OBITUARY: Bill McCrea, international golfer and WW2 pilot who could hardly believe he survived

Bill McCrea
Bill McCrea

Bill McCrea was a World War Two flying veteran who once said there was “no explanation” for how he had survived the conflict.

He went on to reach the rank of Wing Commander in the decades that followed, and also found time to play golf at an international level for Ireland.

Bill McCrea in later years

Bill McCrea in later years

Born on April 3, 1921 in Ramelton, to the north of Letterkenny, he was educated at Foyle College in Londonderry before going on to study geography and geology at Queen’s University Belfast.

In 1941, he volunteered for the RAF as a flight sergeant and became a pilot in Bomber Command, flying highly-dangerous missions over Nazi-controlled territory.

He penned an account of his experiences, called ‘A Chequer Board of Nights’.

So compelling was it that the book’s sixth chapter, entitled ‘A Sitting Duck’, has been turned into a short film.

On the subject of his military service, his eulogy read: “What comes across is not how skilful he was as a pilot, or how adept he was at evading enemy aircraft – which he undoubtedly was – but how lucky he was just to survive.”

Mr McCrea himself once told a film-maker: “There are still incidents in my operational tour that I can’t explain.

“Why I should have been subject to three attacks from a German night fighter, with a full load of bombs aboard, and still survived. There’s no explanation for it.”

The incident in question won him the Distinguished Flying Cross, and is portrayed in the short film.

It begins when many of the Lancaster bombers in Mr McCrea’s squadron were destroyed by an inexperienced private who had accidentally detonated a bomb in a parked plane, causing a chain-reaction of exploding aircraft.

The upshot was that a number of run-down, second-hand bombers were sent to the airfield to replace them, and it was in such a plane that Mr McCrea flew a raid against Dortmund one night in 1943.

Due to the poor condition of the craft, its engines glowed red hot – making them much easier to spot.

It was seen and attacked by a German fighter three times, leaving a crewman badly injured.

The rudder was hit and the craft veered around, with Mr McCrea fighting to control the pitch using his knees while his hands worked elsewhere at the control panel.

They managed to reach Allied territory again – but their landing gear would not deploy.

Mr McCrea suggested the crew should parachute out, while he would remain onboard looking for an unpopulated spot to crash in.

His crewmates refused. They eventually managed to work the landing gear, and touched down safely.

It was one of more than 30 missions he flew in the war.

Film director Doug Kirby marvelled at the fact anyone writes fictional scripts when such dramatic real-life events were available to storytellers.

“It’s not made-up, and it’s better than in any films I’ve watched”, he said.

Mr McCrea was also interviewed to be part of the dam-busters squad, but was turned down because he refused to break up his flying team.

After the war, Mr McCrea returned to Queen’s to complete his degree and then returned to the RAF.

He spent much of the rest of his life in England, but maintained close connections to Ulster.

He stepped down from the RAF in 1972, and spent 16 years as secretary of Walton Heath Golf Club before retiring.

From an early age he had played golf in Donegal, and during his RAF career he met Cecil Beamish, an Irish golfing international.

He continued playing during his service and in 1965 – aged 44 – he was selected to represent Ireland in the European team championships, in which they were victorious.

Just before the end of the war he had married his wife Gwyneth – a union that lasted 68 years. He died on February 8 following a fall at his house in Sutton which left him with a brain haemorrhage. He was 93.

Nephew Basil McCrea – the NI21 leader – said that his wartime position in bomber command had been so dangerous that it had been statistically safer to fight at the Somme than to fly over Germany.

“He was a wonderful man,” he said. “His life is to be celebrated. It’s sad he’s gone, but he had a great life, and we will miss him.”

His funeral was held on March 24 at Leatherhead Crematorium, south London. His ashes are expected to be scattered in Donegal.

His wife predeceased him. He is survived by brothers Hugh and Basil, and sister Emmeline, as well as son John, daughter Sheelagh McCrea, and two grandchildren.

Mr Kirby added he hopes to show his short film at the Sundance and Berlin festivals to raise cash for a larger full-length feature.