Obituary: Warrant Officer Norman Fidler, businessman and wartime airman

Norman Fidler: Stranraer businessman who had a lucky escape in Gibraltar during WWII

Norman Fidler: Stranraer businessman who had a lucky escape in Gibraltar during WWII

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Born: 10 July, 1923, in Leeds. Died: 8 November, 2014, in Stranraer, aged 91

NORMAN Fidler, who has died aged 91, joined the RAF as a teenager and served in bomber and patrol aircraft in the Second World War, later becoming a successful businessman and pillar of his community.

A member of the Stranraer squadron of the Air Training Corps as war loomed, he was called up into the RAF in August 1942. He trained initially as a ground wireless operator before serving at RAF Millom in Cumberland, where he responded to a call for volunteers to serve with aircrew as wireless operators/air gunners.

His completed his training at RAF Castle Kennedy, close to his home town, and in April 1944 went by troop ship to Egypt. From there he was posted with 17 other “WOP/AG”s to No 22 Squadron, South African Air Force, based at RAF Gibraltar.

From July 1944 he flew in SAAF Lockheed Ventura PV1 patrol aircraft, protecting the Atlantic approaches to the western Mediterranean. When his South African colleagues went home, he was posted even further away to RAF Khormskar in Aden; motto: “Into the Remote Places”.

There, he flew in a variety of aircraft until being demobbed in October 1946 as a Warrant Officer.

In Gibraltar, his squadron lost five crews totalling 25 men. His wireless transceiver was a Bendix model and the radar was the latest air-to-sea type. The crew comprised one pilot, one navigator and three wireless operator/air gunner/radar operators.

RAF personnel were carried by the SAAF because the aircraft had a crew of four but needed a fifth for operational reasons.

“All the SAAF crew were officers so we thought we would be commissioned, but this was not to be,” Fidler recalled.

On one occasion, after an aircraft overshot the short runway at Gibraltar and crashed into the sea, a flight commander rebuked the pilot who had reported brake failure, reminding him of the emergency system whereby one wheel could be locked, turning the aircraft around.

He then declared he would demonstrate the manoeuvre the following day. “Everyone thought he was very courageous except his crew, who would have to fly with him,” Fidler wrote.

The plane duly took off, flew around the Rock then made its approach to land. “I was not flying that morning so was able to join the crowd of onlookers anxious to see this amazing feat,” he recalled.

But something went wrong after the aircraft touched down. It hurtled down the runway and there was a loud screech as it turned the wrong way and ploughed into a wall, its nose crumpling like eggshell. Miraculously, there were no casualties.

“Although the scheme had not come off and a plane had been lost, the flight commander’s reputation for bravery had been enhanced,” Fidler said later.

On one flight, he was unhappy about a faulty battery charge and, on his return, told the South African major in charge that he did not want to fly in the aircraft. He was backed up by his skipper so the furious major allocated him a different plane. But later he heard an aircraft was missing, believed lost.

“Which plane was it, I asked. S for Sugar, I was informed. They must have sent out the plane without having it checked over and a crew of five were lost.”

Norman Fidler was born in Leeds but at the age of 11 moved to Stranraer, which he always considered his home. Despite high academic achievement he was taken out of school and put into the family furniture business alongside his father.

After the war he returned to the business, but in 1977 it was decided to split the operation, with his brother Stuart taking the shop in Stranraer and Norman getting the smaller shop in Newton Stewart.

Thanks to hard work and excellent staff the business blossomed, and he bought larger premises which he rebuilt and extended, selling furniture there and converting the smaller shop for soft furnishings.

Although they faced stiff competition, he and his loyal workers took the firm from strength to strength until he retired in 1991. In the 1960s he had joined the West of Scotland Home Furnishers Association and became its president.

Fidler was a great believer in helping others and was a committed member of Rotary, where he was a president and recognised as a very prodigious Paul Harris Fellow. As well as weekly meetings, despite failing health he continued to attend outings including bowling and trips to Belfast, sometimes astounding fellow members with his energy.

The Church of Scotland played a huge role in his life and his strong faith gave him strength through many challenging times. He was a Sunday School teacher in St Andrew’s Church (now Trinity Church of Stranraer) for many years and was an active elder for half a century.

Christian Aid was his favourite charity and in his younger days he played a prominent role in events to raise awareness as well as funds.

He also helped the work of the Bible Society and Talking Newspapers.

But his greatest joy was his family. He married Nancy Wither in 1955, and was to devoted to her until her death in 2012. He accompanied their daughter and grandchildren on annual holidays around Europe and Russia and at least once a year for 20 years to Cally Palace, Gatehouse of Fleet.

Age did not weary him; he took scuba diving and jet skiing in his stride and at the age of 71 went paragliding. One year the family holidayed on Malta so he could pay homage to his RAF comrades at the Malta Memorial.

In 2006, he published a pamphlet about his wartime adventures titled Aircrew in Wartime: Personal Experiences, published by Stranraer and District Local History Trust, in which he told of his experiences in Gibraltar and North Africa.

He was proud to have served when he did and remained an active member of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association, regularly attending meetings with comrades in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dumfries and Moffat.

As well as being very active in his community, Norman Fidler was a popular and gentle man. His mischievous sense of humour would often result in him laughing before the punchline of his own jokes.

A kenspeckle figure, he enjoyed walking around Stranraer and being greeted by locals, who regarded him with respect and fondness. He is survived by his daughter Isabel and grandsons Kristian and Robin.

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