Three thousand feet above Moreuil Wood, southeast of Amiens, in northern France, Captain George Edward Henry “McIrish” McElroy, peered down through a gap in the clouds. McElroy had already shot down two German Albatross fighter planes in his British S.E. 5a (Scout Experimental-5a) earlier, his 25th and 26th since he began his flying career in late August of 1917.
(Below: George "McIrish" McElroy)
Neither side in the long, brutal conflict we now call World War One was keeping this Sunday, April 7, 1918, holy. McElroy scanned high and behind him, and saw that no German fighters were threatening him then heard the faint rattle of German Spandau machine guns from below. Tilting a wing so he could look down more easily, he saw three British S.E. 5’s being attacked by five Fokker DR-1 triplane (Dreidecker) fighters.
The DR-1 was one of the best German fighters of the war, most famously flown by Manfred Von Richthofen (the Red Baron), the highest-scoring ace of the war, during 1918. He is reported to have said that "It climbed like a monkey and maneuvered like the devil" following his first test flight of the "Dreidecker".
McElroy was not one to hesitate to join into any dogfight, however. He dropped the wing of his S.E. 5a more and dove into the fight. Using the added speed from his dive, he got on the tail of one of the Fokkers. Closing in on the unsuspecting enemy pilot, he put a short burst into it from his single .303 Vickers machine gun. The DR-1 rolled over and plunged out of control toward the ground. His burst had either destroyed the plane's control system or seriously wounded or killed the pilot. His 27th victory was in the books. Looking around he saw that the other German fighters had scattered and run for home. One of the allied victims of that dogfight may have been fellow Irishman P. J. Nolan.
It has been a long, exhausting day for McElroy. Simply flying the planes of the WWI era was a much more intense mental and physical activity than flying a modern aircraft. To that was added the tension of the constant threat of possibly burning to death thousands of feet high or jumping to avoid that, and they had no parachutes. Losing one’s concentration for a moment could prove fatal for a pilot and often did. As McElroy approached the RAF (Royal Air Force) 24th Squadron airbase at Bertangles, just north of Amiens, perhaps his mind wandered for a moment, or perhaps his S.E. 5a was hit with a downdraft, which was far more dangerous for the very light aircraft of the World War One.
(Bertangles Air Base in a watercolor by Albert Henry Fullwood, 1918.)
Whatever the cause, McElroy’s aircraft dropped suddenly on his landing approach, clipping some treetops. He lost control as his plane crashed through a hangar and came to rest near the commanding officer’s tent. Ground crew people and pilots came running toward the wreaked, smoking aircraft to see if their five-time ace was still breathing.
George Edward Henry McElroy was born on May 14, 1893, in Donnybrook, Dublin. His parents were Samuel and Ellen McElroy. They had eight children, four boys, and four girls, with George being the eldest. His father was a primary school teacher from Co. Roscommon and his mother a teaching assistant from Co. Westmeath.
They lived on Beaver Row in Donnybrook. George went to primary school at Donnybrook School right next door. He would spend his summers back in Co. Roscommon, with his uncle and was said to enjoy fly fishing there. After primary school, he went to the Educational Institute, Dundalk, Co. Louth, from 1906 to 1909. He was a bright young man, and studied for a while at Rosse College Dublin, before getting a government job.
Like many young men of the time, however, the safe, financially secure life McElroy thought he was building was interrupted by the outbreak of World War One. McElroy, unlike many Irishmen, did not hesitate, enlisting in September 1914, just a month after the war began.
McElroy would have one of the most varied war-time experiences of any Irishman. He started the war in the Motor Cyclist Section of the Royal Engineers. He was off to France with them before September ended. In the spring of 1915, he entered Cadet School to get a temporary commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment.
(Left: A Royal Irish Regiment cap badge from WWI.)
