Flight Lieutenant William Reid VC

William Reid was born in Baillieston in Glasgow on 21 December 1921, the son of a blacksmith. He attended Swinton Primary and Coatbridge Secondary School. After training with the RAF in Canada, Reid gained his wings and was commissioned on 19 June 1942 as a pilot officer on probation in the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR). At RAF Little Rissington, west of Cheltenham, he trained on twin-engine Airspeed Oxfords. Moving on to the Operational Training Unit (OTU) No. 29 at RAF North Luffenham, he was selected as an instructor flying Vickers Wellingtons. He was promoted to flying officer on 19 December 1942.

His first operational mission was with RAF 1654 Conversion Unit at RAF Wigsley, he flew as second pilot in an Avro Lancaster belonging to RAF 9 Squadron to bomb Mönchengladbach. In September 1943, he was posted to RAF 61 Squadron at RAF Syerston where he flew seven sorties attacking various German cities, before his famous raid on Düsseldorf.

At the age of 22 Reid was awarded the Victoria Cross following a raid on Düsseldorf on 3 November 1943: the front of his cockpit was shot away just after crossing the Dutch coast. He was injured in the head, shoulders, and hands, in a fight with a Messerschmitt BF 110. The rear gunner could not fire as the heating circuit had failed, and his hands were too cold to press the trigger or operate his microphone to give warning. After a short delay he managed to return fire and the Messerschmitt was driven off.

A second fighter then attacked his RAF 51 Squadron Avro Lancaster, ‘O for Oboe’, the navigator was killed, the wireless operator was fatally wounded, and the flight engineer although injured in the arm gave Reid oxygen and assistance. The rear turret was badly damaged, the communications system and the compasses were put out of action. The windscreen was shattered, and blood was flowing down his face and Reid could feel the taste of it in his mouth. It soon froze because of the intense cold. Reid revived sufficiently to give the thumbs-up’ sign and carry on with the mission and they managed to accurately bomb the target and return to base.

Image -VICTORIA CROSS WINNERS: 1939-1945. (CHP 794) Portrait of William Reid RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: Germany, 3 November 1940. Copyright: © IWM.

Reid had memorised the course to the target and could therefore carry on with the mission without the compasses, Düsseldorf was still some 50 minutes away. After dropping the plane’s bomb load, Reid flew back as best he could, navigating by the stars and the moon. The elevators trimming tabs had been shot away making control difficult, they had to always hold the stick with both hands, with the help of the engineer and the bomb aimer who was called on to help. The exertion started Reid’s head bleeding again. They kept the Lancaster going and got through despite being caught in searchlights and heavy anti-aircraft fire over The Netherlands coast. At times Reid lapsed into semi-consciousness. (The flight engineer, Sergeant J Norris was later awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.)

Reid stated that: ‘Then I saw a drome beneath us. I flashed the distress signal with the landing lamp. Just as we touched down the undercarriage collapsed. It had been shot through and we went on our tummy for about 50 yards. No one was hurt in the crash’.

Convalescing in hospital, Reid recounted his experience: ‘I just saw a blinding flash, and I lost about 2,000 feet before I could pull out again. I felt as if my head had been blown off – just the sort of feeling you get at the time. Other members of the crew shouted: ‘Are you alright?’ I felt alright. I resumed course and managed to get my goggles on. My shoulder was a bit stiff, and it felt as if someone had hit me with a hammer’.

From the Operations Record Book of 61 Squadron, November 1943:

3/4th, Lancaster LM 360

F/L. W. Reid. Captain, Sgt J. W. Norris, Flt. Eng., F/S J. S. Jeffries. Nav., Sgt. L. G. Rolton. A.B., F/S. J. J. Mann. WT/AG., F/S. S. G. Baldwin. A.G.1., F/S. A.F. Emerson. A.G.2.

Up Time 16.59, Down Time 22.01

F/L Reid was attacked by enemy night fighters on the way out, but although he and Flight Engineer were wounded, and the Navigator killed outright he proceeded on to bomb the target. On returning a crash landing was made at RAF Shipman. (USAAF operated air base in Norfolk.)

