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My father the hero pilot – and why today’s RAF would shun him

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TO USE the modern parlance, I felt somewhat ‘triggered’ by the recent TCW article entitled ‘No whites please – we’re the RAF’. It led to my writing this brief tale.

On November 20 1919, Edward Morton Hunter was born in a tenement in Rutherglen Road in Glasgow’s Gorbals district to a catering worker mother and a foundry-worker father. The father, also Edward Hunter, had served 12 years in the Royal Navy, principally aboard the destroyer Scorpion and the cruiser Berwick and had seen active service in the Dardanelles during the Great War. Leaving the Navy that year the ex-Chief Petty Officer Hunter sought what work he could find in industrial Glasgow south of the Clyde. Tragically he died aged 30 when Edward was just a few months old. 

Fortunately for his widow Janette, ‘Nettie’ to the family, her unmarried brother stepped in, moving in with her and young Edward to help with the raising of the boy and to provide a father figure. Although times were hard in 1920s Glasgow, Edward thrived and did well at Oatlands Primary School, winning the accolade of school ‘Dux’ in his senior year, and a scholarship to Hutcheson’s Grammar School. There he did well, being good at mathematics and receiving a solid grounding in Latin and Ancient Greek. Scottish secondary education in those days also included moral philosophy, logic and rhetoric. Although no giant he played a good game at full back in the school rugby XV. He caught the eye of the family doctor – in the pre-NHS days when doctors used to visit their patients – who told his mother that she had a bright boy who surely must go on to Glasgow University. Janette said that she would not be able to afford it, whereupon the doctor offered to pay for his studies, a gesture of enormous generosity. Nonetheless Janette felt she could not accept, so the young Teddy, as his mother called him, didn’t go to university. Instead he started his working life in 1937 as a trainee accountant with the City of Glasgow Corporation.

As tensions rose in Europe through 1938 Neville Chamberlain had bought enough time for Britain to re-arm and the expansion of the Royal Air Force was a significant part of that. Despite his father having been a Royal Navy man and his grandfather a soldier in the Cameron Highlanders, Teddy joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in early 1939. After the outbreak of war in September, he moved around the country from one RAF base to another as he progressed through training for the rest of 1939 and 1940 before arriving as a sergeant pilot in December 1940 on 50 Bomber Squadron at RAF Lindholme near Doncaster to fly Handley Page Hampden medium bombers. The war started for him on January 14, 1941. The first red-ink entry in his logbook reads ‘Operations-Brest-Gardening’, ‘gardening’ being the euphemism for mine-laying across a harbour entrance, an activity which would have met with some attention from the flak batteries defending it and the two resident battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Teddy flew on a total of 34 ‘operations’ in his tour of duty with 50 Squadron, making several visits to Hanover, Bremen, Hamburg, Cologne, Düsseldorf and Kiel as well as a return trip to Brest attempting to bomb Scharnhorst and Gneisenau before their ‘Channel dash’ back to German ports. They earned him the Distinguished Flying Medal.

By now an officer, he flew with No 11 Blind Approach Training Flight at RAF Upwood near Huntingdon, pioneering ways of recovering aircraft to base through cloud and landing in fog, work that laid the foundations for what today’s pilots regard as routine.

A return to operations saw him posted to 109 Squadron, variously at RAF Marham near King’s Lynn and RAF Little Staughton near Bedford, flying the de Havilland Mosquito in the RAF’s new Pathfinder Force, which went ahead of the bombers and marked targets with flares. Often this would involve going back in under the main bomber stream, an activity which was a touch hazardous, to re-mark or adjust the aiming point as flares burned out, drifted on the wind or became obscured by smoke. The target-indicating operations were punctuated by a number of missions with full bomb loads including flying a Lancaster to Wesel on the Rhine on only the second time he flew that type, with 12 x 1,000lb bombs. Between June 1943 and January 1945 at the height of the bomber offensive there are another 91 red-line entries in his logbook detailing visits to Germany’s cities and two night operations on June 6 and 7, 1944 in support of the D-Day landings. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and was by now known as ‘Ned’. There are a total of 125 red-link entries in Ned’s logbooks but only 120 logged as operations, the discrepancy being explained euphemistically by ‘retired early’ due to ‘malfunctions’, probably battle damage. The chance of a member of a bomber squadron surviving a tour of duty of 30 ‘operations’ was a mere 16 per cent.

After the war he was offered a permanent commission in the RAF. Promotion followed to Wing Commander, and a tour of duty as Officer Commanding the Royal Ceylon Air Force Flying Training School in present-day Sri Lanka. He was doing a desk job at the Air Ministry in Whitehall when he completed a jet conversion course in 1958. Aged 39, he was hoping to be posted to command a Canberra bomber squadron at RAF Tengah in Singapore when he was struck by a heart attack. This meant the end of flying and a premature end to a military career in which he would have no doubt gained further promotion.

How do I know all this? Edward was my father. Like many of his generation, he never spoke of what he did between 1939 and 1945 but I know he was deeply affected by it, especially after he saw the devastation in German cities after the war. I know he was proud when I went to university, the first of our family to do so, and even more so when I chose to join the RAF myself. I started at the RAF College Cranwell in October 1972 but my father did not see me earn my pilot’s wings for he died suddenly in 1973 at 53 while watching a rugby international between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield. My mother was alongside him. 

Altogether I spent 19 years in RAF uniform, fewer years than my father, with front-line service as a Harrier pilot in the 1970s and as a Tornado pilot in the 1980s. Afterwards I was an airline pilot for 27 years but if you could cut me through the middle, following a childhood spent on RAF bases and my own service, there would be written, as in a stick of rock, ‘Made in the Royal Air Force’. Serving in the RAF was a calling, a duty, wearing RAF wings a privilege; being an airline pilot was merely a job. Even 50 years after my father’s death I still feel robbed. We would have had much to talk about.

When I go to London I often stay in the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly. I stroll through Green Park and at the Bomber Command Memorial stand and reflect. It is a magnificent memorial to the 125,000 aircrew of Bomber Command, 55,573 of whom gave their lives, 8,403 of whom were wounded and 9,838 of whom became prisoners of war. They came from all over the Empire to answer the call. Well over 99 per cent of them were young white men. 

This why I was so incensed and offended by the RAF’s ‘pause’ on recruiting white men. A young man such as my father who was lifted from poverty by his intelligence, application and military service would be of no value to the present-day RAF. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir ‘Mike’ Wigston and the Secretary of State for Defence, ‘Ben’ Wallace, should be hanging their heads in shame and considering their positions. The buck stops with them.

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Iain Hunter
Iain Hunter
Iain Murray Hunter is a former RAF officer/fighter pilot and retired airline pilot.

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