His timing was poor, McElroy arrived in the trenches with the regiment just in time for the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. This was where the Germans first used chlorine gas against the allies on April 22nd. Some time that summer or fall he became one of the unfortunate victims of a mustard gas attack. He was sent back to Ireland to recuperate and was in Dublin by October with severe damage to his nose.
McElroy was deemed unfit for duty in October and probably could have gotten his discharge if he wanted it. Instead, he had surgery on his nose in November and by mid-December, he was deemed fit for duty. He was still stationed in the Dublin area when the Easter Rising began in April 1916.
Many of the British soldiers in the Dublin area when the Rising began were from Irish regiments. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 3rd Royal Irish Rifles, and McElroy’s Royal Irish Regiment all had units in the area and fought against the rebels. In fact, Irishmen made up 35 percent of the British army deaths (41 out of the 117 military deaths) and 29 percent of the wounded (106 out of the 357 military wounded). Eight of the dead and sixteen of the wounded were from McElroy’s regiment.
(Below: The shell of the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin after the Easter Rising.)
Either by chance or by choice, McElroy took no part in putting down the Rising. It’s been said since then that he refused to take part in the fighting against the rebels. Had he been given a direct order and refused it, he likely would have been arrested. Perhaps, however, he made his objections known to a superior officer and was allowed to stay out of it. That might account for the stories saying he refused. Some accounts of his life say he was moved to a base south of Dublin.
McElroy’s commission was just temporary, so he applied to attend The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich to get a permanent commission and was accepted. He graduated from there with the permanent rank of 2nd Lieutenant in February 2017 and was assigned to the Royal Garrison Artillery. He could have easily survived the war supervising some coastal artillery battery, but like many young men, he was looking for a more adventurous path. McElroy had his sights set high; as high as the sky. In March 1917 McElroy transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC, later to become the Royal Air Force, RAF) and was posted to the Central Flying School in Upavon on the River Avon in Wiltshire
(Below: A two-seat Avro 504, one of the most common British training aircraft in 1917)
About 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army during WWI, the vast majority in trenches. George McElroy did that, but then he managed to depart that world of mud to soar into the romantic (or so many thought) world of the first air war. Romantic though it may have seemed then, and still too many today, it was extremely dangerous and not just while in aerial combat. World War One pilots had nearly as good a chance of being killed during training as in the heroic combat dogfights we’ve seen portrayed in movies.
McElroy survived pilot training and was deployed to France in August 1917. Like many pilots at the time, he was not a fully trained combat pilot yet after some six weeks in flight school. It was one of the reasons the average life expectancy for WWI pilots was so short because so many died in accidents or were shot down within days or weeks of reaching the front.
McElroy had the good fortune to be assigned to “A” Flight of No. 40 Squadron at Bruay, west of Lens. “A” Flight was commanded by one of the greatest fighter pilots of the war, Edward "Mick" Mannock. Mannock’s father, also Edward, was a soldier in the Royal Scots Greys. His mother was Julia Sullivan from Ballincollig, Co. Cork whom the elder Edward met while stationed in Cork. “Mick” may have been born there. Mannock always listed Ballincollig as his birthplace, but no record of it has been found by those researching his life, so his birthplace remains uncertain to this day.
(Right: Edward "Mick" Mannock)
Mannock must have either had a hint of an Irish brogue or have made his Irish origins clear to his fellow pilots, for he earned the nickname “Mick.” It was Mannock who gave McElroy the nickname, “McIrish” to differentiate from another pilot, William MacLanachan, whom he had nicknamed “McScotch.” McElroy, like many Irishmen, was known to sing a song or two in the local drinking establishments and was soon quite popular with his fellow pilots. Maclanachan called him “a sturdy, curly-headed young Irishman.”
