Revealed: Epic tale of Derry man’s heroism during the Pennyburn Bombing

The late Francis McGonagle (first left) pictured in the city centre with a group of other men outside his place of work on Carlisle Road.  Included in the photograph is buisness owner Joe Reid, who was known locally as 'the Blanket King'.
The late Francis McGonagle (first left) pictured in the city centre with a group of other men outside his place of work on Carlisle Road. Included in the photograph is buisness owner Joe Reid, who was known locally as 'the Blanket King'.

The true story of how a Derry man had a premonition which averted a family tragedy amidst the deadly Messines Park bombing in Pennyburn 74 years ago this month is today revealed.

In a dramatic recreation of real events, scripted by one of those involved, that fateful night on Easter Tuesday, April 15th, 1941 when the Luftwaffe made their presence felt in Derry, is brought vividly to life.

Some of the destruction at Pennyburn in the aftermath of the bombings.

Some of the destruction at Pennyburn in the aftermath of the bombings.

On the same evening when the Luftwaffe blitzed Belfast, claiming around 900 lives, a sole German pilot flew over the Derry and dropped two parachute mines which exploded in the Pennyburn area.

The first mine blew up in the garden of a house, reducing several homes to rubble.

The other bomb hit a sandpit in Collon Terrace, damaging local homes and the Parochial House at St Patrick’s Church, Pennyburn.

In the period just before the bombing, the familiar air raid sirens had gone off as Francis McGonagle attended Feis Dhoire Cholmcille, which was then in full swing at the Guildhall.

The Journal coverage of the bombings at Messines Park in April 1941.

The Journal coverage of the bombings at Messines Park in April 1941.

The sirens were nothing unusual in Derry at the time, and reports suggest no-one was overly concerned. Little did they imagine that by first light the next morning, 13 people, including a number of children, would have been killed and a large part of Derry turned into a scene of carnage.

At the time, due to a media blackout intended to obscure details of attacks in case they got into the hands of the Nazi command, the ‘Derry Journal’ carried various stories on the lethal assault under the main headline ‘Raid On Six County Town’.

In one poignant statement alongside news of the casualties, the edition details how at the bottom of a water filled crater caused by the bomb, a soaked armchair could be seen.

Here is an account of what unfolded that night, written by a survivor who was central to this story:

The Luftwaffe in flight.

The Luftwaffe in flight.

“As he ran steadily in the darkness Francis focused on the old tram tracks disappearing into the near distance.

The cobbled surface was much more even between the tracks- less chance of twisting an ankle.

A few minutes earlier, events were winding down in the hall. A 10.30 pm the main programmes had concluded and there were only the results of the male voice choir competition to be announced.

The alarm, shortly followed by the lights dimming and then going out, put an end to the proceedings.

This was made absolute by a faceless voice shouting from the general direction of the stage that everyone was to vacate the building and make their way home as quickly and safely as possible.

He was suddenly consumed by the absolute certainty that the most important thing in his life was to do just that and the only way that he would get there was to run the couple of miles to St. Patrick’s Terrace, Pennyburn as hard and as fast as he could.

Fortunately, he was fit for his 33 years. He had played football with Fairview Football Club from his schooldays. He still played regularly with the senior club. His only downside was smoking, but then everyone smoked.

Victoria Barracks vanished behind him on the right as he settled into a steady pace and as he passed Clarendon Street.

He could hear the voices of the wardens drifting up from the ARP station.

His new shoes were burning his feet and running in his best/ only suit was difficult.

The Asylum and Basil Mc Farland’s Walled building passed quickly by and he was beginning to tire.

“Where had everyone gone? Why is no one else running home?

He found himself slowing unconsciously but then running even faster again.

He had heard the plane occasionally on the way but as he passed the shipyard the engine noise increased and then started to fade as if it was flying circuits.

He strained his eyes into the dark night but could see nothing except broken cloud and stars, lots of stars.

He could hear voices and movement from the A.A. crew stationed on top of Hogg & Mitchell’s factory where his sister worked.

He pondered as he ran on all the family lost to him. His father had idealistically volunteered to fight in WW1 for “the freedom of small nations”.

