As a young tail gunner crammed in the back of a Lancaster bomber, Jimmy Graham must have known that, by the law of averages, his days were numbered.
The life expectancy of those vulnerable RAF aircrew was a mere five missions. That he survived 36, including a raid that cost the lives of more than 250 colleagues, was astonishing.
Add to that his exceptional bravery and devotion to duty in action and the young man, who had watched his workmates go off to “the excitement” of the conflict, had had his own exhilarating and remarkable war.
Born in Irvine, just a couple of years after the end of the Great War, he was 19 and working in a reserved occupation in an Ayrshire foundry when the Second World War broke out. As his colleagues enlisted, he and his close pal John tried to volunteer but were turned away.
Undaunted, they went to Glasgow and joined up: John to the Marines and Graham to the RAF. They would never see each other again.
Graham, based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, flew with 576 Squadron as a crewmember of Lancaster bomber Q for Queenie and in 1944 was involved in the operation to soften up targets on mainland Europe in advance of D-Day.
On the night of May 3-4, 1944, the target was a German Panzer and training base in Mailly-le-Camp, France, a mission which was perceived to be “a piece of cake” after the horrors of air combat over Germany.
But on the night, a communications breakdown meant the raid took place in chaos. Graham, a Tail End Charlie, as the rear gunners were known, was ensconced in solitude in his position in the fuselage when it became clear the bomber stream was circling without any instructions.
Radio transmissions had been distorted by American forces radio blaring out Glen Miller and the “start bombing” message had not been properly received. Awaiting attack instructions, the bombers suddenly found themselves at the mercy of German night fighters and one Lancaster after another was picked off.
“Outside, hell had broken out,” recalled Graham. Quoted in Martin W Bowman’s book Legend of the Lancasters: The Bomber War from England 1942-45, he said: “German night fighters had arrived in force and were attacking the circling bombers. Lancaster down ... and another . . . and another . . . two fly into each other and explode in the air and others scatter so that they are not hit by the debris.
“And still there was no attack order.”
Eventually they took the initiative and Q for Queenie’s crew went in for a straight bomb run, dropping their load right on target before “going like hell” for home.
While other crews waited for the order, one of the Pathfinders reported matter-of-factly, “I’ve been hit. I’ve got to go down,” the message apparently delivered as if he was just heading out for a walk.
Another pilot recalled that when the order to bomb was finally received the rush was “like the starting gate at the Derby.”
A massive 1,500 tons of bombs were dropped in 20 minutes. Though the Wehrmacht training centre had been successfully hit, the losses to Bomber Command were heavy: 42 Lancasters were shot down and 258 aircrew perished.
Safely home that night, Graham and Q for Queenie continued to dodge the enemy, most notably for Graham a little over three months later, on August 16, 1944, when his actions earned him the Distinguished Flying Medal for valour.
This time the crew were involved in mine-laying operations in Pomeranian Bay in the Baltic when they came into combat with a night fighter on their return.
Both aircraft opened fire simultaneously but Graham was the victor when he brought down the fighter, which was seen exploding on the ground.
However, wartime also brought romance for the brave young gunner when he met his future wife while home on leave. He bumped into May Muir when he visited an aunt and uncle in Ardrossan. She was their neighbour’s daughter and they married in January 1948.
Their daughter Alison arrived the following year.
After demob Graham worked for a time at Prestwick Airport before moving to joint fuel marketing company Shell-Mex and BP, initially as a tanker driver in Ardrossan. He then worked his way up through the ranks becoming a shift manager, office manager and later terminal manager at Old Kilpatrick.
He went on to become a time and motion study manager at the firm’s Glasgow head office before taking a post as Scottish transport manager for BP, from which he retired in 1980.
A golfer all his life, he was a member of West Kilbride Golf Club for almost 70 years, playing many of Scotland’s courses and others in Ireland, America, Portugal and Spain.
In retirement he was a hands-on grandfather to granddaughter Kirsty whom he looked after one day a week.
Graham, who was last year awarded the Legion d’Honneur, returned to France each May for many years to attend an RAF event marking the Mailly raid and was last there four years ago at the age of 94.
During one of those visits he met a young Australian whose uncle he had served with. A fond friendship developed, leading to a trip Down Under for the young man’s wedding and regular phone calls between the pair.
After his wife died in 1997, he and his daughter spent a great deal of time together and enjoyed trips to France and to Spain, to the family’s holiday home in Alicante, where he had a number of Spanish friends.
Good-humoured and gregarious, he was in his 80s when he had a heart attack and triple by-pass in Alicante where, on his discharge from hospital, the dietary advice included having a glass of red wine with each meal. Quick as a flash he shot back: “Does that include breakfast?”
He is survived by daughter Alison and granddaughter Kirsty.