Benbecula’s role, eighty years on
‘Jack Delarue was a very handsome bloke in his dark blue Aussie RAAF uniform. I flew with his crew to Ballykelly [Northern Ireland] in late September 1942 as part of a training exercise. 206 Squadron were “working up” on the mighty B17 Flying Fortress aircraft, which seemed so large and powerful. [The squadron had just converted from the smaller Hudson aircraft]. During the next couple of weeks squadron flying was hampered by atrocious weather. Then on 6th October – tragedy.’
This was Tom Blue from Glasgow, [later Ardrossan], talking to Mike Hughes about some poignant memories of his time at Benbecula during World War Two. Tom was groundcrew, a corporal driver in the RAF, but did get to make occasional flights. Tom dearly loved the island and made a number of return visits with other RAF veterans in the mid and late 1990s.
206 Squadron and later 220 Squadron were operating out of Benbecula as part of RAF Coastal Command. Late 1942 and early 1943 was a desperately worrying time in the war, as merchant navy ships bringing vital supplies to this country were suffering dreadful losses as they were relentlessly being sunk by German U Boats. Coastal Command and Royal Navy convoy escorts were engaged in a tremendous struggle to avoid us losing the war.
‘On October 6th, 6.00am, before dawn, Pilot Officer Jack Delarue and his crew had been given the “all clear” for take-off and they went thundering along the runway, fully fuelled, gunned and depth charged. Roaring halfway down the runway at full throttle, they had to make a sudden violent climb to avoid another aircraft which came into view in the darkness, taxying toward them. Poor Jack and his co-pilot had to pull back on their controls with all their might, in a desperate attempt to avoid the other “Fortress”. They did, merely breaking an aerial. However, they did not have enough power to complete take-off, and after climbing only a few feet, all four engines cut out, and they dived onto the end of the runway, bounced and went careering on to the rocks and finally came to rest some 50 yards into the sea.’
‘Two crewmen located nearer the rear of the fuselage were thrown clear, or managed to scramble from the wreckage, but five brave men were lost. Some bodies were eventually pulled from the mangled Fortress and others were “given up” by the sea over the next couple of weeks. One chap was never found. When daylight broke the huge tail fin stuck out of the water like a stranded whale. About a quarter of the fuselage was above water. I got my tanker, which had a huge metal hawser cable and hook, for rescuing aircraft which became bogged down on grass. Two Royal Navy divers had arrived and I fed my cable to their boat. They rowed out and attached balloons to keep the aircraft from slipping into deeper waters and becoming completely submerged. I watched with tears in my eyes; such a happy bunch of chaps, their lives obliterated at such an early age.’
On that night, exactly eighty years ago, a tremendous commotion followed the sound of the aircraft crashing. Two extremely brave officers, Flight Lieutenant Willis Roxburgh and his co-pilot Flying Officer Johnny Owen rushed to the beach overlooking the site of the horrendous accident. In his haste, in almost total darkness, Roxburgh stumbled in the sand dunes and dislocated a thumb, but he and Owen continued on, stripped off their uniforms and did all they could to swim out to the crash scene to try to rescue their colleagues. Sadly, the extreme cold and incoming tide drove them back to shore. Along with Jack Delarue, those who perished were Sergeants Jaeger [2nd pilot], Robinson, Guppy [RAAF] and Taplin [RAAF]. The survivors were Sergeants Coutts and Hunt, who got ashore in a dingy.
The pilot on the other aircraft involved that night was Bob Cowie. Bob also returned to the island for an RAF reunion in 1995. I recall he cut a forlorn figure at the remembrance service at Nunton cemetery. However Bob became much more relaxed after attending that service, and was adamant he had in fact received a signal from the control tower, that fateful dark night, that he was to proceed onto that runway. He was certain the mistake was not his. After the accident Bob Cowie was actually given the order to take off with his crew at 7.00am on 6th October. No time for stress counselling in those days.
Bob continued operating from Benbecula and sank a U Boat on 27th of October, only three weeks after Jack Delarue was lost. He then sank another in April 1943. Bob Cowie was a most distinguished airman, finishing up with a DFC and the rank of Squadron Leader. Jack Delarue had already given outstanding service while attached to 206 Squadron [from the Royal Australian Air Force]. He might have been considered for an award for his actions on 6th October alone, when he undoubtedly prevented the loss of lives in Bob Cowie’s crew. The fortunes of war.
Willis Roxburgh [a Scotland rugby international] went on to sink a U Boat in March 1943. Johnny Owen amazingly, attacked three U Boats in the one operational ‘sortie’, flying from Benbecula on 11th December 1942. Three days later, on 14th December, he and his valiant crew were lost without trace on another anti-U Boat hunt. In total, B17 Flying Fortresses operating from Benbecula made no fewer than 14 successful attacks sinking or damaging U Boats. A remarkable contribution to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Willis Roxburgh wrote ‘Jack Delarue was a very good pilot and immensely popular on the squadron. I well remember forming up behind the simple gun carriage and slow marching up the hill to the little cemetery. The local RC Padre took the service and he was really excellent. We all retreated to the Officers’ Mess afterwards under his leadership.’
