29 November 1932 - 19 October 2012
Group Captain Robert Olding, who has died aged 79, had the rare distinction of being one of very few post-war RAF officers to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which he received after being severely wounded while attacking an Egyptian airfield during the Suez conflict.
Olding was an experienced RAF night fighter navigator when he volunteered for an exchange tour with the Fleet Air Arm’s 893 Squadron in May 1956. With the crisis over Suez escalating, 893 flew its Sea Venoms to the Mediterranean and embarked in Eagle .
The Anglo-French air offensive, Operation Musketeer, began on the night of October 31 with the aim of neutralising the powerful Egyptian Air Force (EAF), initially by bombing its airfields. At first light the following day, carrier-borne aircraft launched a series of attacks to destroy aircraft on the ground. During a further raid that afternoon Olding and his pilot, Lt-Cdr John Willcox, led a formation to attack the airfield at Bilbeis, destroying a number of EAF aircraft by rocket and cannon fire.
The next day Willcox and Olding flew on another strike, attacking aircraft dispersed at Almaza airfield. Here the anti-aircraft fire was both accurate and heavy, and Olding’s Sea Venom was hit under the forward fuselage, blasting a large hole in the floor of the cockpit. Olding suffered severe shrapnel wounds to his legs but continued with his duties.
With the hydraulics damaged, Willcox had to control the aircraft in the reversionary manual mode. En route back to Eagle, Olding applied a tourniquet to his leg and injected himself with morphine. Unaware of the full extent of the damage to his Sea Venom, Willcox elected to land on the carrier without the flaps and with the undercarriage up. The first attempt had to be aborted but, with the hook lowered, Willcox made a second, slower, approach with Olding calling out the speeds.
After landing, Olding passed out. He was rushed to the ship’s sick bay before being flown to a hospital in Cyprus, where his leg became infected and had to be amputated above the knee. He was awarded a DSC.
Robert Charles Olding was born in Colchester on November 29 1932 and attended Colchester Royal Grammar School. During National Service he trained as a navigator and elected to remain in the RAF. In April 1954 he joined No 264 Squadron, operating Meteor night fighters, before his adventurous streak led him to volunteer for a two-year appointment with the Fleet Air Arm.
After returning from Suez, Olding spent three months having treatment and learning to walk with his false leg. He refused to use a stick (he walked unaided throughout his life) and even tried to ride a bicycle, but came off, breaking his arm. He returned to duty, and a year later started flying again, this time on the Javelin night fighter.
During his early days on the Javelin he flew with Wing Commander Freddie Sowrey (later Air Marshal Sir Freddie Sowrey), a small man who suffered from spondylitis and was affectionately known as 'Bent Fred'. With Olding stomping alongside him, they were approaching their Javelin when a USAF officer was overheard to say: 'Ye Gods, the Brits certainly waste nothing.'
After a spell as ADC to the commandant at the RAF College Cranwell, Olding joined No 31 Squadron in Germany, equipped with the Canberra photographic reconnaissance aircraft. Most flights were conducted at very low level where turbulent air was often encountered, and after take-off the navigator had to move from his ejector seat in the rear to lie in the nose of the aircraft. Even for an able-bodied man this was a difficult move, and Olding was widely admired for his fortitude and for always completing the task without disclosing his obvious discomfort.
During his later career he was a flight commander on a transport squadron and Wing Commander Operations at RAF Lyneham, one of the RAF’s largest transport bases. On promotion to group captain in 1979 he was appointed to command Aldergrove, the RAF’s largest and most important airfield in Northern Ireland, and a post where he held the dual appointment of Senior RAF Office , Northern Ireland. His appointment coincided with the height of the Troubles, and Aldergrove was the main airhead for troop rotations, and the centre of important helicopter operations. Olding had to host many VIP visitors, including members of the Royal family and senior ministers. One of his saddest tasks was to arrange for the repatriation of Lord Mountbatten’s body following his assassination by the IRA.
Tall, handsome and debonair, and noted for his honesty and fairness, Olding was highly respected at Aldergrove. One of his wing commanders observed: 'You did not serve for or under Group Captain Olding, you served with him.' For his service in Northern Ireland he was appointed CBE.
Olding spent his final years in the RAF with Nato and at the Headquarters of Support Command before retiring in 1984. After two years working at Marconi radar, he was appointed Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights.
In his younger days, Olding was a fine sportsman. In the RAF skiing championships he was known as the 'Black Knight' for his black ski suit and fearless downhill skiing . He was also a gifted tennis player who, even after losing his leg, was still able to beat some of his younger colleagues.
Neither did he allow his disability to interfere with his social life. During mess parties he would accompany the band by using his tin leg as a drum. Once he was dancing with an attractive girl who was unaware of his disability and accused him of moving as if he had a wooden leg; ever the gentleman, he merely smiled.
Robert Olding’s wife Elisabeth, whom he married in 1962, survives him with their two daughters.
Group Captain Robert Olding, born November 29 1932, died October 19 2012
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
If you have additional information or photographs to add to this Obituary please contact us.
We also seek to commemorate all those not published by The Daily Telegraph and would be pleased to receive your contributions.
Article prepared by Barry Howard.