Con McGrath tells the story of Air Commodore Frederick Fitzpatrick Rainsford – Decorated bomber pilot who later played a major role during ‘the Berlin Airlift’

As a bomber pilot Frederick Rainsford flew many missions over Germany and North Africa, commanded two bomber squadrons and was decorated. Yet it was his peacetime contribution to the Berlin airlift which he believed was the chief achievement of a lively lifetime of public service.

Like many others, he believed that the success of the airlift was vital in deflecting the threat of a Third World War.
For him, June 1948 was a moment to be resolute: “To have surrendered [Berlin] would have been contrary to all that we had fought for and so dearly won,” was how he put it in his autobiography “Memoirs of an Accidental Airman”, which was published in 1986.

Those memoirs tell, with his characteristic self-deprecation and wit, of an Anglo-Irish childhood which was the prelude to a remarkably full and varied life.

Frederick Fitzpatrick Rainsford was born in Castlebar, Co Mayo, on 12 Dec 1909. It was in the west of Ireland that his father, Ross Carthy Rainsford (born 1858 in Dundalk, Co. Louth) was stationed as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The 1911 census shows the family living near Castlebar in “house 1 in Carrownurlar (Breaghwy, Mayo)”. Ross is listed as a ‘County Inspector’ in the RIC.

The various postings of Ross during his career are reflected in the birth places of his children. The census shows the first two children, Alice Mary and Cecil Ross, born in Co. Galway; then Maud Primrose born in Co. Laois, and lastly Frederick Fitzpatrick and Maria Edwina born in Co. Mayo. On the census under ‘religion’, the family are listed as Church of Ireland.

YOUNG Frederick, after receiving his education in Belfast at Campbell College, and still “undecided as to how to earn a living”, went to Kenya as a pupil farmer on the Mau Escarpment. Travelling out in 1929, he quickly settled down into the colonial life style.  However, after two years, he decided to return in order to gain an Agricultural Degree with a view to returning to East Africa as an Agricultural Officer in the Colonial Service. 

Enrolling at Queen’s University, Belfast, he soon met up with two medical students who talked him into accompanying them to join No 502 (Ulster) Special Reserve Squadron.  Not being particularly impressed by flying, he failed the subsequent medical and could have easily taken his aeronautical career no further, but his Irish determination ensured that he improved his fitness, reapplying six months later and being accepted.  

At Queen’s, Fred Rainsford also became president of the literary and debating society, the Literific.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own