RAF fighter pilot and a Slad Pub Landlord
“A pint please,” the man said as he lent on the bar and looked around.
The Landlord, smiled, picked up a pint glass and pulled the white lever a number of times until the liquid flowed over the rim of the glass. He was tall, thin, well dressed and wore a moustache in the style reminiscent of the archetypical RAF pilot.
The beer was placed on a bar mat, paid for and the man took a long draw on the liquid and then began to wander around The Woolpack Inn. What caught his eye immediately was the picture of a pilot at the door to the pub. Its inscription read, “Lt Aubrey Richard Covington 1940” and below on the frame on a brass plaque “A present to the Woolpack from JB and CPS”. It was clear it was a picture of the barman in his younger days.
To the delight of his parents George and Elsie, Aubrey Richard Covington, was born on 22 January 1921 in the London Borough of Lambeth. It was a short 19 years before he became one of the famous ‘few’. Richard had followed his father in studying law until war broke out and he joined the R.A.F.
It was announced in the September 1939 edition of Flight magazine, that on 2nd September A.R. Covington, amongst a number of others, had been appointed to a short service commission as acting Pilot Officer.
By the time that announcement appeared, the new acting Pilot Officer had already shot down a German aircraft.
It was a fine Sunday morning, the day that some historians mark as a turning point in the Battle of Britain. To others 15 September 1940 represented more of the same intense aerial combat over the southern areas of London. (Left London 15/9/40)
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon the hard pushed RAF squadrons were re-arming after a morning of running battles. Fifteen minutes later the afternoon wave of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters crossed the coast of Kent. The weather was holding and visibility was good.
Covington joined the melee in a sky crowded with the bombers, their escorting fighters, and RAF fighters wheeling in between. Intricate contrails formed at 20 000 ft, allowing those on the ground to get some idea of the chaos above them.
Individual contests took place as pilots picked a target and attacked. One of these was between Covington in his Hurricane and a Messershmidt Bf110. He brought it down 20 miles south of London at 15h00, but his plane P3833 had been damaged and he made a forced landing at Gulledge Farm, Imberthorne.
The young Pilot Officer flew every day but it was only on Tuesday 1 October 1940 that he scored his next victory.
It was a generally grey and overcast day which provided good cover for the Luftwaffe attacks against Southhampton, Portsmouth, London and Central Scotland.
From mid morning frequent groups of 30 to 100 aircraft penetrated the English airspace. Although the Bf 110 suffered badly at the hands of the RAF, their pilots had one extreme tractic which was often used to counter the superior attacking fighters.
The Daimler Benz engines were fuel injected and would continue to run even when the pilot pushed the stick forward and created negative gs. The British machines had a float operated carburettor which cut out withnegative gs, so as the Hurricanes or Spitfires closed in they would dive away and push forward on the stick. The pilots in the pursuing aircraft would follow the manouvre and find their engines would splutter and stop, stealing away their speed advantage.
Flying a Hurricane I, code R4099, Covington successfully attacked and downed a Bf110 which plunged into the sea at 11h00. An escorting Bf109 dived down and attacked the Hurricane. The two fought a wheeling battle in which both aircraft were destroyed and Covington was forced to bale out at 11h10 over Poole in Dorest. Six days later on Monday 7 October Covington was again shot down. As was typical of the Battle of Britian, the German air force came across in large formations throughout the day. Their target appeared to be the Westland factory at Yeovil and other minor targets around Dover, London and BigginHill.
Once again in a Hurricane I – V6777, Covington found himself in combat against a Bf109, this time over Blandford. It was late in the afternoon when he was wounded and forced to bale out leaving his aircraft to crash at Wynford Eagle, Dorset.
Across the Irish sea the people of Ireland found that even though they were not at war they were directly affected by it on a regular basis. Navigation aids were very rudimentary and on 26 August 1940 bombs fell on Ireland. The new year opened with three people killed by bombs that had been dropped over the eastern part of the country. Only a few days later 20 civilians were injured during an attack in error on Dublin.
