“I’d rather be lucky than good.”
-Vernon “Lefty” Gomez
Sometimes…or perhaps most of the time…this is a common saying for pilots; particularly those who’ve flown combat and accumulate a number of victories or successful missions. This quote definitely rings true for Brendan Eamonn Fergus Finucane, or “Paddy” Finucane as he was known to his fellow pilots. After nearly getting himself killed several times in training, he would eventually become one of the highest scoring aces of the Royal Air Force in WWII, and he did so in only 2 short years.
Brendan “Paddy” Finucane was Irish by birth, born to Thomas Finucane from Dublin and Florence Finucane who was originally from Leicester, England in 1920. At a very young age, Paddy was taken to an airshow and given a ride in an airplane where he fell in love with aviation. In November 1936, Thomas and Florence moved the family to the suburbs of England to start a new life. Shortly there after, at the age of 16, Paddy learned of a program offered by the RAF called short service commission that guaranteed flight training for 4 years of service plus 6 years on the reserves list to persons who met the qualifying academic conditions. To young Paddy, this sounded like a dream come true as he could finally realize his dream to “slip the surly bonds of earth” and fly.
Paddy applied for the SSC in April of 1938 knowing full well that war was on the horizon, and eight weeks later in June 1938 he was accepted into the program on academic standing and his “keenness to fly”. After two more months of waiting, Paddy received the call to report to 6 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School at Sywell in Northamptonshire. By month’s end he was already starting his flight training in the RAF’s basic trainer, the DeHavilland Tiger Moth. This would prove to be a trying time for Paddy as he was more prone to exerting brute force rather than coaxing the aircraft to do as he wanted it to do. Only a few flights into his training he had an incident where a tire blew out and shot the aircraft into the air until Paddy recovered and slammed it back down to the ground almost destroying the aircraft and killing his instructor and himself. After completing the number of hours required to solo, he nearly stalled after takeoff, and then he crashed once again after moving to an advanced training squadron while transporting a Queen Bee in rough weather that further put his piloting capabilities in question.
Undeterred by these setbacks, Paddy pushed on and completed his Spitfire transition training and was placed with No 65 Squadron out of RAF Hornchurch in July of 1940…and he would arrive just in time for the start of the Battle of Britain. On July 24th, 1940, No 65 was moved to RAF Rochford and the very next day after arriving Finucane would see his first combat. Much to the frustration of Paddy, this flight would end much the same as some of his training flights did, though through no fault of his own. Sometime during the flight his weary Spitfire, which was a well-worn veteran, developed a coolant leak and he lost radio communications abilities. Despite all this, Paddy was able to bring it home to Rochford for an unflattering gear up landing. Undeterred by this setback, Paddy would scramble into action again just under a week later on August 1st with a new Spitfire and score his very first victory. This would not be the end of his day however; as they soon were sent on another scramble when their airfield came under attack and he would end up scoring a probable kill and damaging another aircraft. All told, his tally for the day would be one destroyed, one probably destroyed, and one damaged, which is a pretty impressive day for any pilot, let alone someone who nearly didn’t make it out of pilot training. The very next day during another scramble, Paddy would destroy another Bf109 and get another probable kill putting him at two confirmed, two probably destroyed, and one damaged aircraft in only two days of fighting meaning that had they been able to confirm the destruction of the two probable kills, in just two short days he would be one kill from becoming an ace.
In April of 1941, just 9 months after joining the front line squadrons, Paddy was appointed Flight Commander of the Royal Australian Air Force squadron No 452 at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey and promoted to acting Flight Lieutenant. No 452 was the first RAAF squadron to fly under RAF Fighter Command, and it would also be the last time Paddy would mar on his service record when on the very first day of flying with the new squadron he accidentally flew a bit too close to the flight leader and sheared his tail clean off. Despite this incident and ensuing crash-landing, Paddy would once again take to the skies and prove that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. By the time Paddy reported to No 452 he was already an “ace” having shot down the requisite 5 aircraft in order to have that title bestowed upon him; with this No 452, however, he would go on to shoot down 20 more aircraft and score multiple “probable” kills in the short 11 months that he served with the Australian squadron. His place as a true master of the skies was quickly solidified when he left No 452 as a quadruple ace and placed in command of No 602 at RAF Redhill.
After taking command of the 602 squadron he had a close call on the 20th of February when he was critically wounded in his leg that reportedly tore his leg open from knee to hip. He was later quoted as saying-
“The cockpit was awash with blood. It was not until I was feeling a touch sick and dizzy it dawned on me that it was my blood. It made me mad. Good Dublin blood should not be wasted. Just then things began to go black—how ever I managed to land back at dispersal without a crack–up will never be known”
after he managed to bring the Spitfire home and land safely. He would score another 4 kills with this squadron before being given command of the Hornchurch wing making him the youngest Wing Commander in the RAF.
Hornchurch would be his final assignment, which was very fitting considering his fighter pilot career started and ended at this RAF base. He was only assigned to command Hornchurch wing for barely over two weeks when he would go on his final mission. He was known to say that the Luftwaffe would never bring him down, and much to his chagrin, he was completely accurate in that assumption. He had been shot up before and suffered multiple incidents without losing life or limb, however a ground attack mission would prove to be fatal when he took a hit from ground fire to his radiator. Streaming the white smoke indicative of a radiator hit, his wingman informed him of such and they both turned towards the channel. Paddy flew along peacefully, and calmly, until finally his last radio transmission came through his wingman Aikman’s headset. After pulling the canopy open and before removing his helmet, he said four simple words to his wingman: “This is it, Butch.” And with that, Aikman watched him perform a near perfect ditch into the channel, however Paddy was never recovered, and he was never heard from afterwards and was presumed dead.
Despite being from a neutral country that despised British rule, and being a less than stellar pilot in primary training, Brendan Eamonn Fergus Finucane would go on to become one of the top scoring aces of the RAF with no less than 28 confirmed kills and potentially as many as 32. Those are top marks for anyone, let alone someone that barely made it out of training from a country that refused to fight and against a well-trained and persistent Luftwaffe. It is for these reasons that we selected the Irishman Brendan “Paddy” Finucane as March’s Hero of the Month…also; the fact that March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day may have had something to do with it as well.
1-Byrne, Maurice. “The Ace with the Shamrock”. Dublin Historical Record, Published by the Old Dublin Society, Volume LIX, No. 1, Spring 2006.
2-Bishop, Patrick. Fighter Boys: Saving Britain 1940. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.
3-Jackson, Robert. Fighter Pilots of World War II. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1976.
4-Liebling, A.J. “Paddy of the R.A.F”. The New Yorker, 6 December 1941. Reprinted as pp. 622–635 in A.J. Liebling. World War II Writings. New York: The Library of America, 2008.