Obituary: Flight Lieutenant Robert Bruce, DFC and Bar, fighter pilot and musician

Flt Lt Robert Bruce
Flt Lt Robert Bruce
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Born: 17 August, 1915, in Inverkeiler. Died: 13 August, 2012, in Wales, aged 96.

Robert Bruce was a scion of one of the most ancient and distinguished families in Scotland, but as a result of his training schedule in the RAF, he gave heroic service during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Air Force. His skills as a navigator were much in evidence in many hazardous missions over northern France and his bravery was twice recognised with honours. Along with the Canadian Russ Bannock, a fearless pilot, the two formed a formidable night fighter crew that saw the destruction of 19 deadly V1 bombs and nine enemy aircraft. Their courageous flying during the war and the destruction of the V1s undoubtedly saved many civilian lives.

Robert Richard Fernie Bruce was the great-grandson of James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine. He was born at Inverkeiler, Angus and attended Rugby School, where he demonstrated a prodigious musical talent – particularly as a cellist. He read music at Edinburgh University, gaining a first class degree furthering his studies on both the cello and the piano. On leaving university, Bruce attended cello classes with Rafael Lanes and under Johannes Roentgen, with whom he studied composition in Amsterdam.

On the outbreak of war, Bruce was a confirmed pacifist and worked with the Friends Ambulance Service during the London blitz. He was then posted to Gloucester Royal Hospital, where he met a nursing sister, whom he later married. She helped ease his mind about his stance as a conscientious objector.

Bruce enlisted in the RAF and began his training, in February 1942, as a navigator in Canada. He then entered Navigation School at Mount Hope, Ontario, and over Christmas 1943 Bruce went to Greenwood, Nova Scotia, where he met Russ Bannock, who was an instructor. They became close friends and teamed up at the Mosquito training unit. The two were posted back to England where they continued their training at Middle Wallop in Hampshire.

The squadron’s role, when it was made operational, was instrumental in helping the all-important night raids on Europe by Bomber Command. Bruce’s Single Mosquitos – known as Night Rangers – flew over enemy-held airfields in north-west Europe to intercept and destroy enemy airplanes so that the Allied bombers could get to their targets unhindered. If they failed to intercept aircraft, then Bruce’s Mosquito was ordered to cause as much damage as possible on the communications – especially airfields.

Another of their vital duties was to destroy, in-flight, the V1 bombs that were causing havoc in the East End of London. Bruce and Bannock were among the first to combat the V1s and they evolved subtle ways to destroy the bomb. They flew on many reconnaissance missions throughout the Pas-de-Calais searching for the launch areas.

One night, they flew over Abbeville and spotted V1s being launched in profusion. Despite the repeated enemy bombardment and heavy anti-aircraft fire, they destroyed three bombs. Three nights later, they destroyed four. It was a remarkable series of sorties and within three months they had accounted for another ten, making them among the most successful Allied crews against the flying bombs. Both men were awarded DFCs.

Bruce and Bannock also saw service memorably over Copenhagen shooting down Messerschmitts and on another occasion, after a bitter dog fight, they had to return to base, over enemy country, with only one engine. In February 1945, Bruce was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

He was demobbed in 1946 and, after working as a teacher in Brighton, Bruce was appointed a lecturer in music at Cardiff University.

Throughout the war, Bruce continued to study music – he became proficient on the oboe in the war years. He also became a recognised composer and in the early 1950s wrote a symphony whose opening, Prelude-moderato, was warmly received. The work was premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Bruce was involved in a recording by the Polish Symphony Orchestra in 1999. The final movement captures his wartime experiences and is a fitting tribute to his many colleagues who lost their lives.

He never lost touch with his colleagues in the RCAF and some years ago Bruce autographed some water-colours by Philip West based on wartime themes – for example, RAF Swannington crew preparing for next mission.

After retiring in 1977, Bruce and his wife renovated a cottage at Llechryd, South Wales, where they also created a garden that over the years was to provide them with much pleasure. Robert Bruce married, in 1941, Beatrice Tomboline. She died in 2010, and he is survived by a son and a daughter; an elder son predeceased him.

ALASDAIR STEVEN