Obituary: James Dodds DFM, MBE, pilot and boat man

Jim Dodds. Top-scoring Allied Hurricane ace in the Second World War desert campaign. Picture: Contributed
Jim Dodds. Top-scoring Allied Hurricane ace in the Second World War desert campaign. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 22 July 1921, in Glasgow. Died 17 July, 2014, in Duns, Berwickshire, aged 92.

James Dodds was sometimes called Jimmy or Jim, and while in the RAF earned the name “Hamish” as he was one of the few Scots in his squadron. He was born in Glasgow to James and Helen Dodds, the eldest of four children. His mother died suddenly when he was ten years old and his father, who was a fine, caring man, had a few difficult years before a suitable housekeeper was found. She stayed with them until well into her 80s and became an integral part of the family, which was well looked after, with numerous aunts and uncles and a much loved Gran. Jim also enjoyed the occasional visit to Pathhead to see his great uncle Andrew – known as “the Midlothian poet”.

Jim was educated at Hyndland Secondary School in Glasgow, where he did extremely well and developed a great love for literature, including poetry, which never left him. He also had an interest in classical music and could not resist building up a large collection of records and cassette tapes, which he played each evening. He always regretted not learning to play the piano.

Jim was expected to go to Glasgow University after leaving school in 1938 but at the age of 18 was passed as Grade One by the Glasgow Central Medical Board when the Second World War broke out.

He began flying with the RAF at Yatesbury and Weston Supermare in August 1940 and had his first solo flight in September 1940 in a Tiger Moth. He also flew Harvards, Wellingtons and Masters, but wanted to be in control of his own aircraft and asked to be moved from bombers to fighters.

Jim had many narrow escapes in his flying career, including some forced landings. On his second Hurricane flight in April 1941 he had to make a forced landing near Morpeth due to terrible visibility – he said he was royally entertained for the night by a searchlight battery and was given a magnificent breakfast.

In May 1941 he made another forced landing when his engine cut out while flying in formation at 20,000ft – he landed in a small field, nose tipping at the end, but no damage was done to the aircraft or Jim.

In July 1941 he joined 274 Squadron in the North African Desert Campaign. On New Year’s Eve 1941 he escaped in cloud cover from German fighters with his port engine on fire 150 miles south-west of Msus, where he landed and slept in the desert. He then took off and landed next to an army base and a Lysander flew petrol to him so he could take off and return to base. The most intense part of the air campaign occurred between December 1941 to July 1942. Jim ended up as the top-scoring Allied Hurricane Ace in the Second World War desert campaign, although throughout his life he regretted the loss of young lives on both sides.

Jim joined 173 Squadron in June 1942 and subsequently the 26 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit flying numerous missions in various aircraft. On 2 February, 1943 he crash landed wheels up in King Farouk’s front garden at Ras El Tin Palace. The impact broke quite a few facial bones and he spent a couple of months in hospital with wires attached to weights. He said the worst part was when ward cleaners knocked the weights – this was sheer agony and he could do nothing about it.

He resumed flying in April 1943, mostly in Hurricanes, until June 1945 when he transferred to 124 Squadron in Hutton Cranswick, flying Spitfires 1XE’s, Tempest V’s, Oxfords and the Meteor Jet fighter. Jim performed aerobatics at every opportunity – he flew a Meteor in the Battle of Britain’s beat up over Henley, and made the first jet flight over Scotland in this aircraft, and also flew in the V Day flypast. Jim was demobbed in October 1946.

In 1948 he joined No 11 Reserve Flying School in Perth and while living in a basement flat at Rossdhu Mansion, Loch Lomond, would zoom up to Perth each weekend – usually with a colleague risking his life on the pillion of Jim’s motorbike. Needing a job after the war, he joined King Aircraft Corporation in Glasgow for a few years until itchy feet took him to Nairobi where he joined Campling Bros & Vanderwal as a charter pilot. In June 1954 he flew a Chipmunk from Nairobi to England with numerous intermediate stops in Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy and France.

There were frequent desert stops to refuel and a few anxious moments when fuel deliveries did not appear when due. Great relief when he spotted someone approaching on a bicycle with a couple of jerrycans of fuel. Jim was expected to carry a life raft when crossing the Mediterranean but decided there was insufficient space in the aircraft and substituted a child’s inflatable ring with a rubber duck attached.

In 1955 Jim went to new Zealand. He was awarded an MBE at an investiture at Government House, Auckland in February and in the same year joined Fieldair in Gisborne and spent the next 18 months top dressing on various sheep stations in the area. He also met his future wife Robin in Gisborne, and would loop the loop over her family home on his return from work.

When told that she ran inside in case he fell out of the open cockpit into her garden, Jim said: “You mean I was showing off for nothing?” They were married in 1956 and moved to Nairobi, where he rejoined Campling Bros and Vanderwal.

Here he was expected to wear a captain’s hat, but instead wore a colourful sun hat with a pompom – made by his wife.

Jim flew there for four years, and during this time was one of the few who volunteered to fly to the Congo in 1960 during the Congo Uprising – to airlift nuns, missionaries and civilians who were stranded and in great danger. He made multiple rescue trips over six days between the Congo and Uganda – up to four rescues per day some days, flying a Comanche. He said there were bullets flying everywhere and planes were taking off overloaded. Jim was subsequently awarded a rare medal by the Belgian government for this venture, but never received it as he was unable to make it to the investiture in Nairobi.

Their three children, Hamish, Juliet and Simon, were born in Nairobi. In November 1960 the family moved to Mwanza in Tanzania and Jim started his own charter business with a Cessna 205. His wife did the bookings and paperwork while he flew, and they had a busy social life. He flew all over East Africa – both business and tourist flights – which included frequent visits to game parks. Africa’s wildlife and scenery provided endless opportunities for Jim to indulge his keen interest in photography.

Mwanza had a rough nine-hole golf course which was a great attraction, as was boating on Lake Victoria. The family lived there until 1970 and as there were now three children to educate, it was time to leave Africa. Jim decided to build a boat marina on the banks of the Caledonian Canal in Inverness. He designed the superstructure of a cabin cruiser based on a 23ft fibreglass hull.

This was hired out on the canal for some years and the business was slowly augmented by chandlery, moorings, and small boat hire and sales.

In 1980, as the family had moved on, they decided to sell the business and moved to Ardnamurchan, where they bought a small steading on Loch Sunart. This was extended and gardening became an interest.

Lots of furniture making took place too, and Jim also fitted out a Ford Transit as a motor caravan, which was used for holidays in France as well as all over the UK. Eventually distance from family made it easier to move to the east coast. Ultimately the couple settled in East Berwickshire where they lived quietly for 19 years, and where Jim continued to enjoy gardening, classical music and reading. He also retained a lifelong interest in birds and local wildlife.

Jim died after a short illness aged 92. He remained active and determined until the end – and despite declining health, was still chopping firewood two weeks before he died. Physically tall and always slim, he described his build as “steel and whipcord”

He is survived by his wife Robin, their children Hamish, Juliet and Simon, and six grandchildren. Jim’s younger brother Angus, a retired doctor in Brisbane, also survives him.