FCA Chartered accountant and wartime bomber pilot
Born: 11 July, 1919, in Swansea.Died: 20 December, 2006, in Edinburgh, aged 87.
IN DARKNESS and atrocious weather on the night of 1 February, 1945, a Dakota aircraft of RAF Transport Command was on the final leg of a flight from Canada when it crashed close to the summit of Ben Tallaidh, on Mull. Three people were killed, including the pilot and a King's Messenger, who escaped the wreck with his diplomatic briefcase chained to his wrist, but was crushed when the plane slid back in the snow.
The search operation for the five survivors and top-secret documents was carried out overnight in a blizzard, and a board of inquiry concluded several factors had led to confusion over the aircraft's height. Flight Lieutenant Vivian Thomas, who investigated the crash, later recalled: "They were desperately unlucky. A few feet to port or a few hundred feet higher and they would have missed the mountain."
Fifty-three years on and in his 80th year, Thomas - who had himself suffered serious war injuries and shown no previous interest in mountaineering - scaled the 2,500ft Ben Tallaidh once again to pay his respects to the victims at the crash site. Publicity of his trip resulted in 13 new recruits to the Aircrew Association, and he considered his mission accomplished.
Thomas, who has died aged 87, was president of the Scottish Saltire branch of the Aircrew Association and was one of the ACA's last surviving members who had served in the 1939-45 war. He was born in Swansea and educated at Swansea Grammar School, where his English teacher was father of the poet Dylan Thomas. He became an apprentice at his father's accountancy firm, but was dedicated to rugby and cricket, both of which he played for Swansea while still in his teens.
He joined the RAF in 1940, keen to become a fighter pilot but destined to be a bomber captain. Under training one day, his Oxford aircraft suddenly started spinning and Thomas, then 21, battled to stay airborne. He said later: "At the last moment, as the green grass came up in front of the nose, I switched off the engine and thought, this is it." He survived terrible injuries but spent 13 months recovering and by the time he gained his pilot wings at Cranwell in 1942, every member of his original course of 48 had been killed on operations.
Piloting the Halifax bomber, Thomas took part in raids over Mannheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy. He found enemy anti- aircraft fire a deadly yet beautiful sight, the multicoloured tracer shells floating gently upwards like fireworks before rushing past the cockpit. In 1943 he joined the Australian 462 Squadron in the Middle East, which comprised "rather a rough lot of Canadians, New Zealanders and Brits, who all liked a few drinks, to say the least". He supported the Eighth Army and completed missions over the Greek islands and Italy.
In 1944 he joined 516 (Combined Operations) Squadron at RAF Dundonald, Ayrshire. Flying a Blenheim at wave level in a simulated attack on a tank landing craft (LCT) at Loch Striven in the Clyde with another Blenheim and three Hurricanes, Thomas was approaching the LCT when an excited voice shouted over the intercom: "Look out for the Blenheim." Fearing a collision was imminent he checked for danger, but the mast of the vessel loomed up and tore into the Blenheim's belly. "I levelled off very gingerly and did a gentle turn to look at the LCT which was rocking violently in the water with the top of its mast bent over," he recalled. With pieces falling off his aircraft, Thomas returned to base to confront the Hurricane pilot whose "stupid shout" almost cost him his life. Nevertheless, he considered Dundonald a fortunate posting as he met his future wife, a Wren based near Ayr, while serving there.
He qualified as a chartered accountant after the war and bought his late father's business, later becoming a chief accountant in industry. He played rugby as a utility back for Swansea Uplands well into his thirties, but, like many Welshmen of his era, it was felt the war cheated him of caps for Wales. He moved to Edinburgh in 1966 and later to Penicuik. After working for Thomson McClintock, Thomas became clerk and treasurer of George Heriot's Trust, retiring in the mid-1980s. However, he worked privately until he was 79, having made many friends of clients throughout Edinburgh and Midlothian.
A Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, gentleman, man of principle and atheist since experiencing warfare, Thomas regarded every day as a bonus after surviving his air crash aged 21. This reinforced a quiet and uncomplaining resilience he carried through his life, despite a variety of injustices that would have embittered others. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marie, five sons and four grandchildren.