Flt. Lt. William ‘Bill’ Reid VC 61 Squadron, RAF Syerston

In 1942 Air Ministry Directive S.46368/D.C.A.S. turned Bomber Command’s focus to the morale of the German population and in particular its industrial workforce. Bomber Command now turned to strategic bombing, a controversial campaign that was debated for many years after, it was seen as a way to destroy the enemy’s industrial output, by attacking the very workforce that produced it.

William Reid VC.jpg

Flt. Lt. Bill Reid VC (IWM CHP 794)

But as loses had mounted, Bomber Command had been forced to fly at night, a task that was almost impossible to satisfactorily achieve for most bomber crews who had been trained to bomb in daylight. Indeed, only some 3 in every 100 bombers were hitting within 5 miles of the aiming point at the start of the campaign.

Harris himself knew that hitting a single target consistently, at night was impossible, and so there was little choice seen other than the controversial bombing campaign.

On one of these raids, on the night of 3rd/4th November 1943, Bomber Command sent a large raid of almost 600 aircraft to Germany. In that raid was Acting Flight Lieutenant William (Bill) Reid, a Scot born in Baillieston, Glasgow, and the son of a Blacksmith .

Reid performed his duties that night in a manner that would see him earn the Victoria Cross, the highest honour possible, for taking his damaged Lancaster to the heart of Dussledorf and bombing the target even though he himself and his Flight Engineer were wounded; the navigator killed and the aircraft severely damaged and so difficult to fly.

That evening, eleven Lancasters from 61 Squadron, RAF Syserton, took off on a mission to bomb Dusseldorf. Reid’s aircraft, Lancaster LM360 was second to depart taking off at 16:59. On board with Flt. Lt. William (Bill) Reid were: Sgt. J. Norris (Flt Eng); Flt. Sgt. J. Jeffries (Nav); Sgt T. Rolton (Bomb Aimer); Flt. Sgt. J. Mann (WT/ Air Gunner); Flt. Sgt. S. Baldwin (Air Gunner) and Flt. Sgt. A. Emerson (Air Gunner).

As the aircraft crossed the Dutch coast there was a terrific bang outside the aircraft  which resulted in the windscreen being shattered and partially blown out. Reid was wounded in the head, shoulders and hands, and the plane temporarily went out of control. Flak continued to burst all around the Lancaster with one further burst injuring the Flight Engineer, who was next to read, and causing further injuries to Reid himself. The port elevator had been shot away and to compensate, Reid had to pull the stick fully back just to keep the plane straight and level. Between Reid and the Flight Engineer, they maintained level flight as part of the formation of almost 600 aircraft across an 8 to 10 mile span of up to 6000 feet deep – the option of turning back was not a viable one.

Keeping the plane straight and level, Reid watched the target indicators. The bombs were dropped and the photographic evidence taken. Turning the aircraft away, the Lancaster headed for home. Reid knew that he was the only one who could fly the aircraft and even with with no elevator, virtually no instruments and at night, he was determined to make it back safely. With further attacks from night fighters on the return trip, it was not an easy journey, but they eventually made it to England. Once over the English coast they looked for a suitable airfield to land, they came across the beacons at the American base at RAF Shipdham in Norfolk, and Reid put the aircraft down. Almost immediately, the legs of the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft hit the runway on its belly, sliding along for some 50 yards or so, before coming to a complete stop. At this point Reid realised the Navigator had died slumped in his seat behind him.

Reid, severely injured, had managed to fly the badly damaged aircraft, without oxygen and with wounded on board, for many hours from deep inside Germany, the actions of which earned the 22-year-old acting Flight Lieutenant the Victoria Cross.

His citation in the Third Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 14th December 1943 covered an entire page and read:

Air Ministry, 14th December, 1943.

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Acting Flight Lieutenant William REID (124438), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 61 Squadron.

On the night of November 3rd, 1943, Flight Lieutenant Reid was pilot and captain of a Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack Dusseldorf.

Shortly after crossing the Dutch coast, the pilot’s windscreen was shattered by fire from a Messerschmitt 110. Owing to a failure in the heating circuit, the rear gunner’s hands were too cold for him to open fire immediately or to operate his microphone and so give warning of danger; but after a brief delay he managed to return the Messerschmitt’s fire and it was driven off.

During the fight with the Messerschmitt, Flight Lieutenant Reid was wounded in the head, shoulders and hands. The elevator trimming tabs of the aircraft were damaged and it became difficult to control. The rear turret, too, was badly damaged and the communications system and compasses were put out of action. Flight Lieutenant Reid ascertained that his crew were unscathed and, saying nothing about his own injuries,
he continued his mission.

