Obituary: Flight Sergeant Joe Barclay, engineer

Bomber Command flight engineer who survived 36 missions during WWII. Picture: Contributed
Bomber Command flight engineer who survived 36 missions during WWII. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 28 March, 1923, in Edinburgh. Died: 1 February, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 91.

JOE Barclay was plucked from civilian life as an apprentice welder to become a flight engineer in RAF Bomber Command, surviving a tour of 36 missions over enemy lines in the Second World War.

Barclay, who has died aged 91, would use his considerable skills to help his pilot nurse their badly damaged Halifax aircraft back to base, often under heavy fire and sometimes minus one working engine.

His beginnings had indicated practical ability; as a boy he loved tinkering with engines and taking bits of machinery apart to reassemble so he could understand how they worked.

Within a few years he was putting these skills to practical use on a production line, building military trucks that had been shipped from the US to the UK under the Lend-Lease scheme.

On his 18th birthday, Barclay, who was serving in the Home Guard, registered for national service. His father had been in the Royal Navy in the Great War and his younger brother was already at sea with the Merchant Navy, so he looked forward to life in a jaunty blue suit. However, fate was to dictate a lighter shade of blue than he expected.

He was dismayed to learn he had been placed on the reserved occupation list, since his engineering skills could be put to good use working on munitions. But he discovered that if he volunteered for aircrew duties in the RAF, he could go to war quickly. Together with some other apprentices, he passed the exams and discovered he had scored highly enough for pilot training.

The selection board pointed out his engineering background lent itself to a trade that would see him flying in half the time for a pilot. He opted for that, but was placed on deferred service due to a typhus outbreak then sent to RAF Padgate, near Warrington, followed by Blackpool South Shore for induction training which included squad drill, sports and the rifle range.

He then undertook the flight mechanics course followed by the fitters to engines course before being sent to RAF St Athan in Glamorgan, Wales while waiting to join the Flight Air School. There, he joined the funeral party for two Canadian airmen who had crashed in the Welsh mountains.

Trainees were given the choice of avoiding front-line service as flight engineers by staying on to train as engine fitters instead, meaning they would be ground crew. Barclay recalled: “I, along with most others, decided to go ahead with the flight engineer’s course since I was really keen to fly. It was then that my mother realised what a dangerous job it was and made me a kiltie doll as a lucky charm which I kept with me in the pocket of my uniform every time we flew. Someone stole it at the end of the tour but it kept me safe throughout the war.”

Barclay fell sick with the skin condition impetigo and lost the crew he had been training with. After recovering, he was sent to a conversion unit at RAF Marston Moor in Yorkshire, where there were trained airmen and he became friends with Andrew Currie, from Glencorse, Midlothian. The pair had to “crew up” and coincidentally met two Australian crews who both needed flight engineers, meaning they both joined 466 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

Barclay’s tour of service began in October 1943 with dual circuits and landings, three and two-engine flying practice, solo fighter affiliation and bombing and firing. By January 1944 his crew was involved in air-to-sea firing followed by operations to Berlin. They then flew with Spitfires over Stuttgart, mined Kiel harbour and Berlin, and bombed Essen and Nuremberg. “By this time my friend Andrew Currie, together with all his crew, had been shot down and killed not long after they had taken to the skies,” he recalled. Other operations included raids on Ottignies, Belgium, from which he returned on three engines, Dusseldorf, where they were holed by flak, Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, near Paris, and other targets featuring coastal defences, marshalling yards, gun batteries, army barracks and troop concentrations.

Having completed a tour and survived, unlike so many of his comrades, Barclay was posted to No 45 (Atlantic Transport) Group. He flew as flight engineer with many civilian pilots from various countries who had volunteered to deliver newly built B24 Liberator bombers from the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego, California, to where they were needed in various war zones.

On many occasions he picked up the new aircraft from Montreal, Canada, and crossed the Atlantic to Prestwick. From there, he would fly as far as Karachi to supply planes to RAF crews in the Far East, where the war was still raging despite peace in Europe. Having delivered liberators safely, he would then return to Montreal in a transport plane for further duties.

Destinations in between included Algiers, the Azores, Rabat, New York, Washington, Dallas, Nashville, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Cairo, Labrador, Reykjavik, Canton, Fiji, Sydney and Auckland. He later wrote: “I saw the world – and much more besides. Despite everything, it was an experience which I would not otherwise have had.”

Joseph Thomas Barclay was born in a tenement in Caledonian Crescent in Dalry, Edinburgh. He loved the capital and apart from war service, lived and worked there all his life. Edinburgh ran through him to the core like a stick of the city’s famous rock, which poignantly ceased production shortly after his death.

His family moved to the newly built Stenhouse estate and he left Tynecastle School at 14 to begin his working life as a messenger boy on a push-bike for Durie Brown, Stationers of George Street, followed by a stint in a garage at the foot of Drum Brae, before starting his apprenticeship. After returning from the war he met and married Margaret Beren, but she died giving birth to their son in 1948. Tragedy struck the same year when his mother Matilda passed away, aged only 47.

He loved the outdoors and went on many cycling and camping trips with his father and brothers. His uncle Sandy Barclay was a well-known naturalist and wild-fowler, who wrote the Nature Notes column for the Edinburgh Evening News and was an associate of Nigel Tranter.

Barclay met his second wife Catherine when she joined his employer, the New Welding and Engineering Company of Annandale Street, where he progressed from apprentice to foreman then works manager. As their family grew they spent happy holidays in an old Volkswagen camper van which he had completely refitted, including engine, having done similar for his mother with an old field ambulance which he sited in a field near Lamancha, in the Borders.

Catherine developed motor neurone disease just as the couple were looking forward to retirement and died shortly after her 60th birthday. She had encouraged him to join the Aircrew Association in order to keep him occupied after her death, and he gained great friendships from comrades with shared experiences. He traced his surviving crew members and visited them twice in Australia.

At the age of 70, he married Ina, an old neighbour from Liberton. They spent a few happy years together before her ill-health prevented their travelling, and he became a carer once again until her death last October. He kept himself occupied with gardening and tinkering in his shed, always fixing or making something.

Barclay was steadfast in his faith, cheerful and uncomplaining, despite the injustices in his life. He is survived by his children Roderick, Elizabeth, Alison and David, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.