The Irish authorities realised they would not simply be able to continue as before. They mobilised and expanded the army and developed wide spread efficient watching services. The lack of a black out was a deliberate tactic to prevent cases of mistaken identity, and where there were no inhabitants headlands were illuminated.
Approaching aircraft were carefully monitored. Civilian traffic was trained to use specific flight paths. Any other traffic had their location broadcast across a wide airband to act as a warning that they had been spotted and that they were off course.
In a further attempt to dissaude any belligerents overflying, the Irish would broadcast height and course details, pin pointing the aircraft neatly for its enemies.
In spite of all these efforts the Irish people found that they had an ever increasing number of airmen and sailors from Germany and England being ‘washed up on their shores’.
They had to accommodate them and so they built a camp on the east side of Curragh Camp, an army base. It was a prisoner of war camp typical of the era, rectangular with double barbed wire fences, the corridor between patrolled by armed guards who were provided with support by the machine gunners standing in the watch towers at each corner.
What made this camp different though was that it was divided down the centre into ‘G’ Camp and ‘B’ Camp. Each had their own entrance on either side of a guard hut which had a door and a window into each compound. ‘G’ camp was the home to German forces and ‘B’ camp accomodated Allied internees. Reportedly it became ‘B’ camp as the first residents were British, but it later held Canadians, Americans and other nationalities.
Copy of the parole agreement
RAF Miles Master 1
Miles Master 1, N8009, from No 307 Squadron, RAF was slightly off-course on its route from Ringway to Jurby, when it forced-landed on December 21, 1940 on the wrong side of the Irish border near Dundalk County Louth. Understanding where they were, the crew attempted a take off but turned the aircraft over in the rough terrain.
The two airmen were immediately arrested. They were William A. Proctor from Blairgowie, Perthshire, Scotland and Aubrey R. Covington from Kingston on Thames.
Within six days Irish Air Corps personnel dismantled and removed the aircraft to Dundalk barracks. As the same type of aircraft was on strength with the Irish, the aircraft was bought from the RAF and allocated the service number 96. The port wing, rudder, propeller, forward fuselage, elevator, and other large sub-assemblies had to be replaced, but a crack was found in the main spar. It never flew again and was relegated to instructional duties.
Covington or Covie as he was universally known became one of the characters of the Irish POW camp. He was tall, thin, and always immaculately turned out, typically dressed in tweeds, a flannel shirt, and a woollen tie.
He established himself as OC Bar, and managed a well-stocked establishment offering Scotch, gin, Irish whiskies, and Guinness and on the more exotic French wine, sherry, cognac and liqueurs.
All of his stock was provided by diplomats, while the Jamiesons and Guinness was free courtesy of the Air Ministry.
Initially, the camp was managed on a strict POW basis but within a few weeks, an increasingly flexible parole system was introduced. Parole consisted of a signed statement on paper declaring:
"I hereby promise to be back in the compound at o'clock and, during my absence, not to take part in any activity connected with the war or prejudicial to the interests of the Irish state".
Parole was initially for a period of three hours each afternoon but gradually extended to two nights a week to attend the three cinemas in the Curragh. This soon expanded to cinemas in the neighboring towns of Kilcullen, Newbridge, and Kildare.
The internees had to wear civilian clothes and at first were forbidden to enter pubs or hotels, talk to the locals or visit their homes. The practicality of these bans meant that eventually, the ‘prisoners’ were free to do pretty much as they wanted while out of the camp.
Covie regularly reminded everyone that fraternising with the Germans was not allowed. To keep the peace, save money and maintain the business, it was not unusual to find that the public houses set aside different drinking areas for the belligerents.
The parole system was a living example of what in later times became known as a Catch 22 situation.
The men could leave the camp once they had signed the parole form, but they were not allowed to escape, if they did they would be returned and the parole privilege revoked. It was considered a dishonour to the RAF and yourself if you signed that you promised to return and in fact did not.
Escapes were permitted but as long as a parole request had not been granted. For the Germans, it was impossible to return home and an escape would be useless. For the Allied personnel, it would be reasonably easy to go across the border and return to service. In the instances where this happened and the man was on parole, the RAF returned him to the Irish and to internment.