Lena, Reid’s mother, was busy feeding the children at Baillieston School when a reporter walked in and asked her for some details about her son. She asked: Why, what’s he done? I knew about my son’s bomber being badly damaged on one trip, but I never guessed this would be the result’. This was the first she had heard that he had won the VC: ‘When I saw him in hospital after he was wounded, he did not want to tell me anything about the raid’. At that time, Helena Murdoch Reid, 97 Swinton Crescent, Baillieston, had lost her husband, William, and in July 1940 her eldest son, Sergeant George Reid, 28, air gunner with RAF 15 Squadron had been shot down over Belgium.

Reid was visited in hospital by Air Vice Marshal Cochrane, who asked him why he didn’t turn back. Reid said that he thought it safer to go on rather than turning back among all the other planes all flying in the same direction. Cochrane then added: ‘It’s as if they all said, “That bugger, Jock, he went on even though he was badly wounded, so we can’t turn back just because of a faulty altimeter, or something like that’.

In July of the following year, 1944, Reid was shot down and captured whilst bombing a V-1 rocket site at Rilly-la-Montagnes, near Reims, France. He had been posted to the second flight of RAF 617 Squadron, the famous ‘Dambusters’. They had just released a massive ‘Tallboy’ earthquake bomb at 12,000 feet when they were struck by bombs from an aircraft above them. The bomb ploughed through his aeroplane’s fuselage, severing all the control cables, and weakening its structure. Reid gave the order to bail-out and later recalled his Lancaster going into a spin. He was pinned to his seat but managed to reach overhead and release the escape hatch panel. He then recalled being outside the aircraft with the wireless operator, the two of them being the only survivors. Bill landed heavily by parachute, breaking one of his arms in the fall. Within an hour they were made prisoners of war, eventually ending up in Stalag Luft III at Luckenwalde, southwest of Berlin. He was released after ten months by Soviet troops, whilst they were on a forced march to a new pow camp.

From the Operations Record Book of RAF 617 Squadron:

Woodhall Spa. 31 July 1944

16 Lancaster’s and 2 Mosquito aircraft were detailed for operations. All aircraft took off successfully, the target being a railway tunnel at Rilly-la-Montagne. The operation was successful, several bombs being seen to burst close to the aiming point. “S” (P/L. Reid) bail out, but it could not be confirmed that they were members of his crew, which consisted of F/L. Reid V.C. (124438) (Pilot), 909536 F/Sgt. Stewart D.G.W. (F/Eng), F/O. J.O. Peltier (J.17546) (Nav), P/O L.G. Rolton (171066) (A/B.), F/O D. Luker (134635?) (W/Op), Holt A.A. (M.U.) and 1378696 W/O. Hutton J.W. (R.G.). The weather at base was cloudy with poor visibility at first, becoming moderate. Fair early, in evening, becoming cloudy.

RAF 617 Operations Summary.

During the month 107 operational sorties were despatched, comprising 234 hrs. 45 mins operational day flying and 129 hrs. 35 mins night operational flying. Of these, 1 aircraft was lost and 29 failed to complete missions. A total of 256 hrs. 25 mins flying day was carried out on training. A total of 431.5 tons of bombs was dropped operationally.

Holt A A was Flight Sergeant Albert Arthur Holt (1159886). F/O D. Luker is not listed as being killed and may have survived. The crew who died are buried at Clichy Northern Cemetery, just north of the city of Paris, 150 km to the west.

In a postcard to his mother in Baillieston, Reid wrote: ‘Again I tell you not to worry about me, mother, and you had better have another holiday. It will do no good moping about me’.

After the war, Reid was an agricultural degree student at Glasgow University, Then in Hertfordshire; he was the national cattle and sheep adviser to the Spillers company; later director of MacRobert Farms (Douneside) Ltd., and eventually manager of Douneside Group Farms, Tarland. In 1987, he was one of the successful applicants for the Freedom of the City of London. Reid was president of the British Legion in Crieff and honorary life president of the Air Crew Association. Coatbridge Secondary School affectionately referred to Wiliam Reid as ‘Weelum or Whelam’. A second brother of Reid was killed during the war.

Reid and his wife Violet retired to Crieff for the last 20 years of his life. He passed away on 28 November 2001 aged 79 and is buried in the Ford Road Cemetery, Crieff. The couple had a son Graeme and a daughter Susan. Violet died on 25 September 2019.

