Bill Reid, VC

William (Bill) Reid, VC, former RAF bomber pilot

Born: 21 December, 1921, in Baillieston, Glasgow Died: 28 November, 2001, at his home in Crieff, Perthshire, aged 79

WITH the death of Bill Reid, one of Britain’s last living holders of the VC, Scotland has lost a truly heroic figure whose extraordinary exploits as a Lancaster bomber pilot during the Second World War were among the most indomitable and courageous recorded by the Royal Air Force - or indeed any other service.

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Bill Reid was born in Baillieston. His father had worked as a blacksmith and for a time Bill studied metallurgy. In his twentieth year, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was trained in Cornwall, Canada and California, and in June 1943 was posted to Wigsley, near Newark, where he became accustomed to flying Lancaster bombers.

His first operational mission, on 30 August of that year, took him to Munich with a bomb load of 15,000lb. Before long he had flown missions to Mannheim, Hanover, Kassel and Stuttgart, as well as to Munich, and he was promoted.

Flight Lieutenant Bill Reid was by now known as a determined captain, who was completely dependable, however adverse the circumstances. On 3 November, 1943, a series of events took place which caused William Reid to become famous in the Royal Air Force.

Some 600 bombers were detailed to take part in a substantial bombing run over Dusseldorf. Bill Reid would be the captain of the Lancaster LM 360, "O", and he took off with his crew of six just before 5pm. While passing over the coast of Holland, he was attacked by a Messerschmitt BF110 night fighter. His windscreen was shattered and Bill Reid was seriously wounded by shell fragments, as well as by parts of the Perspex from the windscreen.

He was bleeding from his shoulder and face. Somehow, the rear gunner managed to drive off the Messerschmitt by returning fire. The damaged bomber was descending rapidly, but at 2,000 feet, Bill Reid brought the aircraft under control.

He was asked by the Flight Sergeant if he was all right, to which he replied: "Yes". Without further ado, he decided to complete his mission by going on to bomb Dusseldorf.

His troubles, however, were not over. At one point, a Fockewulf FW190 fired its guns all the way along the fuselage of the Lancaster. The navigator died immediately; the wireless operator was fatally injured, and the flight engineer was hurt. Bill Reid himself had been hit again and had been left without a compass, but, being a man of great resolve, he continued to head for Dusseldorf - where he dropped his bomb load exactly on target.

On his way back via the coast of Holland, he encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire, but he struggled through over the North Sea. It was there that all of his four engines gave out. Before long, he had got all of them to function again and notwithstanding his weakness through loss of blood he managed to make an emergency landing at Shipdham in Norfolk.

So badly shot up was the bomber that its undercarriage collapsed and the bomber completed a belly-landing on the runway.

Soon, Bill Reid was visited in hospital by Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane, commander of his group. As he saw him coming, Bill wondered: "What have I done wrong now?" To his astonishment, he heard his group commander say: "Reid, I have come to tell you that I have recommended you for the Victoria Cross." Shortly afterwards, he received it.

But his war was very far from over. After recovery he was told that he would join 617 Squadron the famous Dambusters Squadron which had breached the Mohne Dam under the leadership of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC. Early in 1944, he was back on operational duties, bombing railway communication centres, and in particular he started to carry on his Lancaster a Tallboy bomb which contained 12,000lb of high explosive.

On 8 June, 1944, he followed Leonard Cheshire, who would also win the VC, to drop a Tallboy bomb on a tunnel, blocking it, to make certain that a Panzer tank Division could not quickly reach the Allied forces which had just landed in Normandy. He was sent out on other missions to destroy E-boats, and VI flying-bomb sites and storage dumps.

On 31 July, his luck ran out. He had just dropped a Tallboy bomb on target over Rheims, when a bomb from a Lancaster above him passed through his bomber, causing his Lancaster to go out of control. There was nothing in the world he could do to save the aircraft. As the bomber hurtled into a dive he managed to parachute near Rheims, where he was captured after landing.

As soon as the Germans realised that they had captured a holder of the Victoria Cross, they treated him with respect and sent him to Stalagluft prison camp. With the onward progress of the American troops he was moved, and remembered one day having only a potato to eat. Eventually, in May 1945, the Americans found him and he was repatriated.

After the war, Bill Reid studied agriculture and worked for a time as farms manager of the MacRobert Farms, and later as a cattle and sheep consultant to Spillers Limited. He held positions of importance, as president of the British Legion in Crieff, as honorary life president of the Air Crew Association, and he became a Freeman of the City of London in 1988.

Extremely happily married to his devoted wife, Violet, with one son, Graeme, and one daughter, Susan, Bill Reid was above all a modest, kindly, family man.

In recent weeks, he visited the Edinburgh home of his sister-in-law, former Councillor Moira Knox, with his wife and the only other holder of the VC in Scotland, John Cruickshank. I had the privilege to be present, and it was hugely refreshing to see the very close and enduring friendship between two of Scotland’s heroes, both of whom consistently made light of what they had done and been through. They were leading participants in the annual get-together with the Queen of those who held the Victoria Cross throughout the world.

Regarding his VC, Bill Reid always claimed that he had done no more than his duty. All that can be said is what a duty he had been called upon to perform. His citation speaks for itself: "Wounded in two attacks, without oxygen, suffering severely from cold, his navigator dead, his wireless operator fatally wounded, his aircraft crippled and defenceless, Flight Lieutenant Reid showed superb courage and leadership in penetrating a further 200 miles into enemy territory to attack one of the most strongly defended targets in Germany, every additional mile increasing the hazards of the long and perilous journey home. His tenacity and devotion to duty were beyond praise."

He will always be remembered not just on account of his modesty and kindliness but also as an exceptionally determined Scotsman who in the most traumatic wartime environment showed "unsurpassed raw courage".

He will be greatly missed by his countless friends and former colleagues in war and peace, not least by the many people who came to know him in Perthshire after he and Violet moved to Crieff some 20 years ago.