraft, Flying Officer King along with Sergeant Philip Evans Neale, and Sergeant Richard Edward Lea, who was only 18 years old, were killed along with six girls who worked in the NAAFI and one airman, Aircraftman First Class Clifford Henry Hore, 1301399 who was 20 years old.

“The story was that the pilot had been showing off and hit the flagpole,” said John.

“The two local girls I remember dying were called McGarry and Mulholland.

“My mother was beside herself when she heard that the canteen had been hit because we had a neighbour called Nancy O’Hanlon who worked there.

“She was eventually brought home in a lorry at about 2 o’clock and everyone was so pleased to see her.

“The crash happened just before everyone would have been heading in for their tea, otherwise a lot more would have been killed.

“She had been up in her room getting her hair dickied up when the crash happened and the mirror shattered in front of her.”

In another brush with tragedy, John was one of the last people to speak to a distinguished pilot before his final, doomed mission.

John’s first job out of school was on a milk lorry for Loughview Dairy, where he was taught to drive - but not until after years of an eight mile cycle for a 6.30am start!

“One of our rounds was the aerodrome at Aldergrove and I would do the houses and a mate would drive up and around to the officer’s mess.

“This man called Squadron Leader Cox and his wife, they had no family, they were billeted in a wee house. I remember he had a big handlebar moustache.

“This morning he was wearing a fancy silver flying suit and he was chopping sticks, it would have been about 8am.

“He asked me for an extra pint of milk.

“He was about to go on a weather recording flight on a Halifax.

“He told me the Halifax was obsolete now, on the way out, and they were being replaced with the Hastings, there were already two new ones at the aerodrome.

“He said there would be eight or nine of them on the flight and that they would cover around so many miles. He didn’t sound like he was looking forward to it.

“Later when we had done our rounds, I saw him getting on the tender to be taken to the aircraft, which was warming up on the runway, and I never saw him again.”

That date was December 29, 1950 and the plane lost contact with the airfield later that evening.

The cause of the crash could not be determined but some reports suggested the Halifax was on fire before impact and a large oil slick was found near the suspected site of the crash.

Squadron Leader Terence Cox had served as a war substantive wing commander and had married the daughter of a London doctor the previous March.

On January 16 1951, a trawler recovered Squadron Leader Cox’s body near the Outer Hebrides, together with a small amount of wreckage but the rest of the eight-strong crew were never found.

“I spoke to another Polish Squadron Leader who settled in Antrim and he said that the plane had given engine trouble in the past,” said John.

“I was very sad to hear about the crash. I believe his wife went back to London soon after.

“It seems to have happened very suddenly, the plane would have contacted the airfield every 15 minutes, but there was no mayday call or anything. It just vanished.”

In another eerie coincidence, both that crash and one almost six years earlier in 1944 had been witnessed by the crew of the same trawler, the HMS/ST Flanders.

Squadron Leader Cox is buried at St Catherine’s in Killead, within the bounds of RAF Aldergrove.

John met his future wife Kathleen, from Dunsilly, at Antrim Picture House when he was 21 and she was 16.

They married and went on to have four daughters and a son, before Kathleen sadly passed some years ago.

Kathleen was sent to her grandmother to give her mother respite as she looked after her second child, and never returned, being raised by her aunts and uncles.

John said: “When our second was born, they took our oldest girl for a while to give Kathleen a break like they did for her mother, and when we came to collect her, they said ‘sure, we’ll look after her!’ - but we were having none of that.”

The couple initially lived in a house in what was then a very rural Springfarm Road when first married, before moving to the prefabs along the Randalstown Road, and finally to Meadowside, where John still resides.

Growing up next to the lough, he feels an irresistible pull to the water.

One of his best memories is witnessing the record-breaking swim of Commander Charles Gerald Forsberg across Lough Neagh.

Originally from Canada, Forsberg spent many years in the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy and then became a British citizen.

He gained his OBE while working as a Destroyer captain in the Royal Navy but his real love was long distance swimming.

In 1959 he took on Lough Neagh, swimming from Maghery to Antrim town, guided by John’s friend John O’Hara, and his father, also called John.

“People had tried it before, but not succeeded,” John said.

“My brother and I were coming home from work in the forestry, it was July because I was marrying Kathleen in the September.

“We could see they were about one and a half miles out, in the boat were the two Johns, Bobby McVeigh, who was a very good swimmer and would get in and keep him company, and a member of the Long Distance Swimming Association, to make sure everything was being done properly.

“They passed us at White Port at 6.16pm, with another good three and a half miles to swim to Antrim.

“I met Kathleen off the bus at Aldergrove and I asked if we should walk down to the lough shore to see the swimmer.

“There were hordes of people, all along the banks, and he swam right up the river and he came out to loud cheers and applause.

“John junior told me later that the Commander had a compass, and John senior said ‘I don’t need a compass, I’ve never needed one in my life. I’ve been on these waters since I was seven years old. He was a fisherman, they were all fishermen in the family.

“He told the Commander he would take him the whole way to Antrim with no compass, and wouldn’t lose himself.

“At the end it transpired that the swim had taken 12 hours and 13 minutes, and the Commander said to John ‘you lost me 13 minutes debating that compass’!

“Then they all went off to the Deerpark Hotel for refreshments.”

The Commander, known as Gerry to his friends, is immortalised by a marble statue, taken from an image of his Lough Neagh swim, which overlooks his beloved Morecambe Bay (which he swam almost 30 times).

The memorial acknowledges the retirement wish of ‘Gerry’ to ‘sit facing wonderful Morecambe Bay and imbibe the matchless view’.

John Lavery recalls: “John O’Hara guided a few people in that rowboat.

“Bobby was a great swimmer, he would go from Cranfield to Ballyginniff.

“John guided the Spanish lady (Montserrat Tresserras) but he didn’t like her coach, he was called Fernando and would jump up and down in the boat shouting encouragement and instructions, they were all scared he would coup the thing.”

“Sometimes for the swimmers, they had to give up, the wind would turn on them.

“The McGivern sisters, they were three women who never married and ran a wee farm beside the lough, they would take in exhausted swimmers and warm them up before sending them on their way.”

Over the years, John worked for Enkalon - which afforded him the chance to move to the house where he will see out his days - the Electricity Board, the Forestry Service and at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, where he helped clients in the garden and with litter picking duties up until his retirement in the late 1990s.

Amongst his passions in life are pigeons, with which he has been involved since he was seven years old, cycling, which has taken him around Lough Neagh and to Dublin and back on his trusty bike.

“I have never been more busy since I retired!” laughed John.

“I kept a loft with a fella out in Killead, but he passed away, and it was a fair old run on the bike seven days a week.”

John now helps a friend in Dunsilly with his loft instead.

“I have a wee dog that I share with my daughter, a cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle, and he also keeps me very busy, he never stops.”

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