He was joined by hundreds of other local men. He died a wretched and agonising death from phosgene poisoning in late 1917.

His younger brother and sister had died as children, his two older brothers emigrated to America when they turned 20. His last brother had achieved a life-time ambition and was now a missionary priest in Burma.

Francis had a secure job with Joe Reid known locally as “the Blanket King”.

He had worked with him for several years at his furniture store in Carlisle Road.

He married in 1937 and rented the house in Pennyburn where his nine-month-old son was sleeping, minded by his aunt.

He passed the Lough Swilly railway terminal , over the railway crossing on Strand Road and swung left towards home. He heard the faint drone in the distance.

Now at several thousand feet and just swinging west into Donegal the pilot of the JU88 had decisions to make and quickly.

He and his three crew had left their base in France hours earlier and had joined that night’s raid on Belfast as cover but broke away heading around the North coast and into Lough Foyle.

He had a vitally important mission which was to sink a capital ship in the narrow stretch of the river between Madams Bank and Culmore Point.

This would put a massive steel plug on the Foyle and deny access to the hundreds of ships currently covering the Western Approaches.

This would be a massive blow to the Allies and a real game changer for the Axis powers.

He had been hand picked for this mission. He was in his early thirties, already a 10-year veteran and had honed his considerable skills with the Condor Legion in Spain three years earlier. He had been a pathfinder on several raids on Southern England.

He was doing consecutive triangular circuits with the target stretch of the Foyle as finals. This called for 100% accuracy and consistency on speed direction and altitude, which had to clear captive balloons. This would allow him to compensate for lateral drift as the parachutes descended. They had to land inside a corridor 1,000 by 200 yards to be effective, but here he was on the dark extreme edge of Western Europe, rapidly running out of fuel, time and possibly luck and with a long way back to base.

In the bomb bay of the JU 88 he carried two of the latest Luftmine B. Magnetic mines.

Two all aluminium monsters, 9’ tall by 3’ diameter with a hemispherical cap that fell away as the parachutes deployed. Each carried 1000 kg. of high explosive and could sink a battleship. He felt again the weight of the mines as he swung the plane West again over Donegal to commence what he knew had to be his last circuit.

He concentrated intently on his instruments as the bomb Aimer lying prone in the nosecone called out waypoints and corrections.

Suddenly there was a blinding flash and violent explosions all around as the anti-aircraft crew stationed on top of Coroddy Hill fired off several salvos.

These were their first wartime shots in anger and it seemed that beginners’ luck was on their side.

The aircraft lurched violently and irreparably off course as shrapnel peppered the airframe. The captain now had no option but abort the mission and ordered the bomb Aimer to jettison the mines.

The aircraft leaped upwards as the huge weight fell away and he pointed the nose to the East and began to climb.

Now running in the middle of the road, Francis was passing Pennyburn Chapel when the salvo went off.

He forced his burning feet and lungs to a final effort as he sprinted to his house at the junction with Racecourse Road.

Keys already in his hand he flung open the door and pounded up the stairs, scooped his young son out of his cot and hustled down and into the cupboard under the stairs where he had actually stored some cushions.

He closed the door and as his eyes stared unseeingly into the darkness and as he tried to control his laboured breathing, 13 of his neighbours were taking their final few breaths.

The blasts tore into and through the houses, flattening some completely and leaving others as jagged roofless ruins.

People died in their beds or where they stood.

Devastation was absolute and everywhere.

Under the stairs, Francis shielded his young son as best he could and tried to protect him from the choking dust as the walls and floors rocked around him.

An eerie silence followed, soon interrupted by the sound of things falling from the sky. It increased to a crescendo and then abated.

It had become common practice to drop incendiaries after the bombs to complete the devastation and the prospects of burning to death gave Francis the strength to kick the door and rubble away and crawl out to what was left of his room.

Peering up through where the bedroom had been he could see the stars twinkling in the sky.

The ‘incendiaries’ were bricks, tiles and debris thrown thousands of feet into the air.

As he held his child, to his chest he realised he had just saved his young life - my life.

Unknowingly, he also saved the 12 wonderful people - my family - who would never have lived, but for his heroism.

We all say thanks dad,well done.

Love always, John and family.”