b. 21/12/1921 Glasgow, Scotland. d. 28/11/2001 Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland.
William Reid (1921-2001) was born at Baillieston, Glasgow, on December 12th 1921, the son of a blacksmith. He was educated at Swinton Primary School and Coatbridge Higher Grade School and studied metallurgy for a time, but then applied to join the RAF.
After training in Canada, he received his wings and was a sergeant when he was commissioned as a pilot officer on probation in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve on 19th June 1942. He then trained on twin-engined Airspeed Oxfords at Little Rissington before moving to the Operational Training Unit at RAF North Luffenham. There, his skill as a pilot led to his being selected as an instructor, flying the Vickers Wellington, albeit with the promise of a posting to a Avro Lancaster heavy bomber unit. He was promoted to flying officer on 19th December 1942.
The posting did not materialise until July 1943, when he was sent to 1654 Conversion Unit, RAF Wigsley, near Newark-on-Trent, where he flew his first operational mission as second pilot, in a Lancaster of 9 Squadron, in a raid on Mönchengladbach. In September he was posted to 61 Squadron at RAF Syerston, Newark, to commence Lancaster bombing operations, and flew seven sorties to various German cities before the raid on Düsseldorf.
On the night of November 3rd 1943, Reid was serving with 61 Squadron as captain of a Lancaster bomber on the way to Dusseldorf when it was attacked by a Messerschmitt 110 nightfighter as it crossed the Dutch coast. His windscreen was shattered, the plane’s gun turrets, steering mechanism and cockpit were badly damaged, and Reid himself sustained serious injuries to his head, shoulders and hands. The plane dived 200 ft before he managed to regain control.
Saying nothing about his injuries, Reid called his crew on the intercom for a damage report and proposed that they forge ahead regardless. As the Lancaster continued on its mission, it was soon attacked again, this time by a Focke-Wulf 190, which raked the plane with gunfire, killing Reid’s navigator, fatally wounding the wireless operator and knocking out the oxygen system. Reid sustained further injuries to his right arm, but still refused to turn from his target.
Sustained by bottled oxygen from a portable supply administered by his flight engineer, Sergeant J W Norris, Reid pressed on for another 50 minutes. He memorised the course to his target and continued in such a normal manner that the bomb aimer, cut off from the cockpit by the failure of the plane’s communications system, had no idea his captain was injured. After reaching Dusseldorf, he released his bombs right over the centre of the target – a ball bearing factory – then set course for home.
Semi-conscious at times, freezing cold because of his broken windscreen, and half blinded by blood from a head wound which kept streaming into his eyes, Reid, assisted by flight engineer Norris, somehow kept the plane in the air despite heavy anti-aircraft fire over the Dutch coast and the physical effort required to hold the control column steady. As they crossed the North Sea, all four engines cut out and the plane went into a spin. Luckily Norris remembered in the nick of time that he had forgotten to change over the petrol cocks to a full tank, and swiftly rectified the fault.
Eventually they managed to find their way home, taking their bearings from the Pole Star and the moon. As he came into land at Shipdham air base, Reid had to use an emergency pressure bottle to hand-pump the undercarriage down, and this exertion and the aircraft’s descent into warmer air reopened his wounds. As the Lancaster touched down, the undercarriage collapsed and the bomber skidded along the runway for 60 yards before coming to a halt.
After a period in hospital, Reid went to C Flight 617 (“Dambuster”) Squadron at Woodhall Spa in January 1944 and flew sorties to various targets in France. William Reid was invested with his Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on the 11th June 1944. In July 1944, 617 Squadron was linked with 9 Squadron for a “Tallboy” deep penetration bomb attack on a V-bomb storage dump at Rilly-la-Montagne, near Rheims. As Reid released his bomb over the target at 12,000 ft, he felt his aircraft shudder under the impact of a bomb dropped by another Lancaster 6,000 ft above. The bomb ploughed through his plane’s fuselage, severing all control cables and fatally weakening its structure, and Reid gave the order to bail out.
As members of his crew scrambled out, the plane went into a dive, pinning Reid to his seat. Reaching overhead, he managed to release the escape hatch panel and struggled out just as the Lancaster broke in two. He landed heavily by parachute, breaking his arm in the fall. Within an hour he was captured by a German patrol and taken prisoner. After various transfers, he ended the war in Luckenwalde PoW camp, west of Berlin.
Reid left the RAF in 1946 and resumed his studies, first at Glasgow University and later at the West of Scotland Agricultural College. After graduating, he went on a travelling scholarship for six months, studying agriculture in India, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada. In 1950, he became an agricultural adviser to the MacRobert Trust, Douneside. When he married Violet Gallagher in 1952, he did not tell her of his VC. She was, he confessed, “a wee bit impressed” when she found out. They went on to have a son and a daughter.
From 1959 to his retirement in 1981, he was an adviser to a firm of animal feed manufacturers. Reid took a deep interest in ex-servicemen’s associations; he was a member of the GC and VC Association and honorary vice-president of the Aircrew Association. He was president of the ACA’s Tay branch and its Scottish Saltire branch, and president of the Royal British Legion Scotland (Crieff) branch. He always made light of his wartime achievements: “I don’t think I was a hero,” he said; “I don’t think of myself as a brave man. We were young. All we wanted was to get our tour over and done with.”
Bill Reid passed away on 28th November 2001 in Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland, and was buried in Crieff Cemetery. In November 2009, Bill Reid’s medals were purchased at auction for a then record £335,000 to Melissa John, a Welsh collector, and they remain in private ownership.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: SOLD TO PRIVATE BIDDER AT AUCTION IN 2009.
BURIAL PLACE: CRIEFF CEMETERY, PERTHSHIRE, SCOTLAND.
Thomas Stewart – Images of the memorial plaque at Bailleston Library, and Reid’s name on the VC Arch in Hamilton, Scotland.
Stewart May – Image of the Reid VC Portrait at the Yorkshire Air Museum.