Fitzmaurice, James Christopher (1898–1965), aviator, was born 6 January 1898 at 35 Mountjoy Prison Cottages, North Circular Road, Dublin, second of three sons and one daughter of Michael Fitzmaurice, prison warder, and Mary Agnes Fitzmaurice (née Riordan), both of whose families came from Co. Limerick. James moved with his parents to Maryborough (Portlaoise), Queen's Co. (Laois), in 1902, when his father was transferred to the prison staff there. James attended St Mary's CBS locally and subsequently boarded at St Joseph's College (Holy Ghost Fathers), Rockwell, Cashel, Co. Tipperary until in 1913 his father sent him, aged fifteen, to Waterford city as a trainee salesman at Hearn's drapery. Fitzmaurice loathed the living-in experience with other trainees, which he likened to his schooldays. Temporarily suspended for nocturnal pranks, he returned to Waterford during the national resurgence arising from the home rule crisis of 1912.
The excitement created by Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond (qv) prompted Fitzmaurice to join the Waterford battalion of the Irish Volunteers, formed in November 1913 in response to militant unionism. He abandoned any residual intention of being a draper's apprentice. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, when the Volunteers split into two factions, the majority supporting Redmond's call to arms on Britain's side, Fitzmaurice, now aged sixteen, joined the cadet company of the 7th Bn, Leinster Regiment. When discovered (with the collusion of his distraught parents) to be underage, he was sent home. He returned to the British army after three months, however, fulfilling his ‘burning desire’ to enlist in the 17th Lancers cavalry regiment.
Fitzmaurice became an NCO even before reaching France early in 1915. He fought on the Western Front, and was wounded. Transferred to the 7th Bn, Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment) of infantry, owing to the limited usefulness of cavalry in trench warfare, he survived the Somme in 1916 and Arras in 1917. In November 1917 he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 1/8th King's (Liverpool Regiment) (the ‘Liverpool Irish’), and in early 1918 answered an appeal for junior officers to train as pilots in the RFC. Fitzmaurice trained on Avro and Sopwith models, but the armistice of 11 November 1918 ended the war and his imminent transfer to France. Peace frustrated him, and risk motivated even his personal life when, contravening regulations concerning relations with female ground staff at his Eastbourne training base, he secretly courted and married (6 January 1919, his twenty-first birthday) Violet ‘Bill’ Clarke of Kilburn, north London, with whom he had one daughter, Patricia (b. 1921).
In 1919 Fitzmaurice perfected his training skills as part of 110 Squadron, RAF, and was selected to crew a de Havilland DH10 which carried the first overnight airmail delivery (14–15 May 1919) between Folkestone, Kent, and Cologne, Germany. Although he was nominated for the first delivery from London to Cairo, the flight was cancelled. Fitzmaurice received command of the working party of 6 Wing, based at Lympne, Kent, then went on the reserve in December 1919. Now effectively demobilised, he worked for a commercial insurance company in London until boredom drove him to back to the RAF in June 1921. He was stationed at Folkestone on a short-term commission with 25 (Fighter) Squadron. However, the prospect of being transferred to India prompted his resignation in September. Attempting to live as a self-employed broker, he was rescued fortuitously by the Anglo–Irish treaty of 6 December 1921.
The treaty's creation of Irish dominion status precipitated engagement of former British military personnel in the National (subsequently Free State) Army, established early in 1922 under the terms of agreement. An army air service evolved as civil war broke out in June–July. Fitzmaurice, now aged 24, attested in August 1922, giving his home address as 113 Richmond Road, Dublin. His daring flight demonstration and RAF experience afforded him an ambiguous status that elicited occasional suspicion but the respect of practically-minded colleagues and senior officers. Appointed second lieutenant, he flew dangerous leaflet-dropping missions urging the anti-treaty IRA in their mountainous Cork–Kerry strongholds to surrender arms. Having landed at least once in enemy territory he returned to safety on horseback.
