Bill Young. Flight engineer on RAF Liberator bombers in the Second World War. An appreciation

BILL Young, who has died aged 92, served with distinction as a flight engineer on RAF Liberator bombers in the Second World War, defying the odds by surviving 38 hazardous missions over enemy-occupied southern Europe.

He had originally been posted to Pathfinder Force, which had a survival rate of as little as three per cent, but instead was sent to 178 Squadron in September 1944, as one of many replacements to rebuild the squadron after withering losses from the Warsaw airlift.

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Based at RAF Amendola in Foggia, Italy, conditions were grim. Aircrews were given leaky tents and beds made of planking balanced on empty oil drums. Soaked clothing and blankets could not be dried and freezing winter temperatures forced them to sleep in their flying kit to keep warm.

Mr Young recalled: "Our wash-hand basin consisted of an upturned helmet filled with freezing water, making shaving a painful business. In short, we had no ablutions and worst of all, our latrines consisted of a hole in the ground." The traditional "flying breakfast" offered to UK aircrew of bacon and eggs was off-menu and they were fed bully beef, other tinned food and tea after operations.

On his third mission, one of the B24 Liberator's engines exploded and caught fire while it was fully loaded with bombs. "We were barely airborne and spent an anxious 40 minutes trying to maintain height, as I struggled along with our bomb aimer to jettison the unfused bomb load in fields clear of the airfield", he wrote. The B24 landed safely "with wheel brakes smoking".

In October 1944, the crew's target was a rail facility at Bronzola in northern Italy, where enemy supplies were being transported through the Brenner Pass. As they neared Ferrara, the navigator warned: "Watch out for fireworks" but at that instant, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire which shot away the bomb doors, together with six of the eight 1,000lb bombs in their racks.

As the B24 went into a steep dive to escape the searchlights, Mr Young gave a full and running account of the damage while struggling to extinguish a fire in the bomb bay. However, the encounter allowed the navigator to confirm their ground position and give a course to press on with the mission to drop their two remaining bombs, on target and at the expected time of arrival.

Other heavily defended objectives included Villach, Salonika, Szombathely, Verona, Pola and Sarajevo. Supply drops were made to partisan forces in Yugoslavia and northern Italy, with containers parachuted down at low level over narrow mountain passes onto targets marked by flares in predetermined letters or shapes. On one raid over Novi Pazar, the nose was hit by flak, missing the navigator by inches.

The squadron also mined the River Danube, helping reduce traffic by 75 per cent at the cost of 16 aircraft shot down, and offered close support to British forces advancing from the west and the Red Army coming from the east. Bombing and supply drops continued into 1945, concentrating on railways, bridges and roads in northern Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia, where an ammunition train was hit and exploded, causing heavy damage.

His final raid on the Villach rail marshalling yards in Austria was a tricky target set in a deep valley. The Liberator flying astern developed a fire in the port wing, spiralled to starboard and fell 2-3,000 feet before exploding, with no crew escaping. Mr Young later wrote: "We discovered later that they were good friends of ours also approaching the end of their tour, and were in friendly competition with us to reach a total well in excess of the required 30 operations. Our tour was finalised with a total of 38 missions on this very sad note."

William Young was born in Clyde Street, Carluke, Lanarkshire on August 24, 1924. The family moved to Symington then Braidwood, following his father's gardening work. He left school at 14 and worked for Marshall the Electrician on a four-year apprenticeship, volunteering for the RAF in March 1942, aged 17. He joined the Flight Engineer course in St Athan, south Wales, where he specialised in Halifax bombers, before volunteering for Pathfinder Force and being posted to 614 Squadron in Italy.

However, his crew flew to Algeria then Palestine, where they converted to Liberators, before joining 178 Squadron at Amendola, Italy. He returned from the war as a warrant officer in 1946, fluent in Italian. But Marshalls refused to give him his job back as he had volunteered for the RAF, rather than wait to be called up. In 1950, he married Betty Robertson from Wishaw, whom he had met on a blind date.

After a spell in the local tomato houses, he worked for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at Winston Barracks in Lanark, beside his father William, known as Wullie. He was passed over for a foreman's job, due to never having finished his apprenticeship, but joined Hoover as a service engineer in the late 1950s, working on vacuum cleaners and washing machines.

Laid off in the early 1960s, he opened a shop in Market Place, Carluke, with two other ex-Hoover engineers, went solo in 1965 and continued in the appliance repair business until he retired in 1989 and his son Ian took over the business. But he found retirement mundane and continued to repair vacuum cleaners until he was 90. He was affectionately known locally as the Hoover Man, but few who encountered this small gentleman in collar and tie, wearing his trademark RAF blue dust coat, knew of his exploits in the war.

Mr Young was a stalwart of 498 (Wishaw) Squadron, Air Training Corps, from the 1950s, retiring as a flight lieutenant in the 1980s, having been commanding officer for more than 20 years. He was active all his life, being a member of the Probus Club for 24 years and driving up until his death. He was a proud member of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association, attending meetings regularly and contributing his own wartime experiences for SSAA archives.

He was predeceased by his wife of 64 years, Betty, and is survived by their sons Bill and Ian, and five grandchildren, Alan, Emily, Conrad, Lewis and Mark.

CAMPBELL THOMAS