Obituary: Wing Commander Alastair Mackie DFC, bomber pilot turned CND campaigner

Air Commodore Alastair Mackie
Air Commodore Alastair Mackie
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Air Commodore Alastair Mackie, DFC, aviator and CND campaigner. Born: 3 August 1922 in Worcestershire. Died: 19 May 2018, aged 95.

Alastair Mackie flew bombers throughout the North African and Mediterranean campaigns before transferring to Dakota transporters and taking part in three major airborne operations in occupied northern Europe during the Second World War, for which he was honoured.

During the Cold War, he went on to command a Vulcan nuclear bombing squadron but became disillusioned with Britain’s nuclear policy believing “We were victims of fraud… Silly me for thinking we were serving the country.”

Alastair Cavendish Lindsay Mackie was born in 1920s Worcestershire, one of two children of George, DSO, MBE, a doctor who spent four years commanding a field ambulance in the Great War, and his wife May. The family moved to Malvern in 1925, where George set up a practice.

Proud of their Scottish heritage, the Mackies could trace their lineage back to the 1300s, revealing that they originated from the Clan MacKay, itself a branch of the Clan Gregor, oldest of all tribal titles.

Alastair and sister Joanna enjoyed a privileged upbringing, riding, swimming and shooting, while holidaying in Scotland where, with his father, Alastair often fished the River Annan. He enjoyed much about these trips, but he detested having to wear his kilt and full regalia to parties.

A bright boy, Alastair passed his entrance exams with distinction and attended Charterhouse, winning an Exhibition to read Medicine at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the autumn of 1940, but deferred his entry to join the RAF.

Having trained on Wellingtons at RAF Harwell, near Oxford, he was deemed fit for operational flying and was commissioned in May 1941. His first task, in August, was to ferry a mark II Wellington bomber to the Middle East (Air Force) via Gibraltar and Malta before a brief posting to 70 Squadron near the Suez Canal.

A few weeks later 108 Squadron was reformed under the leadership of Commander Con Wells, based at Fayid, Egypt. Mackie’s first operation was against Tobruk and over the ensuing months, targets were usually chosen to support the Eight Army’s attacks and retreats against Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps; strategic targets such as Benghazi and Tripoli were regularly targeted. In addition, 108 were tasked with eroding the air support of the enormous Italian Army by attacking airfields along the North African coast such as Dern and Berka, the latter a huge fighter base.

After 19 raids, in February 1942, Mackie got his own crew and took part on the raid on Tobruk, now in enemy hands, and scored a direct hit on a cargo ship. Soon after, Mackie’s squadron returned to England to convert to US B-24 4-engine Liberator bombers, which had better fixtures and a greater attack range. They returned to Egypt, carrying out daylight operations over Greek islands, Cypress and Sicily, as well as continued sorties on Tripoli. Towards the end of his tour, he attacked the Tunisian port of Souuse and Sfax in December-January 1942-43.

After dropping his bombs on the quays at Sfax, Mackie descended to 400ft before making three runs “to allow the delighted gunners to strafe the warehouses, shipping and people”. He flew his 53rd and final sortie later that month when he bombed Tripoli. Aged just 20, he subsequently received the DFC for his “great perseverance and tenacity”.

He returned to Britain on a converted US troop ship and was to serve at the newly formed Transport Command at RAF Nutts Corner in Northern Ireland. While instructing on Douglas Dakotas, Mackie met Corporal Rachel Goodson, a draper’s daughter. They wed in London in March 1944.

Returning to bomber operations at RAF Blakehill Farm near Swindon, he joined No 233 Squadron and helped prepare for the invasion of Europe Just before midnight on 5 June 1944, Mackie boarded his Dakota laden with paras of the 3rd Parachute Brigade of the Sixth Airborne Division, and taxied for take-off. He joined the armada of transporters and gliders heading for Normandy in “Operation Deadstick”, the first Allied action of D-Day. Being dropped near Ranville and Colombelles near Caen, their goal was to capture and destroy strategic bridges in the area and establish drop zones. Over the next few weeks he flew numerous sorties into hastily prepared landing strips, supplying troops and ferrying the wounded. In December 1945, he was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

With the war nearing its conclusion, Mackie continued to fly supplies into German airfields while ferrying liberated Allied PoWs back to airfields in England. After VE Day, 8 May, he was sent on a secret mission to B156, a German airfield at Luneberg, where he collected no fewer than 19 German generals and colonels to be returned to London.

Post-war, Mackie took a permanent commission as flight lieutenant and flew Dakotas on worldwide routes before becoming a flying instructor, which led to promotion to the Examining Wing at the Central Flying School, teaching future flying instructors in a variety of aircraft from Tiger Moths to Lancasters.

A posting to a DC-3 squadron in Singapore saw him enjoy a stimulating appointment as a member of the Joint Intelligence Staff. His family eventually joined him. With a passion for flying, Mackie seized every opportunity to fly during his ground appointments and while in the Far East, often flying RAF aircraft at weekends on exercises to test the island’s air defences.

In February 1956 he completed a course at the RAF Flying College at Manby, Lincolnshire, before promotion, in December, to Wing Commander Flying at RAF Waddington, where he enjoyed flying the British Canberra bombers. In October 1957 he took command of No 101 Squadron, the second squadron of Vulcan bombers to be formed. As part of Nato, Mackie’s squadron, which formed part of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, often took part in “war games”.

As the years passed, a man of conviction and integrity, Mackie began to have doubts about the validity of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent force, which he saw more as a tool wielded for domestic politics rather than a viable threat to the USSR. This view was strengthened during his next appointment when he served on the directing staff of the Joint Service Staff College.

Later, as an Air Commodore at the MoD, Mackie learnt the military were “running” the politicians,. An intelligence role at Whitehall as group captain of the Joint Intelligence Committee Secretariat followed, but he disliked the service in-fighting, and his contempt for Britain’s nuclear weapons policy increased.

Appointed Station Commander at RAF Colerne near Bath, which operated the Hastings transport aircraft, he flew regularly again, including weekend sorties giving air experience to ATC cadets. He was appointed CBE in 1966.

In April 1966 he returned to Whitehall and the MoD in the key appointment of Director of Air Staff Briefing, responsible for keeping RAF chiefs fully informed on key issues affecting policy and operational capabilities.

In September 1968, aged 45, he retired and had a number of jobs including under treasurer of the Middle Temple, having completed a law degree while in his final RAF years.

Disillusioned by national policy and his wartime experiences, Mackie joined CND despite some minor “reservations about the oddballs on the fringes”, anarchists, Communists or otherwise. He quickly found himself delivering speeches around the country.

In a speech in Portsmouth, he quoted the Articles of War (1652) which define the Royal Navy as protector of the “safety, honour and welfare” of the nation, but he argued that “Trident submarines negated all three”. Within weeks, he was elected to the CND council.

In his memoirs, Flying Scot (2012), he reflected, “Man’s inhumanity to man has given place to man’s suicidal inhumanity to the planet and his determination to destroy it. My shame at having been part of it as a Vulcan pilot is mitigated only by decades of membership of CND.”

Mackie is survived by sons David and Gregor. Rachel predeceased him.

Martin Childs