Proud Scots in the RAF
Today is St Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day of celebration. The image of kilted Scotsmen charging into battle against greater odds appeals to many romantic imaginations. While Scottish military tradition is most strongly associated with Scottish clans and Scottish regiments; Scotland’s impact on the Royal Air Force is often overlooked. Scotland’s Royal Air Force bases have a historically significant role as key locations for home defence and secret listening operations.
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, is one of many proud Scots to have served in the Royal Air Force. The overall number of Scots involved in the Royal Air Force is difficult to quantify. What makes a Scot? Is ‘Scottishness’ defined by place of birth or ancestral heritage? What national characteristics can we attribute to those Scots who feature in the RAF story? This invisible minority have certainly earned their place – embodying bravery, ingenuity, leadership, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice.
In a 1933 article in ‘Aeroplane’ the author records his impressions of the Scots he meets near RAF Leuchars during Air Defence exercises: “The inhabitants are the most friendly and kindly and certainly about the most intelligent and best educated people in the British Isles…”. Here I must admit a personal bias, having grown up on the north-east coast of Scotland myself! My hometown of Montrose is the site of the UK’s first operational military airfield, established in 1913. Chosen for its ideal flying conditions, its chief role during both world wars was in pilot training. Some of the many men who died in flying accidents are buried in the town and aircraft wrecks are dotted around the Grampian mountains nearby. The first British pilots to arrive in France after war was declared on 4 August 1914, flew from Montrose.
One of the first airmen to be awarded the new Distinguished Flying Cross after the Royal Air Force was established on 1 April 1918, was Captain John Todd. Falkirk-born Todd was studying Medicine at the University of Edinburgh when he interrupted his studies to join the Royal Flying Corps, serving in 70 Squadron. Flying Sopwith Camel fighters he became an ace, downing 18 enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Flight Commander before he reached the age of 20. Due to the physical strain of flying he later returned to Montrose as a flying instructor. With the end of the war, Todd returned to Edinburgh to finish his degree and later became a medical missionary in Malawi. Dr John Todd, his grandson, reflects on the man himself:
“He was actually a very kind man and didn’t revel in the act of accruing kills. He hated war. He witnessed the early death of so many men, which he attributed in part to their use of alcohol to calm their nerves, whilst leading a terrifying existence, not of their choice”.
Between the wars the idea for territorial based squadrons to enhance the regulars came from Lord Trenchard and the Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were formed in 1925. Its civilian recruits were determined to prove themselves and would soon be known for their skill, bravery and high morale. No. 603 (City of Edinburgh)’s motto typified their fighting spirit: ‘Gin Ye Daur’ (‘If you dare’ in the Doric dialect).
The three Scottish auxiliary squadrons: No. 602 (City of Glasgow), No. 603 (City of Edinburgh), and No. 612 (City of Aberdeen) were infused with Scottish traditions which carried through as the units evolved. All members of No. 602 learned to sing ‘I belong tae Glasgow’ and all Scots auxiliaries made the loyal toast with Drambuie liqueur. Furthermore, King George V approved the use of Grey Douglas tartan as officers’ mess dress for Nos. 602 and 603 squadrons in 1936, also worn by each squadron’s pipe band. The auxiliaries had city headquarters and a strong local identity in their home city whose citizens regarded them as elite units, the city’s own squadrons.
Those who volunteered for the Auxiliary Air Force may have found inspiration in the stories of record-breaking flying Scots. These included Glasgow-born Jim Mollison, husband of famous aviatrix Amy Johnson, set record times for long-distance flights. Scots Douglas Douglas- Hamilton and D. F. McIntyre were some of the first pilots to fly over Mount Everest in 1933. Like 601 ‘Millionaires’ (City of London) squadron, many initial recruits were wealthy weekend flyers but the men came from city desks to farms. Jim Skinner joined No. 603 squadron’s ground crew in 1938 with four other boys from the same stair in his tenement block and several others from the same street.
During the Second World War, it was a Scottish auxiliary squadron which shot down the first enemy aircraft over British waters on 16 October 1939. On that day, the Luftwaffe made its first attack on Great Britain, targeting Royal Navy vessels in the Firth of Forth. Both 603 and 602 squadrons were involved in intercepting the raid. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, himself a Scot, sent the message “Well done. First blood to the auxiliaries”. The debate as to who ‘drew the first blood’ continues.
Nos. 602 and 603 shared in another victory. Less than two weeks later Archie McKellar from Paisley helped bring down the first enemy bomber over British soil since 1918, a Heinkel III which crashed in the Lammermuir Hills on 28 October 1939. A plasterer’s son, he took flying lessons secretly at the Scottish Flying Club at Abbotsinch against his family’s wishes. He was invited to join 602 (City of Glasgow) squadron in 1936. MacKellar was one of the few pilots to become an ‘ace in day’ and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1940 for his role in successful operations off the Scottish north-east coast. He later became Squadron Leader of 605 Squadron and was noted for his leadership, courage and tactical skills when he received a Medal Bar to his DFC in October 1940. He was killed on 1 November 1940, just one day after the Battle of Britain officially came to an end.