Tom Blue remembered: had come such a long way to help us. I was there when they laid those lads to rest in the small graveyard. I was determined to return one day to Benbecula to pay my respects’. Tom did so, three times, and was so fulsome in his praise of the reception given by islanders the RAF stationed on the island at that point. Sorry to say, I, in turn, lost a great friend when Tom Blue passed away. I miss him a lot. If you are passing Nunton, perhaps visiting a relative’s graveside, why not pause a while, remember these boys who came here during World War Two, some of whom remained. Perhaps you might say a wee thanks for your liberty, and maybe a wee prayer, if you are inclined.
By Mike Hughes, author of: Hebrides at War; Stornoway in WW2; Tiree, War Among the Barley and Brine.
Mike lives in Lanarkshire, is married to Barbara who has strong Hebridean and West Highland connections. He is a father and grandfather, is a retired teacher and has a great love of the Hebrides.
Mike would be delighted to hear from anyone with memories or information relating to the Western Isles during World War Two.
The 80th Anniversary of a Balivanich Wartime Aviation Accident
By 1942, WWII activity was stepping up on Benbecula, largely due to the presence of RAF 206 Squadron with their fleet of B17 MK1 Flying Fortresses based at Balivanich Airport, tasked with the duty of carrying out anti-submarine (U boat) sweeps of the North Atlantic, between the Hebrides and Iceland.
At 0559 on 6th October 1942, B17 Flying Fortress FL454 (Fortress J) under the command of twenty six year old Pilot Officer Jack Edmond Delarue of the Royal Australian Air Force, took off from Balivanich to undertake a night operational anti-submarine patrol west of the Hebrides.
As Jack Delarue and his crew took off to head west, another aircraft taxied directly in their path, and to avoid collision, Pilot Delarue was forced to pull his aircraft off the ground, only to stall and crash into the sea a short distance from the end of the runway. The recorded time of the ditching was 0603 on 6th October 1942.
Five of the plane’s crew, including Jack Delarue, were killed and two were injured but survived the crash. The two survivors who happened to be in the aircraft wireless cabin at the time of the crash, scrambled ashore in a rubber dinghy.
Four days later, on 10th October 1942, Jack Delarue, born in Chatswood, New South Wales, Australia on 24th March 1916, was laid to rest in Nunton Cemetery with full military honours alongside fellow Australian crewmen Flight Sergeants, John Flower Guppy and John Blatch Taplin, both Wireless Air Gunners.
The officiating Chaplain on the day was Rev. Neil MacKay, Benbecula Church of Scotland minister at that time.
Two Uist men take royal appointments
“The Queen is pleased to appoint Mr Iain MacAulay DL as Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant for the Western Isles”.
These were the official words announcing the recent appointment of North Uist man Iain MacAulay as the Queen’s personal representative in the islands.
The Comhairle’s former Director of Social and Community Services takes over the role from Donald Martin, who has retired after 25 years service.
Mr MacAulay, comes from Sollas and has been a Deputy Lieutenant since 2003. In a voluntary capacity, he is also Vice- Chair of the Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative and Chair of Comunn na Gàidhlig. He is also a Trustee of Neuro Hebrides, supporting neurological patients and their carers.
Commenting on his appointment, Mr MacAulay said: “It is an honour and a privilege to be appointed Lord-Lieutenant and I look forward to representing Her Majesty The Queen in the Western Isles.” Mr MacAulay continued: “I’m very proud to be an Uibhisteach and a Gaelic speaker. Although I’ve been living in Lewis for 25 years, I still have strong connections with North Uist, and I’m a regular visitor to my home here in Grenitote to see family and friends.”
Mr MacAulay will be supported in his work by his Vice LL, Betty McAtear from Barra, and a team of Deputy LLs, including Alasdair MacEachen from Benbecula and Angus Macintyre from South Uist.
Also supporting the new LL in his duties will be Micheal Vincent Gray, from Garrynamonie, South Uist, who has been appointed as the new Lord Lieutenant’s Cadet for the Western Isles. The 17-year-old LCpl Gray joined the 1st Battalion The Highlanders Army Cadets in 2017, and is a drummer with the Army Cadet Force Pipes and Drums.
Micheal said: ‘I’m thrilled to have received the award and I’m conscious that I owe a great deal to the guidance and leadership of SMI Ian Moar.”
Iain Moar has worked tirelessly to support the Cadets over many years and was last year awarded the Lord Lieutenant’s Certificate for Meritorious Service for his work with the Daliburgh Detachment.
LL MacAulay was delighted to be served by a fellow Uibhisteach, saying: “I’m particularly pleased that in my own first year of office, the Lord Lieutenant’s Cadet is from South Uist. Micheal has been an outstanding Cadet and his appointment is well deserved.”