Strategically it was vital that the Irish remained neutral. Hitler believed that the IRA would be able to influence the government to allow German occupation, while Churchill feared any change in the status quo may provide additional U-boat bases for attacks in the Atlantic and provide an attack point from the west of Britain.
The men of Curragh camp became a showcase for the British and the Irish to demonstrate Irish neutrality.
It was under these rules, which he strictly obeyed, that Covington made over six attempts to escape.
His first attempt was within four days of his arrival on Christmas day 1940. He simply walked past the guard on the inner compound, crossed the boundary wire in seconds, and then raced toward the main gate, where he was apprehended. No shots were fired. There was always some controversy over whether the Irish troops would shoot or if in fact they were armed with live rounds.
In the New Year, he made his second more successful attempt when on 21/1/41 he arranged for a Sergeant shorted out the searchlight circuits. He and three others managed 14 miles before they were caught at Rathcoole.
A month later the guards found and confiscated a rope ladder he had fashioned from the remains of a parachute.
In March he left the camp on one of the supplied bicycles, casually waving at the guards saying he had signed the parole. Abiding by the rules, he had not and was soon picked up at Newbridge two miles away.
Covie’s fifth attempt all went wrong when he stopped at McCabe's pub in Newbridge and sat down to a few pints with an off-duty Garda officer. He wrongly assumed the man was a cousin of his girlfriend, and his drinking companion called his fellow officers.
Almost as a bet with a Canadian Sergeant, Covie had said that he would not be shot if he made a run for it. On 7th January 1942, the Canadian distracted the guards, and Covie, encouraged by the others sprinted for the gate. A warning shot was fired which attracted other guards and he was captured.
This incident ended the use of firearms, as it was clear to the Irish that their men were reluctant to shoot the Allied internees and it was obvious to the Germans that the Allies were receiving different treatment. Thereafter the guards would vigorously make use of their batons.
A complicated mass breakout was planned involving officers and other ranks. They had developed prefabricated ladders from shower piping which were to be assembled during the escape attempt once they were through the low wire. There was a diversionary fire set which meant the guards were ordered to investigate and left the way open for the escapees. By the time the guards were aware of a break out there were almost as many prisoners outside the camp as there were guards, but at the critical point the ladder collapsed and the numbers swung in favour of the Irish. Covie was one of those that fell with the ladder back behind the barbed wire fence.
All the prisoners were recaptured, some were beaten rather violently, which resulted in a tense standoff that was only resolved by some strong action by the commander of the camp Colonel McNally.
In one incident four internees, including Covie abducted an Irish medical orderly with the idea of impersonating him and injecting the gate guards with drugs. They stripped the orderly of his clothes and a Polish officer, elected to carry out the dirty deed donned them, picked up the hypodermic, and marched off to the gate. He pulled the orderly’s cap low over his face but then proceeded to give one of his trademark broad smiles and the game was up.
Being able to mix with the locals resulted in many men from both camps finding Irish wives. In June Covington became engaged to Nora McMahon, a Catholic from Newbridge. He wanted to move to Nora’s parents’ house until they were married, but his six previous escape attempts made it difficult for the Colonel to allow the move.
Even the planned wedding was fraught with trouble. It was to take place on a Saturday, but on the Tuesday the fact that it was a mixed marriage (Catholic and Protestant) boiled over. The groom had to send four NCOs over to the McMahon house on the Friday evening and kidnap his bride. Covie always maintained that the ‘kidnap’ was in fact a rescue.
The pair were married as planned, by the Reverend A. Vere Flint in The Ballysar Church of Ireland in Eire. Only Nora’s mother and brother attended and the fact that her father was not there delayed matters somewhat. The final chapter of the marriage happened on 20th June 1948 when Covie and Honora Bridget (Nora) were re-married to please her family, at Shepperton, Middlesex.
In an effort to avoid the problems of the parole, a number of the men had begun working on a tunnel. Naturally, Covie was one of the crew. It progressed very slowly, with only ten to twelve metres of the required sixty-five completed. They were hampered by a lack of aeration facilities and of all things fleas, from all the dogs in the camp.
