It might be thought ghoulishly unseemly the way I tuck into newspaper obituaries with such relish. But it’s not to revel in another’s passing, but to share in the admiration of some dashing boys own (for it is usually boys) true tales of derring do. The (London) Telegraph is particularly rich in these stories.
But here’s one I spotted on the Press Association news service. It’s a great vivid story of a life. And I noticed three things we had in common – city of birth, a school and his tendency to feign madness while in enemy hands. That ruse appeared attractive to me at trying moments during a difficult day.
So here’s the obit:
ASHES OF BATTLE OF BRITAIN ACE SCATTERED
By Ian Graham, Press Association.
The ashes of Battle of Britain ace Wing Commander Ken Mackenzie, DFC were scattered today during a poignant ceremony attended by family and friends. Born in Belfast in 1916 the dashing airman who became known as Mad Mac was the last surviving Northern Ireland RAF pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain. He died in June at the age of 92. In tribute to one of the last of “The Few” an RAF Harrier mounted a flypast as the ashes were scattered on Lower Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh. It was piloted by Wing Commander Harvey Smyth from Co Armagh – who also holds the Distinguished Flying Cross – and has just returned from duty in Afghanistan. Wing Commander Mackenzie was credited with destroying at least seven enemy fighters during the Battle of Britain – one of them by ramming it after he had run out of ammunition – and all within three weeks of joining his squadron . Later as a POW he was involved in numerous escape attempts and after being transferred to Stalag Luft III at Sagan feigned madness and developed a stammer for the purpose, a stammer he never lost. Educated at Methodist College Belfast and the city’s Queen University where he studied for an engineering degree, he gained his pilot’s licence at the North of Ireland Aero Club at the age of 16 and joined the RAFVR as an airman pilot in 1939. He arrived at 501 Squadron early in October 1940 and shot down his first Messerschmitt within days. On October 7 he shared in the destruction of another over London docks and then went after a second. When he ran out of ammunition he used the starboard wing tip of his Hurricane to snap off the tailplane of the enemy aircraft sending it diving into the sea. His own plane was damaged and he was eventually forced to make a belly landing in a field near Folkestone. By the summer of 1941 he was a flight commander based in Cornwall and shot down two enemy bombers before himself being forced to bail out over the sea during an offensive over France in the autumn of 1941. He managed to get ashore but was captured by a German patrol. On his way to a POW camp he gave his guards the slip on a crowded Paris railway station but was later recaptured and moved to a POW camp in Germany where he joined numerous escape attempts. After his lengthy spell of feigning madness he was repatriated to England in October 1944 and became an instructor on fighters before being promoted to command the Meteor fighter wing at Stradishall in Suffolk. He went on to serve in the Middle East and Persian Gulf and was serving in Kenya when Ian Smith declared UDI in Southern Rhodesia. The following year he joined a major airlift of fuel in Zambia which led to him being invited to join the newly-independent Zambian Air Force as deputy commander, a post he retaining until 1970. He went on to run Air Kenya in Nairobi as managing director until his retirement in 1973 when he moved to Cyprus. During the 1960s be became deeply involved in motor racing , winning the 1963 Tourists’ Trophy Race at Goodwood. He returned to the UK in 2000 and is survived by his third wife, Margaret and daughter from his first marriage. end
*** Now, there are many ways to excel in life, to do good, to exert a positive influence on the lives of the people around you. Bright lights and dazzling adventure are a poor substitute for good friends and a loving family. And the achievements of charismatic teachers, social reformers or any sort of carer are truly significant and worthwhile.
But what can compare to the magnificence of these men and women of wartime? Sometime soon their obituaries will cease, and the world will have lost some of its vivid dash and vigour. And that’ll be that.
Except that we’re sadly managing to keep war on simmer here and there, to ensure a future stream of death defying death-dealing battle tales in obits for years to come.