Micheal was officially appointed to his role by the Lord Lieutenant at the St Valery memorial service at Griminish War Memorial on Thursday, 26th May.The annual St Valery parade honours more than 10,000 members of the 51st Highland Division who were captured in northern France in 1940, and the 1000 who died serving there.
A.I. technology trialled against a supersonic missile threat
For the first time, artificial intelligence (A.I) is being used by the Royal Navy at sea as part of exercise Formidable Shield, which is taking place off the coast of Scotland.
This operational experiment on the Type 45 Destroyer (HMS Dragon) and Type 23 Frigate (HMS Lancaster), is using the A.I. applications, Startle and Sycoiea, which were tested against a supersonic missile threat.
As part of the above water systems programme, led by Defence Science and Technology Laboratory scientists, the A.I. improves the early detection of lethal threat, accelerates engagement timelines and provides Royal Navy Commanders with a rapid hazard assessment to select the optimum weapon or measure to counter and destroy the target.
Defence Science and Technology Laboratory Programme Manager, Alasdair Gilchrist MBE said: “Dstl has invested heavily in the systems that are installed at the moment, but it’s imperative that we continue to invest to make sure that the Royal Navy remains relevant now and in the future.
Being able to bring A.I. onto the ships is a massive achievement, and while we can prove the A.I. works in the labs, actually getting Navy personnel hands on is brilliant.”
As outlined in the recent Defence Command Paper, the MOD is committed to investing in A.I. and increased automation to transform capabilities as the Armed Forces adapt to meet future threats, which will be supported by the £24bn uplift in defence spending over the next four years.
HMS Lancaster and HMS Dragon (pictured above) are currently trialling the use of A.I. as part of a glimpse into the future of air defence at sea.
Hebrides Range is set to host elements of the largest military exercise in Europe.
Next week a major UK-led multinational exercise will commence with the launch of Exercise Strike Warrior.
Strike Warrior 21, which incorporates Exercise Joint Warrior 21-1, will run from 8th May 2021 to 20th May 2021 , with many of the participating vessels operating off the North Coast of Scotland.
Joint Warrior 21-1 is integrated with Exercise Strike Warrior 21 as part of the final preparations for the first deployment of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group. HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s fleet flagship sits at the centre of the Carrier Strike Group, which will deploy shortly after the completion of Strike Warrior.
Ten nations, nine NATO and one non-NATO, will take part, bringing 31 warships, three submarines, 150 aircraft and around 13,400 military personnel including 1,500 ground troops to military ranges across the country, including Hebrides Range, and to maritime exercise areas off the west and north coasts of Scotland.
NATO nations taking part are the UK, USA, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, with non-NATO member, Australia, also participating.
Joint Warrior, which takes place twice a year, and Strike Warrior are designed, planned and delivered by the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff based at Northwood in London, some of which will deploy to HM Naval Base Clyde to coordinate events during the exercise.
Exercise activity will include:
- 34 naval units from Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Latvia, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the USA participating around the Scottish Coast.
- Mine counter measures operations in areas around Campbelltown and Loch Ewe.
- 150 aircraft will take part in the exercise with some of them operating from RAF Lossiemouth, Prestwick Airport and Stornoway Airport.
- Joint firing activity will take place at Cape Wrath Weapons Range, Garvie Island and Hebrides range in the north of Scotland.
- Exercise activity in the North Minch to the west of Ullapool involving fast small boats, both civilian and military.
- GPS denial operations off the west coast of Scotland. Operations will be conducted at limited periods each day and the relevant authorities, especially maritime and aviation, have been involved in the planning process and relevant safeguards have been put in place.
Exercise Joint Warrior or Strike Warrior as it is known for this time only, is linked directly with the NATO Military Training Exercise Programme and brings together all three UK Armed Forces – the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force – along with the other participating countries, to provide high quality training opportunities and improve joint operations between the UK and its allies.
Participants will practice a wide range of capabilities across land, sea and air in coordinated joint operations with other allied nations, with the Carrier Strike Group being a key element on this occasion prior to the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth Task Group.
The scenario of the exercise will mirror a broad range of crisis and conflict situations which could realistically be experienced in real-world operations.
Over the fortnight of the exercise, participants will be faced with a period of increasing political and military tensions, along with a huge range of realistic military tasks such as intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, anti-smuggling and counter-terrorism operations, humanitarian assistance and evacuation operations.
All units involved in the exercise will observe COVID-19 control measures, such as a general requirement for 14-day quarantine periods before personnel can embark on the ships of the UK Carrier Strike Group. In addition, there will only be limited port visits by UK and allied units and then only for operational and logistical reasons.
Exercise planning staff have liaised with a wide variety of communities and organisations ahead of Strike Warrior in order to minimise the impact of military activity. Organisations consulted include the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Services, Highlands and Islands Airports Authority, Scottish and Northern Irish fishery organisations, and several environmental agencies and groups.