Hidden Histories - Mystery Machines

We recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day across the country sparking reflection and remembrance of the Second World War. As the location for 25 military air bases, Northern Ireland played a key role in the defence of these shores and across the waters in Europe.

We have two engines within our stores that tell a tragic part of that story, an unfortunate consequence of the increased flying activity across the country at that time. These engines are not part of our collection. In fact they belong to the Ulster Aviation Society and have been stored at the Transport Museum for over thirty years. Last year I had the opportunity to find out a bit more about them as our Collections Care team carried out some conservation work.

On the left Bristol a Hercules engine from a Wellington bomber and on the right a Rolls Royce Merlin engine came from a Mosquito NS996.

The two engines were recovered from the Mourne Mountains in 1986 with permission from the Ministry of Defence and the landowner. A joint effort between the Army Air Corps and members of the Ulster Aviation Society saw the engines moved from their respective crash sites by helicopter to the Transport Museum at Cultra. One engine, a Bristol Hercules radial engine, was from a crashed Wellington bomber. The other, a V-12 Rolls Royce Merlin from a de Havilland Mosquito.

To find out more about the story behind these engines and how the aircraft they were powering ended up crash landing in the peaks of the Mournes, I got in contact with local aviation historian Ernie Cromie. As a previous chairman of the UAS, Ernie was very familiar with the recovery of these engines and has carried out extensive research on them and other aircraft accidents that took place in the Mournes during WWII. His investigations have revealed that officially nine aircraft were written off as a result of crashes in that area

This seems like a very high number over one stretch of mountains but Ernie explained that Northern Ireland was a hive of flying activity during the war, with some flying across the Irish Sea from British airfields as part of training exercises. With many local airfields situated near high ground, unpredictable weather conditions, unreliable radio aids and the additional challenge of flying at night during a blackout, a large number of accidents was, unfortunately, to be expected.

So do we know what happened to the engines in the Transport Museum stores? Ernie tells us more.

The much larger Bristol Hercules engine came from a Wellington bomber. This plane was famed for its use in night raids over Germany in the first phases of the war but the engine itself was one of the most reliable radial engines of the WWII era.

“The Bristol Hercules engine was from Wellington bomber X3599. On 16 March 1942, a Wellington from No 57 Squadron RAF left its base at Feltwell in Norfolk for a non-operational flight to Aldergrove. It was carrying its normal crew of six and a passenger, 24-year-old Miss Barbara Blakiston-Houston from Killyleagh, Co Down, who was a Section Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. En route, bad weather was encountered which, in the Newcastle area, took the form of a very low cloud base which obscured the mass of the Mournes. Apparently, due to the prevailing conditions, the crew became disorientated, as a result of which the aircraft strayed off course and, at 12.30 pm, flew into the rock-strewn lower slopes of Thomas’s Mountain at a point near the Black Stairs on the edge of the Glen River”.

“No aircraft could have survived such an occurrence and the Wellington was totally destroyed by the force of the impact and resulting fire. Miraculously, one person survived, albeit injured, but the other occupants were killed, including Miss Blakiston-Houston. The pilot, Flying Officer H E Hunter, Royal New Zealand Air Force, age 25, from Christchurch and the air observer Flying Officer J W Elliott, Royal Canadian Air Force, age 26, from Toronto, were buried in Belfast City Cemetery”.


The second smaller Rolls Royce Merlin engine came from a Mosquito NS996. The Mosquito was an incredibly versatile aircraft operating as a bomber, fighter-bomber, night fighter and photo-reconnaissance aircraft and was increasingly used for training purposes. The Mosquito in question was operating in such a role the night it crashed flying from its base in Shropshire to Northern Ireland and the possible ‘target’ of Long Kesh airfield.

“Whether or not Long Kesh was the target on the night of 12/13 January 1945 is uncertain but in any event NS996 headed north over the Irish Sea. The aircraft did not return however and searches were initiated but due to the extreme weather conditions that winter, it was not until the beginning of March that the wreckage was identified and the bodies of the two crew recovered from the crash site on the southern slopes of Slieve Commedagh, just above The Castles. In October 1945, a salvage team went to the site but decided that salvage was too difficult and pointless because of the remoteness of the site and nature of the wreckage, most of which was simply pushed into a nearby ravine and buried. From time to time since then, portions of wreckage have been unearthed and carried downstream by flood waters gushing through the ravine”.


These engines demonstrate clearly the physical damage as a result of these crashes but they are just two examples of the numerous accidents that took place from 1939 to 1945, not only in the Mournes, but across the province. There is little evidence remaining of the scale of aircraft movement in Northern Ireland during WWII and without material objects like these, it is difficult to comprehend the power and force of those collisions that so tragically resulted in the loss of many lives. As a result, these aero engines remain an important tangible piece of the aviation history of Northern Ireland.

Many thanks to Ernie Cromie for his help with the research of these engines.