Based at the former British aerodrome in Fermoy, north Co. Cork, which Fitzmaurice helped to refurbish and subsequently commanded, he occupied family quarters. Known to his friends as ‘Fitz’, he could be alarming and unpredictable to others: his reputed chasing of civilian workers off the aerodrome with a Lewis gun and his detention of ground crew at gunpoint for refusal to turn out earlier in the mornings were less edifying episodes of his days at Fermoy. Early in 1923 he was promoted captain, and in May the civil war ended as the IRA dumped arms. Fitzmaurice escaped postwar demobilisation, remaining at Fermoy until its closure (14 April 1924). He transferred to Baldonnel (later Casement) aerodrome in Co. Dublin, HQ of the air service, subsequently redesignated (31 September 1924) the Army Air Corps. There Fitzmaurice commanded No. 1 Squadron (flight training), with acting commandant's rank, and deputised for the officer commanding the Air Corps, Col. Charles Russell, whose position he finally attained in 1927.
Meanwhile, seeking relief from routine duties, Fitzmaurice dreamed of making the first east–west transatlantic flight. Although he was encouraged by influential friends, including Oliver St John Gogarty (qv), no one in government or GHQ supported him. On 16 September 1927 he made an almost whimsical and abortive bid to cross the Atlantic in Princess Xenia, a Fokker FVII flown by Capt. Robert H. McIntosh of Imperial Airways, who had landed in Baldonnel en route for the Atlantic attempt. As McIntosh's co-pilot had taken ill, Fitzmaurice took the spare seat, but bad weather obliged them to abandon the attempt after several hours’ flight.
His disappointment was short-lived when, after failed individual flights, two Germans planned a joint attempt for early in 1928. Kapitän Hermann Köhl and Baron Günther von Hünefeld, hoping to rehabilitate Germany's postwar image abroad, acted outside German air regulations in their attempt (26 March 1928) to reach New York from Dessau in the private Junkers W33 air transport D-1167, named Bremen. They had planned in advance to stop over at Baldonnel, having secretly invited Fitzmaurice to join them on their Atlantic journey. Conscious of personal opportunity, national prestige, and symbolic reconciliation with the Germans, he had instantly accepted, gaining official permission to fly at his own risk. The Bremen left Baldonnel (narrowly missing a stray sheep) about 5.30 a.m., 12 April 1928, reaching mid-Atlantic by flying low to avoid headwinds. Conditions worsened as darkness, made more alarming by instrument-light failure, engulfed the aircraft. Several hours from their destination, Fitzmaurice discovered leakage of oil, which obliged them to change course to reach land as soon as possible; before dawn, they were flying over Labrador. Landing on frozen ice at Greenly Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence on the evening of 13 April 1928, the Bremen had completed the first east–west transatlantic flight. The thirty-eight-and-a half-hour journey brought Fitzmaurice and his companions fame and honours in North America, including civic parades and receptions in New York and Washington, and in European cities including Bremen and Berlin. Controversially, they also visited the exiled German emperor Wilhelm II at Doorn in the Netherlands. On 30 June 1928 they received the freedom of Dublin. In his absence Fitzmaurice had been promoted major retrospectively from April, and became colonel in July 1928. He returned in October 1928 to Berlin, where the Bremen (repatriated by sea) was on exhibition. Imagining a career in world aviation and sensing official neglect of his exploit, he retired from the air corps on 16 February 1929.
Peripatetic civilian life never met Fitzmaurice's expectations. He travelled between Ireland and Germany, unsuccessfully promoting a commercial air link; his marriage failed in 1931; and in 1934 the aircraft (sponsored by the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes) which he had entered for the Mildenhall–Melbourne air race was disqualified. He lived out the 1930s in New York, promoting further aviation ventures. Returning to London in 1939, he ran a wartime servicemen's club until 1945. He subsequently undertook various occupations and retired to Dublin in 1951. Fêted in Germany in 1953 and 1955 as the sole living member of the Bremen crew, Fitzmaurice enjoyed less attention in Ireland. He received a medal in Munich three weeks before he died on 26 September 1965, aged 67, at the City of Dublin Hospital, Baggot St. After a military funeral he was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. The aviation school at Baldonnel was named after him and postage stamps issued in his memory in 1978 and 1998. The Bremen is preserved at Bremen airport, on loan from the Ford Museum, Michigan.