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Incredible lost story of Irish fighter pilot who defied IRA man dad to join RAF and help save Britain during WW2

WHEN teenager Brendan Finucane was in hospital for an appendix operation a fortune teller in the next bed predicted he would die a “watery death” by the time he was 21.

So on his 21st birthday in 1941, the Irish youngster — who by then was an RAF fighter pilot and Battle of Britain hero — told his brother Ray: “So much for that fortune teller, I’ve made it.”

SuppliedShane O’Regan as fearless fighter Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane in his Shamrock Spitfire[/caption]

AlamyDespite downing as many as 34 enemy planes, making him the third-highest ace in World War Two, Paddy refused to have his kills painted on the side of his cockpit[/caption]

AlamyPaddy, far right, with the Aussie squadron including Bluey Truscott, third from right[/caption]

Yet just nine months later over the Channel a German machine gunner’s bullet hit his Spitfire’s radiator and he ditched in the sea. His plane was engulfed by a wave and sank without trace, taking him with it.

By the time of his death, Paddy, as he was inevitably known among his RAF colleagues, had become a dashing hero akin to David Beckham today, and 5,000 people — many of them women, who adored him — turned up at his funeral at Westminster’s Catholic Cathedral.

Even so, after the war Paddy’s story — including how he had defied his Irish Republican dad to fight for Britain and downed more enemy planes than our best-known pilot, Douglas Bader — somehow faded from history.

But now film-making twins Ian and Dominic Higgins have retold the story of brave Paddy Finucane — to this day the youngest Wing Commander in RAF history, and his distinctive plane, known as the Shamrock Spitfire because of the three-leafed emblem of Ireland painted on its side.

By the time of his death, Paddy, as he was inevitably known among his colleagues, had become a dashing hero akin to David Beckham

Despite downing as many as 34 enemy planes, making him the third-highest ace in World War Two, Paddy refused to have his kills painted on the side of his cockpit in the traditional manner of fighter pilots.

Family friction

If Paddy had survived, Prime Minister Winston Churchill planned to create a Shamrock Squadron made up entirely of Irish pilots led by Wing Commander Finucane.

The hero flyer’s exploits were in stark contrast to those of his father Andy, who had fought for the Republicans in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising armed insurrection.

In 1920 baby Paddy had nearly been killed when his mum was pushing his pram and they were caught in a shootout between Republicans and the British Black and Tans — men recruited into the Royal Irish Constabulary. A bullet missed young Paddy by a fraction of an inch and his family believed the odds of him not being killed that day were a million to one.

The Higgins brothers, from Birmingham, have turned Paddy’s story of wartime heroism into a movie, The Shamrock Spitfire, which was released yesterday after previously winning an astonishing 53 awards at film festivals.

In an exclusive interview, the 50-year-old twins tell why they brought Paddy’s story to the screen.

Ian says: “There’s something so exceptional about him, he was the David Beckham of his day.

“The media loved him. He had the looks, the charisma and the heroics, but he hated the limelight.

“He was such a humble, down-to-earth guy — in contrast to Douglas Bader, who was such a colourful, outgoing boss character, very much all about himself.

Paddy’s early days in the RAF were a disaster as he struggled to master the art of landing and was classed ‘average at best’

“There are stories of Paddy jumping over walls, running away from the press. He just wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera.”

Dominic, the older twin by three minutes, says: “Also he was Irish in the RAF and this just years after the Easter Rising, so there was a lot of . . . ”

Brendan didn’t see himself as a turncoat

The twins, who have worked on films together since they were kids, have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences.

“Fresh memories,” adds Ian.

Dominic continues: “His own father fought alongside (later Irish President) Eamon de Valera in the Irish uprising. He knew him personally so there was a lot of friction in the family when Brendan first announced in 1938 that he wanted to join the RAF.

“His dad told him, ‘I don’t want any son of mine fighting with the English’.”

Ian adds: “They were two peas in a pod and they butted heads a lot. Brendan didn’t see himself as a turncoat, he was fighting a greater evil.

“If England was ever invaded, Ireland would be next.”

Paddy’s early days as an RAF pilot were a disaster as he struggled to master the art of landing and was classed “average at best”.

But when the Battle of Britain began in the summer of 1940, top brass soon discovered he was a master of the aerial dogfight.

