Captain Gilbert Rae, OBE

By George Beattie

By the time he completed his apprenticeship, aged 21, Gilbert had enough flying experience, to immediately transfer to the pilot staff of Scottish Airways.  For the next two years, he flew light aircraft to the Western Isles.  Scottish Airways provided both scheduled passenger flights and an air ambulance service that would land on the grass runways and beaches of the outer islands. Dick Smith, who was brought up in Golfdrum Street, recalled that during the 1930s, Gilbert, on more than one occasion, landed a bi-plane in a field near Berrylaw, on the west side of William Street whilst visiting his parents at Baldridge. Captain Rae’s flying colleagues, when operating in the Fife area, used the factory chimney at Baldridge Works as a landmark, naming it, ‘Gibby’s chimney’.

Gilbert left Renfrew in 1940, to join the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC).  He spent most of that year training on the Flying Boats, DC3s and other aircraft used by BOAC.  By the end of 1940 he was serving as a First Officer on the Lisbon service.  Portugal and Sweden were neutral countries during the war but civilian flights to these countries were vulnerable to attack by German fighter aircraft.  The actor Leslie Howard was one of those killed when a flight from Lisbon was shot down.  The BOAC Lisbon service was sub-contracted to London based Dutch carrier KLM, with the condition that each flight crew should have one British member who would hold the BOAC codes for radio messages. 

In June, 1942, the newly promoted Captain Rae was transferred back home, to be based at R.A.F. Leuchars, near St. Andrews, and to fly the Stockholm route.  Sweden, although neutral, was at that time surrounded by German occupied territory.  The Leuchars/Stockholm flights carried newspapers, diplomats and government officials on the outward trip and brought high quality ball bearings back to Scotland.  The ball bearings, from the SKF factory in Gothenburg, were an essential element in keeping the British war machine ‘turning over’.  Known as the ‘ball bearing run’, the 800 mile flight from Stockholm to Leuchars took pilots over 250 miles of heavily defended German occupied land.  Space on board was limited and the few passengers were usually diplomats or POWs who had escaped to Sweden.  One of these passengers was the Physicist, Professor Neils Bohr who was smuggled out of Denmark into Sweden and then flown to Scotland.  Professor Bohr went on to America and was one of the scientists whose work resulted in the development of the atomic bomb.  At first a variety of different aircraft were used, mostly with Norwegian aircrews, on night-time flights.  Then in the summer of 1943 the Mosquito was introduced. 

The Mosquito was a converted bomber, which could fly so high and fast, that it was decided to attempt daylight flights to Stockholm.  The return flights from Sweden were particularly dangerous.  Anyone could observe flights taking off from Stockholm Airport and then simply telephone German fighter bases in Norway.  In the first few weeks of daylight flights, Gilbert’s plane was subjected to two attacks, either of which could have resulted in disaster. 

For his work on the Stockholm route, Gilbert was awarded the OBE and his radio officer, James ‘Pops’ Payne, the MBE.  They received their awards at Buckingham Palace in February, 1944. Gilbert’s citation read; “Captain Rae had shown courage of a high order over an extended period in flying unarmed aircraft on civilian war-time service between the United Kingdom and Stockholm”.  Although he continued on this route, it appears that on some occasions Gilbert also flew elsewhere. 

In November, 1943, he was the pilot of a Dakota flying out of Gibralter.  A problem in the fuel system caused first one and then the other engine to fail.  Gilbert was able to fly his plane towards the Portuguese coast and land on a beach.  After running repairs, local villagers helped to use timber planking from a nearby fisherman’s hut to make a 150ft runway over the sand.  Gilbert was then able to take off and fly on to Lisbon. 

On what would have been one of his last flights back from Stockholm, Gilbert’s Mosquito was within sight of the airport at Leuchars when it crashed into the North Sea.  

BOAC later wrote to his father….”Mosquito aircraft, G-AGKP, left Bromma airport, Stockholm, at 23.16hrs GMT on the night of 18 August 1944 to fly to Scotland.  The crew consisted of your son and Radio Officer D.T. Roberts.  The only passenger was Captain B.W.B. Orton.  All three officers were members of the staff of BOAC.  The aircraft took off in clear weather and routine signals were exchanged throughout the journey.  The last message received from the pilot was at 02.18hrs when he said that he knew his position and was approaching the airport (Leuchars).  No further messages were received, and as soon as the aircraft became overdue, emergency procedure was put into operation.  A high-speed launch and three RAF aircraft searched the area where it was known the Mosquito must have been.  The wreckage was found and the bodies of Captain Orton and Radio Officer Roberts were recovered.  It was clear that their death had been instantaneous.  No trace could be found of the body of your son, and it must be assumed that he went down with his aircraft.”

In all, Captain Rae made 150 return trips between Leuchars and Stockholm prior to his death.  The official accident report on his death read:- “There is insufficient evidence to show how this accident occurred.” It was generally accepted however that Captain Rae’s aircraft had been sabotaged by German agents whilst on the ground in Stockholm.  The ball bearing runs ceased shortly after his death.