Soon afterwards, the Lancaster was attacked by a Focke Wulf 190. This time, the enemy’s fire raked the bomber from stem to stern. The rear gunner replied with his only serviceable gun but the state of his turret made accurate aiming impossible. The navigator was killed and the wireless operator fatally injured. The mid-upper turret was hit and the oxygen system put out of action. Flight Lieutenant Reid was again wounded and the flight engineer, though hit in the forearm, supplied him with oxygen from a portable supply.

Flight Lieutenant Reid refused to be turned from his objective and Dusseldorf was reached some 50 minutes later. He had memorised his course to the target and had continued in such a normal manner that the bomb-aimer, who was cut off by the failure of the communications system, knew nothing of his captain’s injuries or of the casualties to his comrades. Photographs show that, when the bombs were released, the aircraft was right over the centre of the target.

Steering by the pole star and the moon, Flight Lieutenant Reid then set course for home. He was growing weak from loss of blood. The emergency oxygen supply had given out. With the windscreen shattered, the cold was intense. He lapsed into semi-consciousness. The flight engineer, with some help from the bomb-aimer, kept the
Lancaster in the air despite heavy anti-aircraft fire over the Dutch coast.

The North Sea crossing was accomplished. An airfield was sighted. The captain revived, resumed control and made ready to land. Ground mist partially obscured the runway lights. The captain was also much bothered by blood from his head wound getting into his eyes. But he made a safe landing although one leg of the damaged undercarriage collapsed when the load came on.

Wounded in two attacks, without oxygen, suffering severely from cold, his navigator dead, his wireless operator fatally wounded, his aircraft crippled and defenceless,  Flight Lieutenant Reid showed superb courage and leadership in penetrating a further 200  miles into enemy territory to attack one of the most strongly defended targets in Germany, every additional mile increasing the hazards of the long and perilous journey home. His tenacity and devotion to duty were beyond praise.

Reid would go on to fly in Bomber Command being transferred to the famous 617 Sqn at Woodhall Spa after his recovery. Here he would fly with Leonard Cheshire, another VC holder, on Tallboy missions, dropping the enormous weapon onto heavily fortified or deeply buried structures.

On 31st July 1944, sixteen Lancasters and two Mosquitoes of 617 Sqn were ordered to attack the V-1 site at Rily-la-Montage, a railway tunnel used by the Germans to store the pilot-less flying bombs ‘The Doodlebug’.  Here Flt. Lt. William ‘Bill’ Reid’s luck would finally run out.

He had managed so far to evade either death or capture, only to be struck down by bombs from one of his own. The Lancaster Mk.I (ME557) ‘KC-S’ he was flying with 617 Sqn, shuddered as allied bombs crashed through the Lancaster severing the control cables, fracturing the structure of the Lancaster’s body and removing one of the port engines. Uncontrollable, the aircraft then entered a spin. Reid gave the order to bail out, himself escaping through the hatch above his head. He landed heavily, breaking an arm in the process – an injury that would hinder his escape from his pursuers. Within an hour he was captured, interrogated and sent on to a POW camp. Reid and one other crewman, Flying Officer D. Luker, were the only two airmen to escape the stricken  Lancaster, the remaining five all being killed in the crash.

As the allied forces moved ever closer, the much admired Reid was moved from camp to camp, ending his war at Stalag III – a POW camp made famous by ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘The Wooden Horse’.

Back at the RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, he colleagues ‘mourned’ his capture by joking that he had escaped with all their money, money he had won in an early morning card game in the officers mess at the Petwood Hotel. *1.

Liberated in May 1945, Reid returned home and became well known in the agricultural business. He became great friends with the that other Scottish VC holder John Cruickshank a friendship that lasted a good many years.

Some time after moving to his new home in Crieff, Bill Reid sadly passed away; his death being announced  on November 28th 2001. He was buried in the local cemetery at Crieff.

Sources and Further Reading.

National Archives AIR 27/578/22
National Archives  AIR 27/2128/24
National Archives  AIR 27/2128/23

The Third Supplement of The London Gazette Publication date: 10th December 1943; Supplement: 36285 Page: 5435

World At War Series BBC narrated by Lawrence Olivier Episode 12

*1 Sweetman, J. “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004 pg 207

The Scotsman Newspaper website, 29th November 2001.

10 thoughts on “Flt. Lt. William ‘Bill’ Reid VC 61 Squadron, RAF Syerston

  1. A truly remarkable story and a truly remarkable man! I heard a little of him years ago, when I was reading about Leonard Cheshire at school. Talk about “Keep Calm and Carry On”! Perfect example of unbelievably courageous leadership. He deserved a Bar to his VC if you ask me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A powerful account of a very determined man, who would not easily turn aside from what he had been told to do. And the remaining members of the crew would have been just as determined, carrying on 200 more miles deeper into enemy territory.

    Liked by 2 people

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