Library Reference Number: 154
Flying with 22 & 217 Squadrons, RAF
Generally speaking, banking could be described as a `safe' sedentary occupation, unrelated to any hint of drama, danger or excitement. Little did bank customers realise when dealing with John Mackie, that it had not always been so, and John had indeed received his fair share of excitement when flying as a Pilot in the Royal Air Force with Nos. 22 and 217 Squadrons. John Mackie describes a little of his experience in the following account.
My first hint or awareness of what could go wrong, was when undertaking flying training at Kimberley in South Africa. I had already graduated from Tiger Moths and was now training on Airspeed Oxfords. Doing rather well I thought, until on one occasion coming in to land. It had been normal practice for the Instructor to say "You've got it" and for pupil to respond "I've got it" when transferring control from one to the other. On this occasion the Instructor said to safe time we would do an overshoot on the grass and take off again without actually landing.
Very close to the ground the Instructor said "I've got it" raised the undercarriage and we ploughed into the ground with bits of `Oxford' flying all over the place as the plane was reduced to matchwood due to our belly-landing.
I was very much aware that the SAAF was very rigid on discipline, and fully expected my flying career to come to an abrupt halt. However, the Instructor appealed to the authorities that he accepted responsibility for the flying accident, and breathing a sigh of relief my flying career continued. Further development of my flying skills led to qualifications such as a Certificate which is still inscribed on page one of my South African Log Book. This states:"Certified that I have witnessed the above Name (my own) execute his first solo spin and recover successfully --Signature of Instructor- B.L. Hedding, Lt." Note: South African Air Force personnel had Army ranks.
I was then eventually posted to No.217 Squadron which had been moved to Ceylon, and I joined the Squadron at Ratmalana Airfield, Colombo. Before that however, the Beauforts had flown via Gibraltar and Malta, where they spent two months attacking enemy shipping in the Mediterranean. The ground echelon arrived in Ceylon where it received Hudsons for anti-submarine patrols, the Beauforts having been retained in the Middle East. It was little wonder that the Beauforts had been left behind, as it was amazing that a small number of aircrew members survived the two months in Malta where losses were so severe that the squadron had been in danger of being wiped out.
Those aircrew members who survived made their way to Ceylon where several new crews brought 217 Squadron back up to strength. Moving between Minneriya and Vavunia in attempting to find suitable runways built by local labour, new Beaufort aircraft of 22 & 217 Squadrons formed a Strike Force by April 1944. One month before then on 29'h March 1944 while we were about to convert to Beaufighters, I had my second `prang' following the one where I had crashed in an `Oxford.'
It was obvious from the start, that the Beaufighters supplied to us for conversion from Beauforts at Shallufa in Canal Zone, had, to be polite `seen better days', a fact I was about to find out. Coming in to land, I was on final approach when one of my two engines failed. I crash-landed with debris scattering over a wide area, and I found myself in hospital for the next three days. It was a well-known practice for aircrew to get airborne as soon as possible after anythiTq untoward happening, and my case was no exception. My Flight Commander accompanied me in an Anson on 3 April, only five days after the crash, which helped me regain confidence in once again taking to the air. For the second time, I was cleared of all responsibility following a crash landing.
Defining our role in Ceylon was straightforward. In April 1942, the Japanese Admiral who had achieved such success at Pearl Harbour, now sailed towards Ceylon with a fully equipped invasion fleet including aircraft. Had he succeeded and the Japanese had taken over Ceylon, India would have been severely threatened on two fronts which would have had a disastrous effect on the outcome of the war not only in the Far East, but much wider implications world-wide. As it happened, a Canadian Pilot flying a Catalina from Koggala spotted the Invasion Force and sent back a signal. Sadly, S/Ldr Len Birchall was shot down by the Japanese and suffered badly as a prisoner in Japanese hands. Locally he became known as "The Saviour of Ceylon" but never received adequate recognition. The Japanese making no further attempts to invade Ceylon, No.217 Squadron spent its time defensively until May 1945, when it was posted to Cocos Island to prepare for invasion of Malaysia.
Thankfully, this invasion of Malaya never took place due to 'the bomb' ending world-wide hostilities. I mentioned "thankfully" because we had been singled out for one-way missions. The initial problem was finding our new base in the Cocos. At that time with no modern technology, the Cocos was simply a dot in the ocean. An Avro York was supposed to guide us, but proved to be unserviceable. Then how do we navigate long-distance operations to Singapore and Malaya from there? Our Beaufighters carrying torpedos were unable to carry 200 gallon drop tanks so how can we return to base when we have insufficient fuel? No entry ever appeared in Public Records on those one-way missions, but I contributed an account in the book "Well - You Wanted to Fly" pub. Woodfield in 2005.
With the end of hostilities and 217 about to be disbanded, I must have engendered sufficient confidence as a Pilot, because I was entrusted to fly VIP passengers as VIP Pilot AHQ South East Asia Command. This was in direct contrast to what I had previously been engaged in doing, and was certainly better than flying one-way missions.
Having acquired the use of a Beechcraft Expediter to return to American Forces at Munich, I eventually made my way back to UK. In addition to the hazards of operational flying, I had also survived two crash landings completely unassisted by enemy action, but what of my two squadrons?
No.22 Squadron was disbanded one month after the Japanese surrendered. No.217 never did get to Cocos as this was also forestalled by the Japanese surrender, and the squadron disbanded on 30th September 1945. However, on 14th January 1952, No.217 reformed at St.Eval as a Maritime Reconnaissance Squadron and received two 'Neptunes' for trials. In April 1952 it moved to RAF Kinloss where fully equipped with Neptunes by July, it was again disbanded on 31St March 1957 Again reformed from No.1360 Flight on 1St February 1958, 217 Squadron moved to Christmas Island with Whirlwinds as part of a combined force of Shackletons and Canberras supporting the nuclear trials being carried out there. The squadron finally disbanded on 13th November 1959.
My squadrons may have gone, but fortunately I have survived, and on the return to civilian life entered the world of banking where, as the introduction states "who would suspect I had previously experienced all the above events?"