Obituary: Ron Holton, wartime pilot and air traffic controller

Born: 7 January, 1923 in London. Died: 27 May, 2014 in Gifford

Ron Holton: Wartime pilot who survived a sabotage attack on his Wellington bomber
Ron Holton: Wartime pilot who survived a sabotage attack on his Wellington bomber

Ron Holton, who has died aged 91, left school at 13 and yet achieved his dream of becoming an RAF pilot, serving with distinction in the Second World War and going on to become a senior air traffic controller in civilian life.

His many wartime narrow escapes included surviving a sabotage attack on his Wellington bomber, resulting in three days stranded in the Sahara desert after a forced landing and miraculous rescue by a warship that was later sunk.

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He also helped sink a German U-boat that had wreaked havoc on Allied shipping, simultaneously saving his stricken aircraft and the lives of his crew, while still suffering from the effects of his 21st birthday celebrations.

Holton was nursing a “horrendous hangover” at his base in Blida, south of Algiers, in January 1944, when he was tasked that night with seeking out and destroying an enemy submarine that had sunk a US troopship in the Mediterranean, with great loss of life.

A signal had been picked up from another aircraft by his wireless operator/air gunner, suggesting the sub had been found, but nothing more was heard. Holton recalled: “I noticed flames on the water to our left, obviously the remains of the first aircraft, then I saw the sub on the surface only about a mile off the Spanish coast, going like the clappers and making a tremendous fluorescent wake.

“I opened the bomb doors, primed the first stick of four depth charges and gave a running commentary to the crew, warning Ricky, our rear gunner, to be ready to spray the whole length of the sub as we passed over.

“Their crew must have seen us because a tremendous barrage was sent up against us. It seemed there were several Bofors guns firing as well as machine gun tracers and I knew it was impossible to get through all that flak without getting hit.”

He straddled the U-boat with depth charges while “Ricky’s guns opened up, filling our craft with the familiar and unmistakable stink of burnt cordite. I realised we could not avoid flying over (neutral) Spanish territory and that I had lost the port engine. I could see rocks and trees flashing past below us – far too close – and at any second expected to hit the hillside.”

The remaining depth charges were jettisoned at sea “to avoid a diplomatic incident” and Holton, flying on one engine, witnessed another Wellington finishing off the sub. They made it to an aerodrome where the badly wounded rear gunner was taken to hospital. Holton wrote: “After everything that happened on that night, I suddenly realised my self-induced hangover had completely disappeared.”

Forced into a lengthy diversion on a flight to India in 1942 due to the German occupation of North Africa, Holton felt both engines falter and lose power at 4,000ft over the western Sahara, while fabric began peeling off the port wing. It later emerged the fuel had been contaminated, corrosive acid poured on the wing and radio damaged in a mystery act of sabotage. SOS signals were transmitted with no response.

Holton recalled: “As we were flanked on both sides by hostile Franco territory, with the Canaries on our right and Spanish Rio de Oro on our left, capture or death seemed inevitable.”

He made a forced landing on the mainland and they spent the next three days making emergency repairs and sending distress signals until the batteries were exhausted.

They cleared a strip of rocks heading towards the cliffs “with the rather suicidal hope of getting airborne before plunging into the sea”.

Fate intervened moments before they attempted a take-off, when the destroyer HMS Laforey appeared in the distance. Holton thought it was a sun-induced a illusion but it emerged the battleship HMS Nelson, then operating in the South Atlantic, had picked up their faint signal and had relayed it to Simonstown naval base in South Africa, which in turn passed it on to the nearest warship with instructions to search the coastline for a downed Wellington.

The crew destroyed the aircraft and were taken aboard and given traditional naval hospitality, including tots of rum, runs ashore in Gibraltar and an escort back to the UK.

When he heard later of Laforey’s loss with nearly 200 lives in a kamikaze-style U-boat attack, Holton recalled: “They had taken us to their hearts. It seemed difficult to believe that now probably all those friendly faces were lying in many fathoms of water.”

But it was not his first brush with tragedy. As an 18-year-old flight cadet at the RAF College, Cranwell, in 1941, he was delighted his best friend from initial training, Aubrey Griffin, was also there. However, the other youngster, an only child, grew troubled and asked Holton to promise to phone his parents if anything happened to him, rather than have them wait for the telegram.

Holton tried to reassure him, but recalled: “From that moment he changed from a cheerful, happy-go-lucky chap to someone with something on his mind.”

Not long after, rumours swept Cranwell that a cadet had been killed. Holton approached Aubrey’s flight commander who confirmed he had died in a collision with a Spitfire.

He made the dreaded call to Aubrey’s father, an Oxford don who arrived with a hearse and sought out Holton to thank him.

Fifty years later, he was reading the famous and moving aviator’s poem, High Flight, when he discovered the American author, Pilot Officer John Magee, 19, had died the same day and in the same location as Aubrey. “I raced to my log books – yes, it was Magee’s Spitfire that had killed my friend.”

Ronald Nelson Holton was born in Bermondsey, London, a true Cockney, and grew up amid the poverty of the 1930s Depression.

He left school at 13 to bring some money into the family. At 14 he joined the Air Defence Cadets while attending night school to complete his education, gaining his glider pilot’s wings aged 16. Although his mother and sisters were evacuated, he and his father remained in London throughout the Blitz, witnessing many distressing sights.

Having graduated in the top six at Cranwell, he was told his skill level marked him out as an instructor, something he had not signed up for. His principled stand led to the withholding of his commission, although it was later granted in the field.

He served in India, Burma, Italy and Sicily, ending the war as an instructor but happy in the knowledge that he had used up all his nine lives on active service. He also met his wife Margaret, then serving as a Land Girl.

After demob he became an air traffic controller, working at Heathrow, Prestwick and finally Edinburgh, where he was chief officer. He was also instrumental in bringing about the new control tower there. The job was stressful, and he relished family holidays with his three children on the West Coast.

He was relieved to find a cottage he could finally call home in Gifford, East Lothian, and immersed himself in local life, becoming a community councillor, helping set up the Gifford Society and, with his wife, becoming president and honorary lifetime president of Gifford Horticultural Society. The couple were also guides at Lennoxlove House for 20 years.

Holton, a proud and popular member of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association, was predeceased by his wife and is survived by his children Diana, Sue and Michael, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.