McElroy’s first impression in the squadron as a pilot was less than impressive, however. On September 3rd, McElroy crashed two Nieuport fighters (probably Nieuport 17’s), the French fighter the squadron was flying at the time, going into a spin while attempting to land. On September 19th, he crashed a newer model, a Nieuport 23, again on landing. So he had taken out three allied planes in his first month, but thus far shot down no enemy planes. He had come very close to being just one more anonymous pilot who died in a crash in his first weeks.
(Left: A Nieuport 17, the bane of McElroy's early flying career.)
It was looking like McElroy might be a reverse “ace,” destroying 5 allied planes before he ever shot down 5 enemy planes. The squadron commander, Major Tilney, was contemplating sending “McIrish” back to England for further training, but Mannock talked him out of it and became a mentor and good friend of the younger Irishman.
(Below: An S.E. 5a, the plane that saved McElroy's aviation career.)
Luckily for McElroy, shortly after this the squadron changed over to one of the new British fighters, the speedy S.E. 5a. During the summer of 1917, the British began to fly two fighters that could compete with the best German fighters of the time: the S.E. 5 and the more famous Sopwith Camel. The Camel would shoot down more enemy planes than the S.E. 5, but most of the leading British aces, including Mannock, James McCudden, and Albert Ball flew the S.E. 5, as did Canadian ace Billy Bishop.
The S.E. 5a was not as good in a dogfight as the agile little Sopwith Camel or many of the German fighters they faced, but it was a very stable gun platform. It was also considerably faster than the Camel and even more so any of the German fighters it met in combat. One of its drawbacks was that it had just one synchronized .303in Vickers machine gun, however, it also had a wing-mounted Lewis gun. This enabled the pilot to sometimes get under an unsuspecting enemy aircraft and fire at it from below, often from very short range.
McElroy would prove far more proficient flying the S.E. 5a, though on December 4th he also crashed one of the new planes. This was merely “flipping” on the soft ground of the landing field, however, a common occurrence when the ground was softened by rain.
(Below: A German LVG two-seater.)
At 11:20 a.m. on December 28th, between Droucourt and Vitry, McElroy finally got his first aerial victory when he shot down an LVG two-seater. Credit for aerial victories could often be hard to confirm, but in this case William “McScotch” MacLanachan had witnessed the German going down. There were rumors that Mannock had shot up the German aircraft first, and then allowed McElroy to finish it off. There were rumors of Mannock doing that for other new pilots as well. Whatever the real circumstances, McElroy was no longer a “virgin” airman and his fellow pilots were happy for him. “McScotch” later said of “McIrish” that, “His attitude towards the war was that of a terrier let loose in a rat-infested barn. Both in the mess and the rugger field, his sturdy scrappy was a source of great pleasure to the flight.”
They celebrated McElroy’s first victory in the regimental mess that night with Mannock on his violin and McElroy regaling his comrades with Irish ballads. These were young men living on the edge. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” was more than an abstract concept for these young men.
(Below: A German DFW two-seater.)
Through January McElroy became more and more proficient in his S.E. 5a. From January 13, 1918 to the 24th, he shot down three German two-seaters, a Rumpler C.IV and two DFW’s (Deutsche Flugzeug-Werke). But it was during February, when he shot down nine German aircraft, that he really came into his own as a fighter pilot. The first four were two-seaters, just as the first four were, which tended to be slower and less maneuverable. Perhaps it was just chance, or perhaps he was actively avoiding German fighters when he saw them until he felt he had the experience to dogfight with them. Mannock had taught him to attack targets of opportunity as they presented themselves, not to simply attack every German plane he saw early in his career.
(Below: A German Pfalz D.III fighter.)
If so, he must have believed he was ready in mid-February. On February 17th he took on a Pfalz D.III, a very good German fighter, and shot it down. That was also the first day that he shot down two aircraft in one day, though the type of the other one is unknown. The following day he took on another German fighter, an Albatros D.V, and shot it down. He now had eleven victories, and in a time when pilot's lives were measured in days, it didn’t take long to become a veteran. He was now a double-ace and had already been awarded the Military Cross. He was transferred to 24 Squadron, stationed at Matigny on the Somme, and made a flight leader with the temporary rank of captain. In five months he had gone from a near wash-out to a rising star.