To overcome the foul air they bought a set of bellows as a wedding present for one of the men and put it to good use.
However, the Irish guards found bags of clay in the dog kennels and began a search of B Camp. On 19 September Sgt J Aspell discovered the tunnel and took possession of a small garden fork he found. He noted that the tunnel was very narrow and there was no place to turn around.
Soon after the abortive tunnel breakout, there was an incident where a mass of prisoners stormed the main gate. It was considered a ‘legal’ breakout and those that made it to Northern Ireland were not re-interred. It was not long after this that the Irish government realised that the Allies would win the war and the internment of their combatants was abandoned.
Fourth from left Aubrey Covington while interned.
Both images from the very interesting https://www.militaryheritage.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Belligerent-Internees-1940-1944_2018-03-19.pdf
Released in October 1943, he must have undergone some retraining before he joined 127 Squadron on 7 August 1944.
The Squadron had been involved in providing ground attack support during D Day operations. It then moved to the continent where it flew fighter-bomber missions with the Spitfire XVI, from various airfields in France, Belgium, and Holland.
Covie flew over 80 operational sorties, which would have been dangerous low-level attacks on road convoys, rail transport, and enemy emplacements. In one anti-shipping operation he managed to damage Spitfire NH294 '9N P', through his efforts to avoid the flak he pushed the aircraft to the limits and badly wrinkled the wings.
At the end of his tour with 127 Squadron, he returned to England in February 1945, eventually leaving the RAF on 22 January 1964.
John Ball, who worked part-time for Aubrey Richard Covington and Nollie when they were Landlords of the WoolPack from 1971 to 1984. he recalls that 'Nollie was an Irish lady with a love of the horses, at which she did quite well, not so Richard. We used to say whatever horse Richard bet on you should choose another as that poor horse was doomed.'
The man, who by now was sitting at the bar placed his empty glass on the counter.
In what seemed like a single movement Covie the Landlord reached below the counter, picked up a short glass, without looking or turning around placed it against the bar optic in which rested a whiskey bottle, drew a tot, put the glass to his mouth threw the whiskey in, rinsed the glass, roughly dried it and placed it below the bar. All the time keeping a wary eye on the door
‘Got that down to a fine art, if Nora sees me she will kill me. ‘Another pint?’ he asked, accompanied by the nervous blink so typical of Spitfire pilots.
When Richard and Nollie left the pub they moved to South View and then to The Old Post. Aubrey Richard Covington died on 21st December 1994 at Gloucester aged 73. They are both buried in the churchyard.
Lt Aubrey Covington in the centre with white scarf with Spitfire SM179 ‘Lady Jane’
Aubrey Covington & Bruce Girdlestone c 1988 https://www.militaryheritage.iewp-contentuploads201812Belligerent-Internees-1940-1944_2018-03-19.pdf
In Print and Film
There have been three books and one film that have covered the internments in Ireland to various degrees of accuracy.
Broken Wings – John Clive – a fictional account very close to the truth www.johnclive.net
Grounded in Eire Ralph Keefer McGill Queens University Press 2001 – the authors true account of his father’s time in the camp
Guests of the State T Ryle Dwyer Ireland Brandon Books 1994
Brylcream Boys - Terence Ryan film of 1999 – a fictional account that fairly accurately portrays the camp and its life
The Guardian in it s review of the film noted that ‘The Irish prison camp story has mostly been ignored in the various histories of the war and when it has been covered it has appeared to be so preposterous that it has not been believed.’
Andy Ingham – 127 Squadron historian, for his very generous help with Covington’s service with the Squadron
John Ball, Stories from Slad The Woolpack’s Cherry Coloured Cats A Social History Chronicle 1850 – 1950
Marc Covington – ‘Covie’s’ grandson for fitting my questions and requests into a busy life and for sending me copies of some of his grandfather’s memorabilia.
The Woolpack Inn - http://www.thewoolpackinn-slad.com/
Keefer, R. Grounded in Eire (McGill Queens University Press 2001)