Paddy had become such a hero that 5,000 people — many of them women who adored him — attempted to attend his funeral at Westminster’s Catholic CathedralAlamy

SuppliedShamrock Spitfire, the story of Brendan Finucane, is out on DVD and on Sky Store, iTunes, Amazon, Google, Rakuten and Virgin now[/caption]

At a time when a pilot’s lifespan was measured in days and weeks, his Irish luck combined with pluck.

He went from the lowest-ranked pilot, aged 19, to Wing Commander in just two years.

Dominic says: “He got his first kill in the Battle of Britain and started making a bit of a name for himself.”

Once, Paddy landed a bullet-riddled plane just as the Germans attacked his airfield at Hornchurch, Essex.

Ian adds: “So he got straight into his own plane and went straight back up again. Those are the things that made him stand out.

“He proved himself in the Battle of Britain.”

Promoted to Squadron Leader, he was put in charge of 452 Squadron, a bunch of unruly Australians who he inspired with displays of daring, downing dozens of enemy planes on raids across the Channel. Ian says: “His No2, Bluey Truscott, and fellow Australians painted Paddy’s plane with a shamrock and circled all his kills around it.

“Brendan said straight away, ‘Take those kills off. I’m not proud of what I did’.

“That’s the difference between him and someone like Bader, he was never proud to show off how many lives he had taken.

“He talked about himself as being like a walking graveyard at one point, because it did weigh very heavily on him.”

Footage of moment plane is hit

By the time he died, Paddy had won the Distinguished Flying Cross — three times — as well as the Distinguished Service Order, and notched up 28 confirmed kills, though experts believe he got six more. The film, starring Shane O’Regan, from TV crime drama Miss Scarlett And The Duke, as Paddy, is an independent production which the Higgins brothers made on a shoestring budget.

They shot most of the scenes at a military re-enactment camp in Worcestershire and on beaches in Devon. At one point they had just £8 left in the kitty for filming before finding more money to finish the movie.

The brothers used a Spitfire simulator at Goodwood aerodrome in West Sussex, plus modern CGI along with real, but very grainy, original gun camera film from Paddy’s wartime plane to recreate aerial dogfights.

They also discovered footage from a plane that had been following Paddy’s Shamrock Spitfire which showed the exact moment it was hit by that lucky German bullet on July 15, 1942. Ian says: “We have footage from various battles he was in but in film from his wingman, Canadian Pilot Officer Alan “Butch” Aikman, you can see the moment when the Germans who hit the Shamrock Spitfire were shot by almost all of Paddy’s squadron.

“You can see the bullets going through the sand dunes and engulfing the Germans.”

Paddy always told his fellow pilots: “If you are over water and in trouble, bail out. Get out of her fast.

After his death the family shut down and because the RAF didn’t really want to be publicising losses, they wanted to concentrate on the successes, Brendan was almost completely forgotten

John Donovan, expert on Brendan Finucane

“She doesn’t take to water like a duck. She takes to it like a fish and goes straight down.”

Butch followed Paddy’s damaged plane as it attempted to limp home. But eight miles off the French coast Paddy radioed his last message: “This is it, Butch.”

The Spitfire’s nose struck the water and Paddy disappeared in a wall of spray and vanished without trace.

John Donovan, a historical expert on the story of Brendan Finucane, says: “After his death the family shut down, and because the RAF didn’t really want to be publicising losses — they wanted to concentrate on the successes — Brendan was almost completely forgotten.”

And Ian says: “They made a big film about Bader — Reach For The Sky — and we found out there had been plans to make a movie about Paddy but for some reason it never happened.

“If they had made a movie he might have been as famous as Douglas Bader.

“So hopefully our film goes some way to put that right.”

The Shamrock Spitfire is out on DVD and at Sky Store, iTunes, Amazon, Google, Rakuten and Virgin now.

Arthur Edwards / The SunA scene from the movie Shamrock Spitfire[/caption]

GettyIf Paddy, seen here in London in 1941, had survived, Winston Churchill planned to create a Shamrock Squadron made up entirely of Irish pilots led by the ace[/caption]

Arthur Edwards / The SunFilm-making twins Ian and Dominic Higgins have retold the story of brave Paddy Finucane — to this day the youngest Wing Commander in RAF history[/caption]

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