Obituary: John MacPherson DFC, MBE, Bomber Command navigator and university administrator

John MacPherson
John MacPherson
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Born: 25 October, 1920, in Inverness. Died: 4 July, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 92

John MacPherson was a wartime Pathfinder Navigator, one of the few Bomber Command aircrew to survive five years of continuous flying from 1941 to 1946. After the war he had a distinguished career as deputy secretary of Edinburgh University.

On 13 July, 1942, 12 aircraft of 115 squadron at RAF Marham waited to take off on a mission to Duisburg. In Wellington X3471 Pilot Officer John MacPherson was on the chart table, his pilot Brian Grimston. Although only ten days into flying together there was already a bond of respect between these two young men from highly different backgrounds – MacPherson a Scot, brought up in poverty by a single parent in Inverness, and the honourable Brian Grimston of the English aristocracy, second in succession to the Earldom of Verulam.

At 12:25am they reached their turn to take off. Front gunner Volante pulled up the escape hatch and they took off on the grass runway lit by paraffin flares. They crossed the coast at Cromer, then the searchlights and flak on the Dutch coast, and penetrated the defensive box of German Me110 fighters without incident.

At 15,000 feet on their run they were bracketed by four 88mm shells. Canvas was torn from the fuselage and there was the ping of shrapnel against the geodetics. Grimston slammed the aircraft into a diving turn to port and turned for home – but the starboard engine spluttered and died. The chances of getting home on one engine were poor.

Forty minutes to the Dutch coast, and with crucial wireless and instruments gone, they were unable to tell altitude as they crossed the North Sea through rain squalls. Suddenly came a yell from the front turret: “Trees passing the port wingtip.” They ploughed across a field and emerged festooned with half an English hedge just short of a massive oak tree.

Navigator and tail gunner were sent to look for a farmhouse. MacPherson, with his Inverness accent and black leather flying boots, was assumed by the farmer to be German and was greeted with a double barrelled shotgun – cocked.

Only the Anglo-Saxon expletives of the tail gunner convinced the farmer that all was well and the aircraft was consigned to the care of the Watton home guard. This was only the first of many hazardous events to occur during the last six months of 1942.

John MacPherson was born in Inverness in 1920. Shortly after his birth his father left and he was brought up alone by his mother in a two-room slum with a shared outside privy.

He proved an able pupil at the Central School and Inverness Royal Academy, but was at the time widely regarded as somewhat idle. In 1941 he commenced training as a pilot at RAF Fairoaks, but was judged unsuitable on account of motion sickness.

He was transferred to training as an observer and, having acclimatised, never again experienced air sickness. Navigational training from Scottish bases was initially on the famously unreliable Blackburn Botha aircraft on which he completed 36 flights.

Gunnery training was completed on another obsolete aircraft, the Fairey Battle. In April 1942 he transferred to No 20 OTU Lossiemouth and continued training on the much more reliable Avro Anson. On 26 May, 1942 came the sudden change to a Vickers Wellington and a trip to RAF Stanton Harcourt. With other trainee crew he had been commandeered to make up numbers for the 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne of 30 May, 1942 – recorded succinctly in his log book “War Operations Cologne – night flying 5hrs 50minutes.”

In July 1942 came the start of full operational flying with A flight of 115 squadron from Marham and then, in September 1942, 156 squadron at Warboys. Throughout this tour he was with pilot Brian Grimston and crew. Losses were high and dices with death were frequent.

Marking the Dummer Zee approaches with Pathfinders 4 inch reconnaissance flares, their aircraft was caught by the big blue master searchlight allowing the satellites to come in. This was a situation that was almost invariably fatal. Rather than dive, Grimston stalled the aircraft and it dropped like a stone losing the searchlights. It required extreme skill to regain control. Dropping mines on La Rochelle, they were hit by a flak ship with cannon shells going through the fuselage above the port main plane.

With the drag of lost canvas they were an easy target for night fighters. Fortunately, an SOS produced three Polish Beaufighters which escorted them into a crash landing at Exeter. Then, tragically, on 28 August in a raid to Nurnberg the aircraft was raked by cannon fire from a night fighter and the wireless operator was killed. On that night 34 per cent of the Wellington force was shot down and five aircraft were lost from 115 squadron. In the Operations Record Book the MacPherson Grimston aircraft is shown as “Returned Safely to base.”

In October 1942 he was awarded his Path Finder Force Badge. Trained in traditional navigation by dead reckoning, compass, wind-speed, barometric pressure and the stars, he went on to be one of the pioneers of electronic navigation, especially Mark 1 Gee, which he demonstrated to the Duke of Kent.

Between November and December 1942 he completed five missions to Turin and Genoa, targets way beyond Gee range and requiring exquisite traditional navigational skills. To make the distance an overload petrol tank was bolted down the middle of the fuselage in place of the catwalk, rendering the aircraft super-inflammable and obstructing the escape hatch.

On the first Italian mission he recalled being summoned to the cockpit to admire the amazing sight of Geneva lit up by streetlights – a sight not seen elsewhere in wartime Europe, where blackout was universal.

Equally memorable was the experience of being dived on by a Fiat CR42 biplane fighter, which kept its distance from the turrets of the Wellington. In old age John would claim to be the last person to have engaged in air warfare with a biplane fighter. For his navigational skills on these missions he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross which he received from the King at Buckingham Palace in 1943.

On 28 January, 1943, MacPherson was posted to 1656 CU. Less than three months later Lancaster ED615 of 156 squadron was lost over Kiel with the death of his former crewmates B Grimston and S J Volante.

May 1944 saw MacPherson on operations with 166 Squadron flying Lancasters from RAF Kirmington. Daylight operations over France were now possible with fighter cover by Spitfires, but night operations remained hazardous and he recalled watching five of his squadron go down at the “Massacre at Revigny” of 14 July, 1944.

On 12 August, 1944 he flew his 55th and last combat operation on the U-boat pens at Bordeaux. The aircraft took a hit from 88mm flak and a piece of shrapnel that narrowly missed the navigator’s table is now in the family’s possession. After combat operations he continued to fly with the RAF in a transport role, his last flight being in a Liberator returning from the Far East on 1 March, 1946.

In autumn 1946 he started his studies as a mature student at Edinburgh University, gaining 1st Class Honours MA in 1950 and subsequently LLB with distinction. He joined the University Administration in September 1950 as personal assistant to the secretary.

Promoted to assistant secretary in 1954, his main work for 30 years was as clerk to the University Court. He also worked closely with the Faculty of Medicine throughout his career. He was also much involved in national and international conferences and functions, being mainly responsible for the organisation of the Edinburgh British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1951.

He was also closely associated with the organisation of the Installation of the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor in 1953, with the World Congress of Mathematics, the International Rose Congress and many others. He was chairman of the Village Committee of the 1970 Commonwealth Games, where he was village commandant.

He was secretary to the Edinburgh Meeting of the Commonwealth Universities Congress. He was awarded the MBE in 1971. He was for many years vice-president of the Sports Union, a life member of the Royal Medical Society, and the unashamed billiards champion of the Staff Club, of which he was a founder member.

On 13 August, 1942 John MacPherson married Vera Muir. They had four children, Frances, Niall, Hugh and Mark. Hugh pre-deceased him in 2001 and Vera died in 2004. He leaves three children, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren of whom he was touchingly proud.