Wartime pilot and air traffic controller

Wartime pilot and air traffic controller

Born: January 7, 1923; Died: May 27, 2014

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Ron Holton, who has died aged 91, was an RAF bomber pilot who helped sink a notorious enemy submarine the day after his 21st birthday, saving his badly-damaged aircraft and the lives of his crew in the process.

Holton had earlier made a forced landing in the Sahara after his plane was sabotaged. He was rescued miraculously after three days, but the des-troyer that picked him up was later torpedoed with the loss of nearly 200 lives.

He was based at Blida, south of Algiers, in January 1944, recovering from a "horrendous hangover" following his milestone birthday when he was tasked that night with seeking out and destroying a German U-boat that had sunk a US troopship in the Mediterranean, with enormous casualties.

His own account of what followed was compelling. The wireless operator/air gunner of his Wellington bomber picked up a signal from another aircraft suggesting the sub had been found, but nothing more was heard.

Holton recalled: "I noticed flames on the water to our left, obviously the remains of the first aircraft, then I saw the sub on the surface only about a mile off the Spanish coast, going like the clappers and making a tremendous fluorescent wake.

"I opened the bomb doors, primed the first stick of four depth charges and gave a running commentary to the crew, warning Ricky, our rear gunner, to be ready to spray the whole length of the sub as we passed over.

"Their crew must have seen us because a tremendous barrage was sent up against us. It seemed there were several Bofors guns firing as well as machine gun tracers and I knew it was impossible to get through all that flak without getting hit."

Holton straddled the U-boat with depth charges while "Ricky's guns opened up, filling our craft with the familiar and unmistakable stink of burnt cordite. I realised we could not avoid flying over (neutral) Spanish territory and I had lost the port engine. I could see rocks and trees flashing past below us - far too close -and at any second expected to hit the hillside."

Flying on one engine, he jettisoned the remaining depth charges at sea "to avoid a diplomatic incident", witnessed another Wellington finishing off the sub, then made it to an aerodrome where the badly wounded rear gunner was taken to hospital.

Holton wrote: "After everything that night, I suddenly realised that my hangover had disappeared."

Another drama occurred on an earlier mission to India in 1942 when, forced into a lengthy diversion due to the German occupation of North Africa, both engines faltered and lost power at 4,000ft over the western Sahara, while fabric began peeling off the port wing.

It later emerged the fuel had been contaminated, corrosive acid poured on the wing and radio damaged in a mystery act of sabotage. SOS signals were transmitted with no reply.

Holton recalled: "As we were flanked on both sides by hostile Franco territory, with the Canaries on our right and Spanish Rio de Oro on our left, capture or death seemed inevitable."

He made a forced landing on the mainland and the crew spent the next three days making emergency repairs and sending distress signals until the batteries were exhausted. They cleared a strip of rocks heading towards the cliffs "with the rather suicidal hope of getting airborne before plunging into the sea."

However, just before they attempted a take-off, the Royal Navy destroyer Laforey appeared in the distance.

Holton thought it was a sun-induced illusion, but the battleship Nelson, then operating in the South Atlantic, had picked up their faint signal and relayed it to Simonstown in South Africa, which passed it on to the nearest warship with instructions to search the coastline for a downed Wellington.

They torched the aircraft and were taken aboard and given traditional naval hospitality, including tots of rum, runs ashore in Gibraltar and an escort back to the UK. When he heard later of Laforey's loss in a kamikaze-style U-boat attack, he recalled: "They had taken us to their hearts. It seemed difficult to believe that now probably all those friendly faces were lying in many fathoms of water."

Holton was no stranger to tragedy. Aged 18 and a flight cadet at the RAF College, Cranwell, in 1941, he was delighted his best friend from initial training, Aubrey Griffin, was also there.

But the other youngster, an only child, grew troubled and asked Holton to promise to phone his parents if anything happened to him, rather than have them wait for the telegram.

Holton tried to reassure him, but recalled: "From that moment he changed from a cheerful, happy-go-lucky chap to someone with something on his mind."

Soon after, rumours circulated that a cadet had been killed.

Holton approached Aubrey's flight commander who confirmed he had died in a collision with a Spitfire.

He made the dreaded call to Aubrey's father, an Oxford don who arrived with a hearse and sought out Holton to thank him. Fifty years later, he was reading the famous and moving aviator's poem, High Flight, when he discovered the US author, Pilot Officer John Magee, 19, had died the same day and in the same location as Aubrey.

"I raced to my log books - yes, it was Magee's Spitfire that had killed my friend."

Ronald Nelson Holton was born a true Cockney in Bermondsey, London, and grew up amid the poverty of the 1930s depression.

He left school at 13 to bring some money into the family. At 14 he joined the Air Defence Cadets while attending night school to complete his education, gaining his glider pilot's wings aged 16. Although his mother and sisters were evacuated, he and his father remained in London throughout the Blitz, wit-nessing many distressing sights.

He graduated in the top six at Cranwell, but was told such skill marked him out as an instructor; something he had not signed up for. His principled stand led to the withholding of his commission, although it was later granted in the field.

He served in India, Burma, Italy and Sicily, ending the war as an instructor but happy in the knowledge that he had used up all his nine lives on active service. He also met his wife Margaret, then serving as a Land Girl.

He became an air traffic controller, working at Heathrow, Prestwick and finally Edinburgh, where he was chief officer. He was also instrumental in bringing about the new control tower there. The job was stressful, and he relished family holidays with his three children on the West Coast.

Glad to finally put down roots after finding a cottage in Gifford, East Lothian, he immersed himself in local life and became a community councillor, helped set up the Gifford Society and, with his wife, became president and honorary lifetime president of Gifford Horticultural Society. The couple were also guides at Lennoxlove House for 20 years.

Holton was a proud and popular member of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association. He was predeceased by his wife and is survived by his children Diana, Sue and Michael, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.