Jock Heatherill was such a tiny baby there were doubts over whether he would survive infancy. Born almost a century ago weighing just 3lbs 8ozs, the fragile infant resembled a drowned baby rabbit, according to his father.
But cocooned in an empty drawer and lavished with loving care, he slowly began to thrive and was baptised in Edinburgh’s Tron Kirk at the age of eight weeks.
That he pulled through was something of a miracle in the 1920s. That he beat the odds of another life and death contest, as a member of Bomber Command 20 years later, was equally extraordinary. Half the aircrew were killed on operations, 12 per cent died or were wounded in accidents and a similar number became Prisoners of War. Only a quarter escaped unscathed.
Heatherill was a Second World War bomb aimer who trained on open-cockpit Tiger Moth bi-planes and co-piloted Halifax heavy bombers. In peacetime, as part of Transport Command, he took part in the Berlin Airlift and enjoyed a long and distinguished RAF career, including as assistant air attache in Canberra and commanding officer of RAF Machrihanish.
Educated at schools in Parsons Green and Portobello before moving to Broughton Grammar, he was a rebellious youngster and a truant, prompting his father’s decision that he should leave school at 14 and join him at Allan & Sons, granite and marble works. His father had been involved in installing the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and his son followed in his footsteps, serving an apprenticeship as a granite polisher and helping on various projects, including the Ensign Ewart Memorial on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade.
In 1941 he became a Boy Scout messenger, delivering despatches from the Royal Navy office to ships at Leith Docks. Around that time he witnessed a Spitfire shooting down a German bomber over the Firth of Forth and joined the Air Training Corps. Visiting RAF Turnhouse and seeing a Spitfire up close inspired him to join the RAF.
However, he had no useful academic qualifications and knew they were needed to apply for aircrew. He did a correspondence course, went to night school, became a member of the Home Guard and a fire watcher. In August 1941 he volunteered for the RAF and subsequently trained as a bomb aimer in Canada. After returning to Britain he joined 158 Squadron based at RAF Lissett near Bridlington as a pilot officer and air bomber.
He took part in 17 operations with Bomber Command, flying in four-engined Halifaxes, acting as co-pilot until reaching operational height, then navigating to the target zone before crawling into the bomb aimer’s position in the nose, directing the pilot to the target and finally dropping the explosives. His first mission was to Essen in November 1944 and his last to Mainz on February 1945. More than 70 years later, at a Buckingham Palace celebration of the RAF’s centenary, while reflecting on those who did not come home, he recalled: “There was such a sense of purpose. We were fighting for king and country. There was adrenaline and you wanted to do a good job.”
Post-war, flying Dakotas as part of RAF Transport Command, he was involved in the Berlin Airlift, a massive operation delivering supplies to the besieged population of West Berlin in Germany’s Soviet zone, and made sure he did another good job, proud of keeping all his sorties on time.
Flying from North Luffenham to Fassberg, he ferried coal to Berlin’s Gatow airfield, working a rota of four days flying followed by a rest day at the nearby shooting lodge of Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering. He later completed more than 500 hours delivering engineering supplies.
Describing the mission in his memoirs he said: “Operating the airlift could be a little tricky as we had to be spot on with our timings to Gatow, as aircraft were scheduled to land and take off every minute and, if you missed your allotted time you were required to overshoot and face the embarrassment of returning to Fassberg with a full load of coal: luckily we were spared that ordeal. The problems on navigating were that we operated at all weathers at 1,500 feet and along a restricted corridor and sometimes our aids were jammed by the Russians, and also occasionally harassed by ‘buzzing’ from Russian fighters.”
He had a number of tours of duty to the Middle East in the 1950s and took command of the desert station RAF Riyan, where the personnel consisted of “myself the only officer, one SNCO, two corporals, 14 airmen, 50 Askaris (armed local tribesmen) 20 civilians and a camel”.
In the late 1960s he went on attachment to the Royal Australian Air Force and became the Assistant Air Attaché at the British High Commission in Canberra. Returning home he was Deputy CO at RAF Lyneham and organised a 1973 royal visit to the base for The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The following year he was responsible for the successful repatriation of 3,000 service personnel and their families from Cyprus during the Turkish invasion of the island, service for which he was made an OBE.
During the Cold War he mapped potential flight plans for future operations and remarked during the Falklands War that Vulcan bombers were using his flight plan. His last posting was back in Scotland at RAF Machrihanish, a strategically important base during the Cold War. After retiring in 1977 he moved to Rutland, becoming regional director of appeals for the British Heart Foundation, a keen golfer and president of Rutland Rotary Club. Passionate about community involvement, he chaired his local village hall committee for 25 years – only giving up aged 95, citing his “ageing bones”.
Jock Heatherill is survived by his wife Mary, children Nicola, Claire and Richard and four grandchildren.
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