Obituary: Fred ‘Dec’ Ainsley DFC, Bomber pilot

Bomber Command pilot who survived 'Black Friday' over Nuremberg in 1944. Picture: Contributed
Bomber Command pilot who survived 'Black Friday' over Nuremberg in 1944. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 25 July, 1921, in Gateshead, County Durham. Died: 10 October, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 93.

Night after night, week after week, the young men of Bomber Command took to the skies over enemy territory flying spectacularly dangerous missions and facing formidable odds of surviving.

For every 100 airmen who volunteered to join the squadrons 45 would die. During some of the greatest offensives of the Second World War, between March 1943 and February 1944, the survival rate for a tour of 30 operations was said to be 16 per cent.

A combination of skill and determination but mainly luck brought them home. During one night alone in March 1944, 545 of their number did not return.

The ill-fated aerial assault on Nuremberg took place, not, as had been anticipated, under cloud cover but in the clear light of an almost full moon and the stream of Bomber Boys fell prey to German night fighters. It was the Command’s darkest hour. They lost 95 aircraft and crew.

One of those who did come back that disastrous night was 22-year-old pilot Fred Ainsley of 640 Squadron, who safely guided his Handley Page Halifax back to base in Leconfield, Yorkshire. By that time he was already a veteran of sorties all across Germany, having flown Vickers Wellingtons with 466 Squadron and amply demonstrated the qualities of its motto “Brave and True”.

He would complete another 15 operations, mainly over France, and be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross before ending his war training aircrew in southern Italy, going on to a career in the food industry and eventually making his home in his favourite place, Edinburgh.

Born and educated in Gateshead, Co Durham, he was the eldest of three children of Great War veteran Fred Ainsley, who had served with the Northumberland Fusiliers in France, and his wife Elsie.

At the outbreak of war, the teenage Ainsley was in the army, as part of an ack-ack gunnery team defending Tyneside, in what is now the Northumberland National Park, from where he regularly took the regimental colours by motor bike to Alnwick Castle.

He later joined the RAF and volunteered for Bomber Command where, as a 21-year-old, he began his flying career with 466 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. Though formed under the Empire Air Training Scheme, most of its personnel were British. It was based in East Yorkshire, from where he set off on his first bombing mission, in a twin-engine Vickers Wellington, heading for the German spa town of Aachen.

His second sortie took place over Hamburg the night he turned 22 – the average age of a Bomber Command crewman. It was part of Operation Gomorrah, conducted in the last week of July 1943, which that night unleashed 2,300 tons of incendiary bombs, creating one of the largest firestorms ever produced by the British and American Air Forces and virtually obliterating the city. He was in the air almost every other night that week.

That December he switched to the Halifax, a four-engined heavy bomber, mining the area around the Frisian Islands in the Netherlands, before taking part, along with almost 650 other British bombers, in the first major, but largely unsuccessful, raid on Magdeburg, Germany, in January 1944.

Later that month he moved to the RAF’s newly-formed 640 Squadron and over the next couple of months completed missions over Berlin, Stuttgart, the major industrial city of Schweinfurt where they targeted ball bearing factories, Frankfurt and Essen.

The Nuremberg raid took place on the night of 30 March, 1944, later to become known as Bomber Command’s Black Friday. Ainsley described it as “traumatic”. His own squadron lost 18 airmen and three were taken prisoner.

Having survived the carnage in the skies that night, he went on to take part in many more dangerous missions, including the bombing of railway yards in France and an attack on a German military camp in Belgium. After the D-day landings he also supported the Allies during Operation Goodwood, an offensive around Caen, which was heralded by a three-hour bombardment by 2,500 bombers. His contribution was to leave the 21st Panzer division badly damaged.

Some of his last sorties were aerial assaults on Hitler’s V-rocket storage sites in Northern France during the summer of 1944.

After completing 35 operations he was awarded the DFC and sent to the Tortorella air base in the dusty Tavoliere plain north of Foggia in Apulia, Italy.

It was a heavy bomber airfield and there he trained other pilots until the end of the war, though that did not end his flying career. In peacetime he flew De Havilland Vampires and the occasional Gloster Meteor and English Electric Canberra, with 502 reserve squadron at Aldergrove, Northern Ireland.

In civilian life, Ainsley, who was always known as Dec by family and friends, managed food factories in Hillingdon, Glasgow and Belfast, Northern Ireland. He later became a self-employed manufacturing businesses’ agent operating throughout Scotland from his then home in Cove, Dunbartonshire.

For the last 25 years of his life he lived, mostly in retirement, with his wife Kit in Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the company of his fellow members of The Scottish Arts Club and was proud to serve as the initial chairman of the Gardner’s Crescent restoration committee. He was delighted when its northern gate was named Ainsley Gate in his honour in a surprise ceremony arranged by his fellow committee members in 2012.

With the stoicism typical of his generation, his war was not a frequent topic of conversation, though he did revisit the Northumberland pub he drank in during his army days and was delighted to see it remained just as he had remembered it, and that its interior had been deemed of outstanding historic interest.

He also recalled a poignant incident after one of his fellow fliers was killed just as he was on the brink of making it home safely. The pair had been drinking together just a couple of nights earlier and Ainsley had loaned the chap ten shillings. After his death a letter arrived from the airman’s father containing a ten bob note. Back then no debt was to go unpaid.

However, the debt owed by the nation to the members of Bomber Command remained largely unacknowledged for decades.

The extent of the inevitable destruction, resulting from their heroic efforts to defend their country, remains a subject of controversy in some quarters and it was not until 2012 that a memorial to the Bomber Boys who gave their lives in the Second World War was finally unveiled in central London.

Seventy years earlier they had held the enemy at arm’s length and proved, as wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill predicted: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

Predeceased by his first wife Marion Raine, from whom he was divorced and, in 2010, by his younger son Jeffrey, Ainsley is survived by wife Kit, his elder son David, grandchildren Hilary, Dougal, Hamish, Jenny, John and AngelaJean and great grandson Fraser.

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