Over a third of the aircrew in the Battle of Britain had been part-timers at the beginning of the Second World War. Auxiliaries provided 14 of the 62 squadrons in Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain Edinburgh’s 603 squadron claimed 57 confirmed enemy aircraft destroyed – more than double the average of Spitfire fighter squadrons. Scottish personnel served with distinction in all branches and commands within the Royal Air Force.
Paisley’s John Hannah was, and remains, the youngest person ever to receive the Victoria Cross for aerial operations. He enlisted in the RAF in 1939 aged 17. Hannah went on to join No. 83 squadron on bomber operations targeting German-occupied ports along the English Channel. On the night of 15/16 September 1940, Hannah served in one of 15 crews flying over Antwerp on a mission to bomb enemy invasion shipping. His actions that night earned him the Victoria Cross.
When his crew’s Handley Page Hampden P1355 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, Pilot Officer C. A. Connor determined to fly the burning aircraft out of the range of enemy gunners. Meanwhile Sergeant Hannah sustained severe burns putting out the flames while crouched in the confined space of the aircraft. All the while bullets ricocheted in all directions. Hannah even used his log book and bare hands to extinguish the fire, remaining stoically calm throughout. Later he helped navigate the aircraft back to RAF Scampton.
Connor wrote about Hannah’s bravery: “He said, in his cheery manner, ‘The fire is out, sir’…Through it all he was grinning…and when we landed he jumped out of the aeroplane as though what he had done had been an everyday occurrence…He didn’t give his own safety a thought. He could have jumped, but preferred to stay behind”. On inspection of the heavily burned fuselage on landing, bullet holes in the petrol tanks were visible and it seemed a miracle the Hampden had survived the mission. Sadly, his health never recovered. Hannah was discharged from the RAF in 1942 and died at the age of 25 in 1947. A letter written by Hannah describing the events was recently donated by his daughters to the RAF Museum’s Archive & Library.
The RAF’s only living recipient of the Victoria Cross is another Scot: Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Cruickshank. He was born in Aberdeen in 1920 and worked as a bank clerk before joining the Royal Artillery. In 1941, Cruickshank applied to transfer to RAF aircrew and began his training that year. He joined 210 Squadron in 1943 flying Consolidated Catalina flying boats. 210 Squadron was part of RAF Coastal Command, providing air cover to Allied merchant shipping against enemy vessels. On 17 July 1944, Flight Lieutenant John Cruickshank and crew set off on patrol in Catalina JV928 DA-Y. After spotting a German U-boat after eight hours on patrol, the crew endured heavy fire including a shell which exploded inside the aircraft. However, the enemy submarine had sunk. Cruickshank guided the Catalina back to RAF Sullom Voe despite his severe injury and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
Scottish women also served with distinction in the Royal Air Force. Corporal Elspeth Henderson from Edinburgh joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in January 1940. She was working with fellow telephonist Sergeant Helen Turner at Biggin Hill when it was heavily attacked by enemy bombers in September that year. Both were awarded the Military Medal for their courage and devotion to duty. The citation reads:
“Bombs were falling around the building but both airwomen carried on…although they knew there was only a light roof over their heads. When the building received a direct hit both continued working till it caught fire, and they were ordered to leave”.
Henderson said: “Work and actual danger were never the worst; the worst was the anticipation with butterflies in the tummy and time to worry about families at home”. She never forgot the praise she received from bomber ace Group Captain Leonard Cheshire who informed her how pleased he was that a woman had received the Military Medal. Only six women received the Military Medal in the Second World War.
Also enlisting in January 1940, Marion Wilberforce née Ogilvie-Forbes from Aberdeenshire became one of the first eight female pilots in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) ferrying aircraft from factories to RAF squadrons. Wilberforce had paid for her flying lessons using the wages from her job at a sports magazine and earned her flying license in 1930. Her first aeroplane was a de Havilland Cirrus Moth. In the ATA, she eventually went on to transport combat aircraft including Spitfires and Hurricanes. She received further training on bombers and by 1944, was one of only 11 women qualified to fly the Lancaster. Women in the ATA had to overcome some initial scepticism from their male colleagues but quickly proved their worth. The work required great skill and versatility to fly many types of aircraft. By the end of the war, Wilberforce had flown most of the 130 aircraft types ferried by the ATA. She continued to fly into her eighties.
The story of one family demonstrates the sacrifices made by Scots in the Royal Air Force. Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert suffered the tragic loss of her three sons. The eldest, Alasdair, died in a flying accident in 1938. Roderic was killed on 22 May 1941 leading a formation of Hurricanes in an attack on an Iraq airfield. Iain died just six weeks later when he failed to return from a search and rescue mission from RAF Sullom Voe. To honour them, Lady MacRobert generously donated enough money in 1941 to purchase a Short Stirling bomber for the Royal Air Force which was named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ and four Hawker Hurricanes the following year. This started a legacy of dedicating aircraft with the name ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ for many years after the Second World War.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier from Kilmarnock became Chief of the Air Staff on 12 July 2016. He says he was inspired by the example of his father Victor, who served in a mobile signals unit as a ground Wireless Operator in Burma and India during the Second World War. When asked why he joined the RAF, he said his father bought him a Ladybird book, “The Pilot in the RAF” when he was just four years old. He says “That is undoubtedly my inspiration…When I grew up I wanted to do nothing else part from join the RAF and fly aircraft”.