Bill Reid always claimed that he had done no more than his duty. He was well known as a modest, kindly, family man. His wife Violet Gallagher was unaware that he was a VC holder until they were married in 1952, she was, he confessed, “a wee bit impressed”. Bill’s VC was sold at auction in London in November 2009 for £348.000.

With precision timing, four Tornado aircraft of Reid’s famous 617 Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth approached at low level at 1.30 pm over Crieff, overflying the church in diamond formation. Precisely as they passed over the church, the rearmost aircraft peeled off into a vertical climb and powered upwards into the clouds, the ‘Missing Man’ formation.

Act Flt Lt William REID RAFVR

“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 no. 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.”

Medal entitlement of Flight Lieutenant William Reid, 61 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve:

Victoria Cross

1939-45 Star

Air Crew Europe Star – clasp: ‘France & Germany’

War Medal (1939-45)

Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953)

Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal (1977)

NOTES: Battle of Britain pilot, Flying Officer Donald Ballantine Hardy McHardy, a friend of Reid was also in Stalag Luft III with him. McHardy helped dig that camp’s famous escape tunnels and was due to be in the second batch of escapees. This attempt was abandoned after 50 of the first batch were murdered by the Gestapo.

RAF 617 Squadron at the time of Reid’s VC was led by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, who would later also win the VC to add to his DSO and DFC. Reid was invested with his VC by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on 11 June 1944.

(Audio Recording with The Imperial war Museum below.)

Research by Ken Bruce

VICTORIA CROSS WINNERS: 1939-1945. (CHP 794) Portrait of William Reid RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: Germany, 3 November 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205069953

SQUADRON CRESTS AND MOTTOES OF THE R.A.F. (CH 9183) Original wartime caption: The following are crests and mottoes of various R.A.F. squadrons. (Picture issued 1943). No. LXI [61] Squadron ‘PER PURUM TONANTES’ ‘Thundering through the Clear Air’. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205449002

Aberdeen Press and Journal 3 August 1950

Illustrated London News 25 December 1943

DAILY LIFE IN STALAG LUFT III IN SAGAN, MARCH 1942-JANUARY 1945 (HU 21030) A panoramic view of Stalag Luft III, Sagan. In the middle foreground there is a group of POWs playing volleyball with a line of laundry behind them. Around entrances to the huts POWs can be seen doing their daily tasks and resting. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205184726



Creator -IWM (Production company)
Wood, Conrad (recorder)
Reid, William (interviewee/speaker)
Production date- 1981-07-06

Object description

British officer served as pilot with 61 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 1943 including award of Victoria Cross, 3/11/1943; served with 617 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 1/1944-7/1944; POW in Stalag Luft III, Belaria and Stalag III-A, Luckenwalde, Germany, 8/1944-4/1945

REEL 1 Aspects of enlistment and training with RAF in RAF in GB and US, 1941: reasons for enlistment, 1941; pattern of training as pilot with RAF in GB and US; conversion to Avro Lancaster. Story of winning Victoria Cross whilst flying with 61 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command during raid on Dusseldorf, Germany, 3/11/1943. Aspects of operations as pilot with 617 Sqdn, No 5 Group, Bomber Command, RAF in GB, 1/1944-7/1944: posting to squadron, 1/1944; composition of crew; bombing of tunnels containing V2 rockets at Rilly-la-Montagne, France, 7/1944; damage to aircraft and bailing out, 31/7/1944; nature of wounds and capture; fate of his crew. Recollections of period as POW in Stalag Luft III, Belaria and Stalag III A, Luckenwalde, Germany, 8/1944-4/1945: initial interrogation and removal to Brussels, Belgium; interrogation in Dulag Luft, Oberursel.

REEL 2 Continues: removal to satellite camp of Stalag Luft III at Belaria; morale of POWs; rations; German knowledge of his Victoria Cross; use of illicit wireless sets; mixing of old and new prisoners; removal to Stalag III A, Luckenwalde; contrast between camps at Stalag III-A, Luckenwalde and Stalag Luft III, Beleria; fear of being used as hostages; bartering with German civilians; desertion of guards on approach of Soviet Army; arrival of Soviet Army; Russian accounting for POWs; debriefing on return to GB; relations between POWs.