ALASTAIR MACKIE by Bruce Kent
For me, Alastair stood somewhere between a hero icon and a witty elder brother.
His war record was amazing: quiet bravery on a massive scale. Then came his realisation that nuclear weapons were both immoral and pointless. No more than an expensive means of not achieving security. That led him to resign from RAF life and made it possible for him to take an active part in the work of CND. Active he certainly was, in CND, Ex-Services CND and Christian CND. Indeed I did not realise, until the day of his funeral, what an active member of his own parish community, in St Mary’s Church, Barnes, he was.
He could not have done more to make people aware of the dangers and futility of nuclear weapons. This was no armchair academic position. He took an active part in campaigning, handing out leaflets to servicemen at Molesworth – for which he could have been charged for ’incitement to disaffection’ – and turning up at different Crown Courts to support those charged with various forms of direct action.
Will he be missed? Enormously. He was a unique man who leaves a large hole in many hearts – mine very much included. Want to learn more about him? Read his own book:
Some of the People all the Time published by Book Guild Publishing in 2006.
Air Commodore Alastair Mackie, who has died aged 95, flew Dakota transport aircraft on the three major airborne operations in north-west Europe towards the end of the Second World War, and commanded a Vulcan nuclear bomber squadron; later, in an unusual development, he became a committed and active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Just before midnight on June 5 1944, Mackie was piloting one of 24 Dakotas of No 233 Squadron that took off from RAF Blakehill Farm near Swindon as part of the Allied air armada heading for Normandy. On board were men of the 3rd Parachute Brigade who were dropped near Toufreville.
Throughout the summer of 1944 he flew many re-supply sorties into the hastily prepared landing strips in Normandy and on each occasion returned with wounded soldiers. On August 27 he flew into an airfield at Orleans with food for distribution to the liberated Paris.
On September 17, Operation Market Garden was launched, with the 1st British Airborne Division assigned the task of capturing the bridge at Arnhem. Mackie towed a Horsa glider and released it over the landing zone west of the town. Over the next few days, the anti-aircraft defences intensified and Mackie dropped supplies to the beleaguered force.
On the final day, his dispatch crew encountered difficulties over the dropping zone and he was forced to make three runs against intense enemy fire before all his supplies were dropped. He finally escaped at low level, only to discover later that the dropping zone was partly in German hands. He was awarded a Bar to a DFC that he had earned earlier in the Middle East.
In March 1945 Mackie flew on Operation Varsity, the airborne landings across the River Rhine. At dawn on March 24 1945, he and his colleagues of No 233 Squadron took off from a forward airfield in Essex each with a Horsa glider in tow carrying men of the 2nd Battalion, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The gliders were released over Wesel and landed on the east bank of the river.
As the war came to an end, Mackie flew supplies into captured German airfields and ferried liberated prisoners of war back to airfields in England.
The son of a British doctor awarded the DSO during the First World War, Alastair Cavendish Lindsay Mackie was born in Yorkshire on August 3 1922, but spent much of his early life in Malvern. He was educated at Charterhouse and won an Exhibition to read Medicine at Cambridge University, but deferred his entry to join the RAF. He was a kinsman of the Aberdeenshire political dynasty that produced one Labour minister, one Liberal MP and a Conservative county council leader.
After training as a pilot, he ferried a Wellington bomber to the Middle East via Gibraltar. In August 1941 he joined No 108 Squadron, based at Fayid in Egypt, and his first operation was against Tobruk. Over the next few months he attacked targets in support of the British 8th Army including Benghazi and Tripoli.
He converted to the US-built four-engine Liberator bomber and his first raid was a daylight operation against a harbour in Crete. In addition to regular attacks against Tripoli, he completed numerous daylight anti-shipping sorties in the Mediterranean. Towards the end of his long period in the Middle East, he attacked the Tunisian port of Sfax in December 1942.
After dropping his bombs on the quays, he descended to 400 ft and made three runs to allow his gunners to strafe the warehouses and shipping. In mid-January he flew his 53rd and final sortie when he bombed Tripoli. He was just 20 and was awarded the DFC for his “great perseverance and tenacity”.
He returned to Britain and became an instructor on Dakotas at RAF Nutts Corner in Northern Ireland where he met Corporal Rachel Goodson, to whom he would be married for 66 years. In February 1944 he joined No 233 Squadron and began an intensive training period prior to the D-Day landings. After the war, Mackie flew Dakotas on worldwide routes before becoming a flying instructor.
This led to his appointment to the Examining Wing at the Central Flying School. He was assessed as an A 1 instructor, the highest qualification, and he and his team travelled widely assessing the standard of pilot instruction in the RAF and in Commonwealth air forces.
After attending Staff College he was posted to Singapore, where he enjoyed a stimulating appointment as a member of the Joint Intelligence Staff. Throughout his career, Mackie had a passion for flying and took every opportunity to fly during his ground appointments. In Singapore he often flew RAF aircraft at weekends on exercises to test the island’s air defences.
In early 1956 he returned to a flying appointment as the Wing Commander Flying at RAF Waddington, where he flew the Canberra bomber. In October 1957 he took command of the second squadron of Vulcan bombers to be formed, No 101 Squadron.
He found the four-engined bomber an exhilarating aircraft to fly (second only to the Spitfire in his opinion) and he travelled widely to demonstrate its capabilities including visits to Nigeria, Kenya, the Far East and Canada.
The Vulcans of No 101 Squadron formed part of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent, and Mackie and his crews were regularly tested in war procedures. Much as he loved to fly the aircraft, Mackie, an intellectual with an inquiring mind, began to have doubts about the validity of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent force, which he saw more as a tool for domestic politics rather than a viable threat to the Soviet Union. This view was reinforced during his next appointment when he served on the directing staff of the Joint Service Staff College.
After serving in Whitehall as the Deputy Secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee Secretariat, an appointment he disliked and where his contempt for the British nuclear weapon policy increased, he was appointed to command RAF Colerne near Bath, which housed two squadrons of Hastings long-range transport aircraft.
He flew regularly, including weekend sorties giving air experience to Air Training Corps cadets in Chipmunk aircraft. With the support of his wife, he made major improvements for the welfare of his people and oversaw a base modernisation programme. He was appointed CBE.
In April 1966 he moved to the MoD in the key appointment of Director of Air Staff Briefing, responsible for keeping the RAF’s chiefs fully briefed on key issues affecting policy and operational capabilities. He became increasingly frustrated by inter-service rivalry and the overt ambitions of some fellow officers of more modest ability. He was also disillusioned by defence policy – including the impending severe cuts masterminded by civil servants. So, in 1968, he decided to retire at the age of 45.
During his later service he completed an external degree course in Law. After retiring from the RAF he became the under treasurer of the Middle Temple and then the registrar of the Architects’ Registration Council. Later he was the director general of the Health Education Council.
Prompted by his Christian faith, his experience of war and his disillusion with national policy, he became a committed and active member of CND and later served as its vice president. 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.”
As one of the few surviving officers involved in D-Day, he was proud to join members of the 3rd Parachute Brigade Association during their annual pilgrimage to Normandy to honour the dead. The French Government awarded him the Legion d’Honneur.
Alastair Mackie’s wife Rachel predeceased him and their two sons survive him.
Air Commodore Alastair Mackie, born August 3 1922, died May 19 2018
Obituary originally published in The Telegraph, 11th June 2018