BORN: 16 August, 1923, in Dundee. Died: 1 October, 2012, in Dundee, aged 89
Hanging by his parachute, tangled in the branches of a tree, 20-year-old Arthur Rae was about to face the trickiest decision of his life.
Once he dropped down he would be on Nazi-occupied Belgian soil: he could go it alone, not knowing how he would survive, or he could seek help in an attempt to evade capture.
Just 90 minutes earlier, as a member of Bomber Command, he had left on a mission to attack strategic railway yards in the German town of Aachen. Forced to bale out when his Halifax was shot down over Turnhout, the 6ft-plus, red-headed Scotsman was now a fugitive enemy airman.
Having ditched his uniform and decided to walk south until dawn, he came to a farm at Royen. Seeing it as his only hope of escape, he approached the property. As luck would have it, the farmer was a member of the Belgian resistance.
That brave choice marked the start of more than three months on the run and, ultimately, the opportunity to enjoy a life that was to stretch ahead for the best part of another 70 years.
It was a life that began and ended in Dundee where he was the eldest of three boys born to George Rae, a monotype operator, and his wife Elsie. Educated at the city’s Rockwell Primary School and Harris Academy, he left at 14 to follow his father into the newspaper business as an apprentice linotype operator with DC Thomson.
He was 16 when the Second World War broke out and, two years later in 1941, he enlisted in the RAF, trained in South Africa and was posted to Bomber Command as a bomb aimer. As a flight sergeant with 76 Squadron, he flew the four-engined Halifax heavy bombers and was on his 18th mission on the night of 24 May, 1944.
Bomber Command had 442 aircraft in the skies that night, including 162 Halifaxes, of which 18 were lost. In his secret MI9 file, only recently released, Rae details how they took off at 11pm but were attacked by fighters over Antwerp. “I baled out and landed at Turnhout at 00.30hrs. I buried my Mae West [life vest] but as my parachute was caught up in a tree, I left it there.”
In the matter-of-fact statement he reports coming to the farm and being given food and an identity card, staying the night there while the farmer contacted what is only described as “an organisation”.
“Next morning a man called for me and we cycled to Gheel. I was taken to a farm where I was given food and shelter until 18 Jul.”
From there he was moved to a house in the village where he met two other flight sergeants. The homeowner contacted some partisans and the men were issued with new identity cards. They remained there for a month until, on 18 August, they were taken by train to Brussels. Rae, who had turned 21 two days earlier, spent another week with a woman who lived in the suburbs before being moved again and issued with yet another new identity card.
“We were given food and shelter until 30 Aug. That day we were taken to a house in the town where we stayed until we made contact with the British forces on 3 Sep.”
They were then smuggled to Amiens, which had been liberated by the Allies days earlier, and flown back home on 6 September. Rae had been sheltered by the resistance for more than three months, right in the heart of enemy territory. Those selfless heroes and heroines later formed the basis of television’s fictional Secret Army and the comic parody ‘Allo, ‘Allo!
Meanwhile the rest of his aircrew had all survived but were captured and held as prisoners of war. Unable to return to Europe – as an escapee, if he was captured he would have been shot instantly by the Germans – he was posted to India, in a training role, where he spent the rest of the war and reached the rank of flight lieutenant.
He returned to Dundee and married his wife, Kathleen, in 1947, resuming his old life as a linotype operator. By 1960 the couple had two children and decided to emigrate to Canada. He found work with a printing firm in Montréal, where they lived for three years before returning to Dundee.
Once again he went back to DC Thomson where he became a sub-editor on the staff of the People’s Journal and the Courier. It was a job that suited him well. Having left school with no qualifications, he sat his Highers after returning from Canada and became an avid reader, devouring Punch, the Spectator and Daily Telegraph, and discovering his own talent with words.
He also became something of a teacher and mentor to younger staff, often holding forth on the subs’ bench.
A keen sports fan, he particularly enjoyed cricket, football and golf, and, after retiring in 1988, he played several rounds of golf each week. He was secretary and captain of the McCheyne Cricket Club, past captain of the Dundee Press Golf Club and a member of Monifieth’s Broughty Golf Club.
Typically of his generation, he underplayed his war service, rarely discussed his exploits and modestly referred to the recent release of his MI9 report as only “another bit of history”.
But that knock on the Belgian farmhouse door shaped the remainder of his life. He and the other young aircrews had flown into the unknown night after night, unaware of what fate might await.
And the poignancy of their plight was illustrated at his funeral with a passage from a book, No Moon Tonight – its title representing the perfect conditions for a raid – which he always considered the most accurate reflection of the life of the boys from Bomber Command. Echoing down the years, it describes the thoughts of a Bomber Command navigator as he prepares to leave on another mission, finishing a letter home to the strains of the song Tristesse playing in the background of the officers’ mess.
As he leaves, the airman pauses between the inner doors and the outer doors. “Outside the night was empty and very dark, the rain heavier. I shuddered and pulled on my coat. As I left the building, the last words of the song followed me, as on other nights they had followed men now no longer there, ‘No Moon Tonight, No moon tonight’.”
Arthur Rae is survived by wife Kathleen, children Alan and Susan, five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and his brother Douglas.