McElroy’s first week with the squadron he shot down two more fighters, another Albatros and a Fokker DR I, the nimble triplane made famous by Baron Von Richthofen. He was no longer hunting soft targets; he was just hunting and now would often attack multiple German planes by himself. He would often return having used so few rounds to down an enemy plane that some referred to him as “Dead-Eye.”
The pupil had become the teacher, seemingly overnight. One of the men in his flight that he took under his wing, as Mannock had done for him, was an American flying with the British, Bill Lambert. Lambert would later say of McElroy, “George McElroy, without a doubt, was one of the most fearless men I have ever met. He was also most considerate of the pilots under him and at all times tried to keep his pilots out of trouble. He would not allow me to go out until he felt I was ready and I think I owe my survival to his teaching.” Lambert would become an ace himself, with 18 victories, and survive the war.
(Below: "Dogfight" by George Horace Davis (1881–1963)
McElroy shot down eight more Germans aircraft in March, four of them Albatros D.V’s and one a Fokker DR I. He shot down two in one day on the 8th and 29th. In April the Royal Flying Corps was renamed the Royal Air Force. That month, through the 7th, the day described at the start of the article, he was on a pace to have a month like no pilot of the war ever had. Seven days into the month, he had shot down six enemy planes, including the two Albatros D.V’s and one Fokker DR. I on the 7th, but that came to a crashing end as he tried to land, nearly taking out his CO’s tent in the process.
McElroy would survive that crash. His injuries were not life-threatening, but he would be out of action for over two months. He spent much of that time in England and when he returned on June 14th he was assigned to 40 Squadron, reuniting with those of his old friends there who were still alive. Mannock, however, then on leave to England, had previously left for 74 Squadron and when he returned from England it would be as the commander of 84 Squadron.
From the last few days of June 26th through July, McElroy went from 27 victories to 47, shooting down 20 in barely over a month. It was a kind of streak only the most elite of fighter pilots ever have. That streak nearly ended on July 20th, when his carburetor caught fire during a dogfight. Luckily for him, he was at a fairly low altitude and on the Allied side of the front and was able to land safely and make his way back to see his friend Mannock at the going away party for their 40 Squadron friend and fellow ace, Gwil Lewis.
McElroy was likely shocked at the difference in Mannock’s demeanor. He had become sullen and depressed and should probably have been withdrawn from combat. Part of it was the loss of his friend and the man who has been his mentor, James McCudden, on July 9th when he crashed shortly after taking off. His mental condition was not keeping Mannock from flying well, however, as he’d shot down 7 Germans in the last two weeks, including three Fokker DR I’s that day.
Other pilots there would later recall that during their celebration for Lewis, perhaps after several drinks, Mannock took McElroy to the side to warn him about flying too low in dogfights or trying to confirm victories. “Don’t throw yourself away … you’ll get shot down from the ground.” No doubt alarmed at this sort of gloomy talk from his formerly upbeat friend, he assured him he would, and asked him to do the same. A few days later, after another good day in the wair, another pilot told Mannock, “They’ll have the red carpet out for you after the war, Mick.” Mannock’s reply startled him. “There won’t be any “after the war” for me.”
(Below: Indian pilot, Indra Roy.)
Another good friend of McElroy who was at that celebration was notable as the only known ace of the war of Indian descent in WWI, Indra Roy. Perhaps because he felt a kinship with another pilot from a nation ruled by Great Britain, McElroy took a special interest in the success of the 19-year-old Roy. After a very undistinguished experience in 56 Squadron in late 1917, which ended with a period of recuperation after he was shot down and seriously wounded, Roy was assigned to 40 Squadron in June.
