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Jack Holmes

RAF pilot.

Born: June 30, 1917; Died 31 December, 2013.

Air Commodore Jack Holmes, who has died aged 96, was a war-time pilot who, despite the most exacting weather conditions and rough sea, landed his Catalina flying boat mid-Atlantic and rescued eight airmen who had been shot down north of the Shetland Islands. His piloting skills were extraordinary and his courage of the highest order.

On June 11 1943, a Coastal Command Fortress aircraft attacked and destroyed a German U-Boat 250 miles north of the Shetland Islands. The Germans engaged the aircraft and, consequently, the engines of the bomber were severely damaged and the captain, Wing Commander R Thompson, was forced to ditch.

The eight-man crew scrambled into a dinghy as the Fortress sank and a search aircraft located them eight hours later. A US Navy aircraft attempted a landing but the swell on the sea proved too heavy and the plane crashed. For the next three days, the men floated in the dinghy. At first light on the third morning, Air Commodore Holmes flew over the area.

Recognising the plight that the crew was in, Air Commodore Holmes flew two dummy runs and then landed 400 yards from the dinghy. He cut the engines and drifted towards the survivors. The eight men were hauled on board. Air Commodore Holmes well understood the dangers in taking off with such a heavy load and jettisoned 700 gallons of fuel.

The procedure took over an hour and a half and a large wave struck the plane face on and almost catapulted it on its side. Air Commodore Holmes somehow managed to keep control of the plane's engines as he attempted a take-off and slowly gained height. Short of fuel, he headed for Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, where the eight survivors were taken to hospital and all, remarkably after such an ordeal, were deemed fit.

It was an amazing demonstration of expert airmanship and Air Commodore Holmes' calm and dedicated manner proved vital to the success of the mission. The official RAF report praised his "fine judgment, superb airmanship and great determination", and shortly afterwards he was awarded an Immediate Bar to the DFC he had earned earlier in the war.

Jack Albert Holmes was born in Norwich and educated at Notre Dame School in the city. He joined the RAF, passing out near the top of his entry and awarded a cadetship to the RAF College, Cranwell, in 1938. The following year, he was posted to Sullom Voe. It was an important strategic station; indeed, Sullom Voe had experienced the first bombing raid in the UK in 1939.

He then flew extensive patrols over the North Sea and the Atlantic and escorted convoy patrols. The Catalinas, an aircraft with a far longer air time, were despatched to the Shetlands in 1941 and Air Commodore Holmes was seconded to be an instructor on the planes. Within a year, however, he was fully operational again and patrolling the Arctic Ocean with the Catalinas.

Escorting the convoys on the Atlantic and the North Sea was a perilous undertaking. Not only were the weather conditions demanding, the entire area had enemy battle ships and U-Boats patrolling the seas. Air Commodore Holmes, with his exceptional experience of flying under challenging conditions, proved an outstanding commander and an encouraging leader of the flight crew.

After successfully carrying out the rescue in the Atlantic, he was promoted to squadron leader and spent the rest of war in the Air Ministry and later became a flying instructor. He was stationed in Rhodesia, then, in 1956, in Germany where he commanded No 88 Squadron, equipped with Canberra bombers.

In 1962, he was appointed air attache in Athens, where he represented the British military at the state funeral of King Paul. The Greek government appointed him a Commander of the Royal Order of the Phoenix. His last appointment was at the RAF's College of Air Warfare.

He retired in 1967 and joined Marconi as a senior consultant in their aviation and international sales division.

Air Commodore Holmes retained a keen interest in sport in his retirement - in his youth at Cranwell he had represented the school at football, athletics and boxing - and also became an enthusiastic sailor and landscape artist. He much enjoyed walking the area around Leigh-on-Sea in Essex where he and his wife had retired.

In 1952, he married Babette, a South African. She died in 2012, and he is survived by their three daughters. A son predeceased him.

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