First World War
Second World War
Second World War
> Overview > Connie Mark (née Macdonald) > Billy Strachan
Their own stories:
William Arthur Watkin Strachan was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 16 April 1921. He left school in December 1939, four months after the Second World War began. His ambition was to get to England, join the RAF and learn to fly.
With £2.10 in his pocket and a suitcase containing one change of clothes Billy Strachan arrived in England on a wet Saturday in March 1940. After twelve weeks of basic military training, he trained to be a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and became a Sergeant. In 1941 he joined a squadron of Wellington bombers, which made nightly raids over heavily defended German industrial cities.
When Billy had survived 30 operations, he was entitled to a job on the ground. But when asked what he wanted to do, he replied at once: "Retrain as a pilot!" Billy learned so fast that he was allowed to fly solo after only seven hours' training. He loved playing tricks, joyriding and paying unauthorised visits to friends on airfields all over England. He had several narrow escapes.
"I suppose we had the over-confidence of youth. We never thought it would happen to us. As a crew, we did everything together. At the end of a raid we came back, had parties, checked up to see who were lost and heartlessly said things like: "Oh, I'll have his girlfriend, or his bike, if he isn't coming back."
At Cranwell Billy had his first batman, a man who had been batman to King George VI. Billy described him as a 'real smooth Jeeves type':
"I was a little coloured boy from the Caribbean and I instinctively called him 'Sir' ". "No, Sir," he hastily corrected, "It is I who call you 'Sir'."
Asked how he dealt with racial remarks and prejudice in the war, Billy answered:
"It was there, all right. But my own experience, together with that of most of my colleagues, showed that whenever one [black person] arrived anywhere, he was always welcomed and treated well. Two, they coped with. It was when three or more came that racism really got sharp. When you arrived anywhere as a black man you were treated like a teddy bear. You were loved and fêted. I know that some of us fared badly. But I had no problems in that respect."
In 1942 Billy Strachan became a bomber pilot. Pilot Officer Strachan was famous for his hair-raising but clever way of escaping German fighters. "The trick," he explained, "was to wait until the enemy was right on your tail and, at the last minute, cut the engine, sending your lumbering Lancaster into a plunging dive, letting the fighter overshoot harmlessly above."
Billy Strachan gained two more promotions to become Flying Officer and then Flight Lieutenant. But on his fifteenth trip as a bomber pilot his nerve snapped:
"I remember so clearly. I was carrying a 12,000 pound (6,000 kilogram) bomb destined for some German shipping. We were stationed in Lincolnshire and our flight path was over Lincoln Cathedral. It was a foggy night, with visibility about 100 yards (90 metres). I asked my engineer, who stood beside me, to make sure we were on course to get over the top of the cathedral tower. He replied: "We've just passed it." I looked out and suddenly realised that it was just beyond our wingtips, to the side. This was the last straw. It was sheer luck. I hadn't seen it at all – and I was the pilot! There and then my nerve went. I knew I simply couldn't go on – that this was the end of me as a pilot! I flew to a special 'hole' we had in the North Sea, which no allied shipping ever went near, and dropped my 'big one'. Then I flew back to the airfield."