With McElroy’s tutelage, Roy had one of the most amazing short periods of air combat of any pilot who had been in combat for months with no victories. Starting on July 6th he shot down 10 German aircraft in just 13 days, downing the 10th the day before the celebration for Lewis. To days after that, however, he got into a dogfight with German Fokker D.VII aircraft belonging to Jasta 29 and went down in flames behind German lines. McElroy had lost many comrades, but the death of his young protégé was deeply felt.
Just four days later, he would suffer yet another shock. Six days after his conversation with McElroy, Mannock was dead. Incredibly, he was shot down by ground fire after getting his 61st victory. He had broken his own rule, flying too close to the ground after shooting down an LVG two-seater and crashed behind German lines. Mannock had an acute fear of burning to death. His body was found 250 yards from the wreck of his plane, indicating he may have jumped from it.
(Below: An S.E. 5 attacks an Albatros in an illustration from "The Great War in the Air Vol II" by Edgar Middleton 1920.)
Early on Wednesday morning, July 31st, McElroy, as was often the case with WWI aces, took off alone in an S.E. 5a with just 11 hours air time on it to go and hunt German aircraft. It was how many aces ran up a large number of victories, but with no flight of friends around you, it was also very dangerous. Many pilots from these ace's squadrons were often later crowded around the airfield scanning darkening skies and straining their ears for the sound of an engine as the sun dipped below the horizon. On the 31st it was the men of 40 Squadron looking up and listening but to no avail. Their hero would not be returning.
George Edward Henry “McIrish” McElroy lay dead on the German side of the lines at age 25. The Germans later dropped a note on the airfield saying he’d been shot down by ground fire, just like his mentor just five days earlier, after dowing a Hannover two-seater. It was his 47th victory.
Eleven days after each had assured the other they would avoid flying low over the lines, both had died exactly that way. Unteroffizier Gullmann of Jasta 56 tried to claim he had shot down McElroy, but given that he began flying with that Jasta in February and flew until at least October and never claimed any other victories, it seems unlikely. Most seem to think he saw the S.E. 5 go down from ground fire and attempted to claim the victory. McElroy is buried at Laventie Military Cemetery, La Gorgue, France.
The pilots and crew of 40 Squadron were in shock at this loss. “We worshipped him for his prowess and loved him for himself. 40 Squadron thought there was no one like him, and we shall never forget him,” said one of them. The three most outstanding allied pilots with Irish roots, McCudden, Mannock, and McElroy were all dead in less than two months.
McElroy would eventually be awarded the Military Cross and Two Bars, Distinguished Flying Cross, and Bar. He inexplicably was never awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) though numerous pilots who trailed him in victories by 10 or more were awarded one. One would have to wonder if being fully Irish, unlike Mannock, was a factor in that snub. Among RFC / RAF pilots he was far overshadowed by the top pilots in victories, Billy Bishop and Mannock. And he is little remembered in Ireland where Mannock and even McCudden, whose father was born in Co. Carlow, get more notice as “Irish aces” than he does, despite being the highest-scoring full-blooded Irishman of the war.
(Right: The War Memorial Cross at St Mary’s Church, Donnybrook.)
No doubt McElroy’s having fought under the banner of Great Britain in the First World War, something that was frowned upon by many Irish republicans over the decades, has also lessened any recognition in his home country. Regardless of one’s political outlook on the war, however, the evolving airwar in those early fighter planes is a fascinating subject. To merely get in one of those fragile early planes and fly it was a heroic act. That’s before you consider the fact that you would meet other men thousands of feet above the ground in man-to-man fights that could end with you having a choice between burning to death or jumping from your plane and plunging to your death. For a few months of that amazing period in aviation history, this young Irishman from Donnybrook was one of the very best of those courageous young men in their flying machines. Other than having his name inscribed on the War Memorial Cross at St Mary’s Church, Donnybrook, Dublin, there is little commemoration of his service. He should be far more well-known in his homeland than he is.
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