By Andrew Sutherland Mackay
A lark bursts into the sky, a tinkling counterpoint to the low, grey cloud that swirls around the Zeals military aerodrome as Flt. Lt. Martin Reay Sutherland Mackay, RAFVR, DFC strides towards waiting Dakota TS 346. His mission is to return 20 fellow pilot officers and personnel from the RAF, Canadian and Australian Air Forces to the Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Leicester East.
The mood that cold winter’s day in February 1945 was upbeat. The end of the war in Europe was just months away and there was the scent of victory in the air. The pilots had successfully completed complex training – Flt. Lt. Mackay, with nearly 450 hours on Dakotas, was one of the instructors – that involved picking up gliders from the ground without the need for landing the towing aircraft.
Just six months earlier, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for bravery at Arnhem. His citation in the London Gazette read:
“This officer was pilot and captain of an aircraft detailed for a sortie, entailing the dropping of supplies to our ground forces near Arnhem in September, 1944. In the first run-in to the target the aircraft came under considerable fire from the enemy’s ground defences. The starboard engine was hit. Nevertheless, Flight Lieutenant Mackay made a second run over the dropping zone to release all his containers. Despite the loss of engine power, this resolute captain flew the aircraft to base where he effected a masterly landing. This officer has completed numerous sorties and has invariably displayed the highest standard of devotion to duty.”
This golden boy of a well-to-do Scots family had the world at this feet. Nicknamed Bonzo, after a 20s cartoon character, he was the second child of the eldest of six brothers. He had passed through Sedbergh School with distinction: tall, handsome, a keen sportsman, born mimic, popular with his many cousins and destined for a stellar career in the RAF.
“He belongs quite definitely,” the headmaster noted in his final school report, “to what has been called the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky.” A splendid chap, my father and a first cousin, called him.
For most on board, the short flight to Leicester East would have been like hopping on to a bus. With no threat from enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire, they could start to relax and look forward to some leave and well-earned rest.
But the flight never reached its destination, simultaneously creating a mystery which will never be solved and leaving in its wake dark shadows, which linger to this day.
After a routine take-off, the aircraft turned north-east on the right heading for Leicester and climbed into the broken cloud. Seconds later, it crashed into a local landmark known as The Clump, in a corner of the Stourhead Estate on the Wiltshire/Somerset border, cutting a swathe through a line of mature beech trees and bursting into flames before coming to rest.
Bonzo, extraordinarily, was thrown clear of the wreckage, suggesting that he was not at the controls of his aircraft. He sustained serious head and leg injuries, but after a month, his family received the news that he was out of danger and was expected to recover. His 20 fellow passengers were not so fortunate. All of them died.
A Court of Inquiry was reconvened a month after the accident, but its findings were either lost or destroyed. A short Accident Investigation Board report attributed the accident to poor visibility and the failure of the pilot to climb sufficiently to clear The Clump, which was marked with an obstruction pole. A further possibility was faulty instrument flying, or that the pilot had failed to uncage the gyro, and lost control in the cloud. The Court of Inquiry concurred.
Whatever the cause, the accident appears to have had little impact on Bonzo’s career. His recovery continued and he resumed where he had left off, flying regularly with the Glider Pick Up Training Unit, and giving demonstrations, until its disbandment in November 1945.
He was transferred to RAF Welford, but left the service shortly thereafter, only to rejoin in 1947. Two years after the fatal accident, he was back as a flying instructor, training pupil pilots at a number of universities.
Did somebody know something? He was, after all, a highly experienced and decorated pilot, who had apparently been at the controls of an aircraft that had crashed, resulting in the death of 20 service personnel. Why had he committed such a cardinal error? Was somebody in authority prepared to overlook the cause of the accident to entrust him with training the next generation of the nation’s pilots? Was pilot error even involved at all?
As the sole survivor, and with no eye witnesses, Bonzo was the only one able to offer any explanation. It was when he revealed to a family member that he had not been at the controls, and was returning to the cockpit having sensed all was not well, that different theories began to emerge.
Did something happen aft, requiring his immediate attention? A fight, possibly, among a group of boisterous young men in high spirits and heading home after arduous training? Was there a technical problem with the aircraft? Whatever the causes it remains a mystery, but one that had the most disastrous outcome.
In a further twist to the tragedy, the family noted a distinct change in Bonzo’s personality. With his RAF career now at an end, he found himself at a crossroads. It seems probably that he wanted a lower profile after the Court of Inquiry, so joined the Colonial Service in Kenya and became, some would argue, out of sight and out of mind. A letter home, a cry for help, went unanswered by his father, a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), who did not reveal its contents to Bonzo’s mother. She never forgave him.
After various postings in Kenya, Bonzo was appointed District Commissioner of Garissa District, Northern Province in November 1948. Some time later, he received news from his fiancée that she would not be joining him. That blow, combined with the effect of his injuries, survivor’s guilt and the apparent indifference from his immediate family, tipped him over the edge and, on June 21st, 1949, he locked himself in an office and shot himself. He was just 26.
There was to be no triumphant homecoming for this proud Scots war hero. No piper playing ‘Flowers of the Forest’ at his graveside in the cemetery near the family home in Doune, Perthshire; no readings or prayers; no memorial service to celebrate his life; no flypast by aircraft stationed at nearby RAF Auchterarder.
Instead, he was buried the next day in the City Park Cemetery, Nairobi, his grave overlooked by a rusting water tank and with just a simple white headstone to mark the plot.
In the 70 years since his death, PTSD has become an accepted condition and much has been learnt about its causes and management. We can only speculate now as to whether Bonzo would have benefited from treatment and greater understanding from his family, rather than suffer the stigma of a Court of Inquiry and the endless speculation that surrounded the accident.
Like thousands of other casualties of war whose lives were cut short, or forever changed, by tragic accidents, Bonzo served with distinction, but did not survive the aftermath of war. That makes him, and his fellow servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price, no less heroic for their devotion to duty, and no less deserving of our acknowledgment and eternal gratitude.
I would like to acknowledge the following for providing the inspiration and encouragement to write this article:
Bernard Pike, author of A War Casualty, and former manager of the farm on whose land The Clump stands
Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown, Bonzo’s niece, for her insights and support
Andrew Stewart-Brown, Bonzo’s nephew, for his kind loan of papers and photographs
Katy de la Rivière, School Archivist, Sedbergh School, Cumbria