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Paddy Forsythe (1920 - 2009):
Air Force Officer

Air Commodore James Roy Forsyth had a decades-long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force. Towards the end of the Second World War he took part in two of the most notable air force actions, one humanitarian, one notorious as one of the most destructive air attacks in history. 

Paddy Forsythe, as he was universally known, was born in Belfast, where his father was managing director of a linen firm (there was still a substantial linen trade in Ulster between the wars). He went to school at Methodist College in south Belfast, and entered the nearby Queen’s University enrolling in the Law faculty. However, in April and May 1941 Belfast was several times attacked from the air by the German Air Force (germ: Luftwaffe) which was able to do this with relative impunity due to Belfast’s thin anti-aircraft defences. On 7 April there was a “minor” raid (12 fatalities in Belfast), but on 15 April there was a very heavy raid which many thought and think was not well executed by the Luftwaffe as it was assumed they wished to attack the city’s important sea port, especially its shipyards, its aircraft manufacturers and waterworks; however the bombs fell to a large extent on nearby and densely populated civilian areas of central and north Belfast. It has been estimated that as many as 1000 civilians were killed, a notably high figure for air raids at that (early) period of the war. Two further raids in early May were launched, though neither was at all as destructive as the 15 April raid. 

Forsythe, as he was from Northern Ireland, was not obliged to join the armed forces, but the effect of these raids was to impel him to volunteer, first joining the Queen’s University Air Squadron. He then went to America to train as a pilot under the “Arnold Scheme”, a bilateral arrangement named after its organiser, General Arnold of the United States Army Air Corps. Under this scheme thousands of RAF pilots were trained at airfields in the south-east of the United States (Georgia in Forsythe’s case). He qualified, officially rated as “above average” and became w a pilot instructor, under the same scheme. As the war continued, it was the policy of the Allied countries (principally the United Kingdom and the United States) to attack Germany with increasingly numerous bombers and increasingly large ones. By 1944 Forsythe, now a flight lieutenant, had joined 625 Squadron based at Kelstern in southern England, and flying Lancaster bombers, very large planes and the principal bomber of the RAF.  

On 13 February 1945, the allied air forces attacked the German city of Dresden, in Saxony (south-east Germany), and Forsythe’s squadron, 625 Squadron, was part of a very large bomber force. The raid was so intense that a firestorm was caused, which destroyed very much of the city and killed tens of thousands of people of whom the vast majority were civilians; some researchers have even estimated a total of more than 100,000 deaths though this is thought excessively overstated (2013). The Dresden raid (in fact there were three separate attacks within 48 hours) would become, for many, one of the most terrible incidents of the entire war and remain highly controversial. 

Forsythe remained defensive about the RAF attack, maintaining that the target was quite precisely the railway marshalling yards, which, he would later recall, were hit with much precision, it being a clear night, and the city being relatively undefended. The purpose of attacking the marshalling yards was not just the general aim of wrecking enemy rail transport, he always maintained, but they had been briefed that there was a more specific aim, that of aiding the Red Army who were preparing to attack the city on the ground. What had apparently happened was an unusually strong wind simply blew masses of flame right into the city. He was critical of the wartime Prime Minister, Churchill, whom he described as cowardly, because, Forsythe maintained (and he was by no means alone in this), it had ultimately been Churchill’s order to launch a devastating attack, whereas Churchill sought to blame the head of Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Harris. 

Forsythe’s last operations during the war were quite different. During the winter of 1944-1945 the British and American armies having failed to liberate the Netherlands, the Dutch had to endure what came to be known as the “Hungerwinter”, when there was, especially in the urban areas of the western part of the country, a serious food shortage up to and including starvation, this partly inflicted deliberately by the Germans in revenge for a rail strike throughout the Netherlands. In the Spring of 1945, the British decided on a plan to drop food supplies from the air to the still starving and freezing Dutch. A truce was negotiated directly with Seyss-Inquart, who had ruled the occupied country during the war. Forsythe himself took part in this operation, which passed off relatively successfully: the Germans observed the ceasefire, and Operation Manna succeeded in dropping some 6500 tons of supplies, the British planes flying at 250 feet to drop their cargo. 

After the war, Forsythe remained in the RAF in a number of roles. One was that he remained a bomber pilot, but flying the distinctive Vulcan jets, commanding 16 Squadron based at RAF Laarbruch in West Germany. Promoted Group Captain, in the 1960s he was station commander, RAF Acklington, in north-east England; he held some staff posts including with Directorate Air Plans which sought to streamline the RAF, and was in charge of public relations at the Far East Command at Singapore, during the period when British forces were being withdrawn from South-East Asia; eventually as Air Commodore he was in charge of all RAF public relations. 

He was a keen fan of rugby, serving as chairman of several forces clubs and President of London Irish. By this time he had retired, and worked for the Look Ahead Housing Association. 

His various awards included the Distinguished Flying Cross, and he was appointed Companion of the British Empire.

Born: 10 July 1920
Died: 28 August 2009
Richard Froggatt
The Times, 4.9.09; Daily Telegraph, 20.9.09; Robert Fisk, In Time of War (London, Paladin, 1985);