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Archive Report: Allied Forces

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
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616 Squadron Crest
06.07.1941 616 Squadron Spitfire IIA P8500 YQ:D Sgt. McCairns

Operation: Sweep

Date: 6th July 1941 (Sunday)

Unit: 616 Squadron, 12 Group

Type: Spitfire IIA

Serial: P8500

Code: YQ:D

Base: RAF Tangmere, West Sussex

Location: Gravelines, France

Pilot: Sgt. ‘Mac’ James Atterby McCairns 754718 RAFVR Age 22. PoW


During a sweep hit by fire from a Bf109 and forced to crash land near Gravelines west of Dunkirk in France. His canopy was jammed and he had to be released by German soldiers whereafter he was taken for treatment and then onto Stalag IX-C .

Successfully escaped and with the aid from the Belgian resistance made his way back to England via France, Spain and Gibraltar. On his return he managed to get the agreement to join 161 Squadron as an SOE pilot flying Lysanders.

Above L-R: James McCairns, Hugh Verity, Percy Pickard, Peter Vaughan-Fowler and Bunny Rymills with Verity's Lysander in 1943

Plt Off (91315) was promoted to Fg.Off. with effect from 1st November 1943, London Gazette 8th January 1943. (Note: no record of his commissioning and promotion to Plt Off. has been found)

His first operation was to land in France to insert 2 agents and bring back another 3. Over the next thirteen months he flew 33 more covert missions for SOE of which 25 were successful, a greater success rate than any other pilot. Nineteen of his missions were highly risky "double Lysander" missions which involved both aircraft landing in the selected field and taking off again before being caught.

Following his highly successful tour with 161 Squadron he was posted to a staff position involved in the identification of proposed landing sites for Westland Lysander and much larger Lockheed Hudson aircraft involved in clandestine operations. McCairns was promoted Flt Lt on the 1st May 1944.

Wishing to return to operational flying he converted back to fighters and flying Hawker Tempests with 3 Squadron RAF attacked a Bf109 south of Hildesheim, Germany on the 28th February 1945 damaging it and moments later shared in the destruction of a Siebel Si 204 in the same area.

Soon afterwards he transferred to 56 Squadron RAF as a flight commander and was involved in an inconclusive combat on the 15th April 1945. Post-war McCairns transferred to the re-constituted Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) from the 3rd May 1947 retaining the rank of Flt Lt and returning to serve with 616 Squadron.

Sadly, on the 13th June 1948 flying Mosquito NT423 he was killed when an engine failed at low altitude and the aircraft crashed nose first into the ground near RAF Finningley.

The Times, reported Monday 14th June 1948:

"A Mosquito aircraft of 616 South Yorkshire Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, crashed and burst into flames a mile east of Finningley RAF Station to-day when on a local flight. The pilot Flying Officer J.A. McCairns DFC. MM. who lived near Bawtry, and a serving airman whose next-of-kin are not yet notified, were killed. The ground crews heard one of the engines making an unusual noise and saw the aircraft bank round the airport and nose-dived to the ground. Killing a ground crew member on board the aircraft."

The Nottingham Journal on Friday June 18th 1948 reported:

"Triple DFC's Fatal Crash. Flying-Officer James McCairns (28), triple DFC, MM. and Croix de Guerre holder, of Mattersey Thorpe, near Doncaster, was described a very experienced pilot with 1,234 hours' flying time, at yesterday’s Doncaster inquest on McCairns and AC Edward Shaw (19), of Front Street, Hill Top, Dipton. Both men were killed when their Mosquito plane crashed and caught fire near Finningley RAF Station on Sunday. A witness said that the coolant of the port engine cooling system had escaped, causing the engine to overheat and fail. The Coroner (Mr. W. H. Carlile) said he was satisfied all necessary checks had been made on the aircraft He recorded verdicts of “Accidental death”

The passenger was AC2 (2321296) Edward Shaw was a fitter accompanying Jim on an engine test check flight. 616 Squadron was an Auxiliary unit, with Jim also having a civilian job as an area manager with launderette company Clark's of Retford. The day before he had flown a round trip to Tangmere in a three-aircraft formation. The Operations Record Book for 616 Squadron, compiled by Flt Lt Aytoun, DFC, recorded the details of the crash. It stated the aircraft had taken off at 16:15 hrs and crashed 10-minutes later when an in-flight emergency was declared due to an engine failure. The ORB gives the crash location as half-a-mile from the north boundary of the airfield.


We recommend the publication by the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum on the life of Sgt. James Atterby McCairns. Lysander Pilot: Secret Operations with 161 Squadron (Kindle Edition) by James Atterby McCairns (Author), Reginald Byron (Editor), Christopher James McCairns (Foreword)


Military Medal 14th August 1942:

“For escaping from Stalag IXC and returning to England via Spain. He was shot down in Spitfire P8500 06th July 1941.”

DFC Citation 13th April 1943:

“This officer has completed many sorties, most of them of a. hazardous nature. He is a courageous and determined pilot, who has set an example worthy of the highest praise.”

DFC 1st bar Citation 10th August 1943:

“This officer has completed numerous sorties, displaying a high degree of skill and determination throughout.”

DFC 2nd bar Citation 11th January 1944:

"Flight Lieutenant McCairns has participated in a large number of successful operational missions. He is a model of efficiency and his example of determination and devotion to duty has won great praise.”

Burial details:

Flt Lt. James Atterby McCairns. MM. DFC and 2 bars. Croix de Guerre. East Retford Cemetery. Nottinghamshire. Grave CC.81. Born on the 21st September 1919 at Niagara Falls, New York, USA, the son of Kate Elizabeth and Thomas McCairns, husband of Moira.

His father was an English engineer who was working in the United States. His mother brought him to England for the first time aboard the ocean liner Regina sailing from Montreal and arriving in Liverpool on the 18th June 1922. They visited family at Brigg, Lincolnshire before returning to Quebec on the 30th September 1922 aboard the ocean liner Canopic. The family returned to England on the 30th September 1930 from Boston, Massachusetts aboard the liner Duchess of York, the family settled at 20 Chapelgate, Retford, and he completed his education at King Edward VI Grammar School, Retford.

AC2 Edward Shaw. Born on the 16th July 1928 in Newcastle Upon Tyne. He came from Dipton, County Durham. No further information.

MI9 Debriefing of McCairns' Escape Experiences

Allied Losses and Incidents Database

Researched and dedicated to the relatives of this pilot with thanks Wikipedia, Tangmere Museum, RAF Commands Forum, and to sources as quoted below: Thanks to Paul Allonby for the additional information concerning the Crash of the Mosquito (Apr 2021).

Although a great deal is available from various sources on this amazing pilot - we decided to collate the ‘almost’ complete story of this highly decorated pilot and create a dedicated page to him. We wrote ‘almost’ as we are sure that others will be able to contribute further details as and when they discover the page. We will be proud to add further information with any credits due as and when.

RS 13.04.2021 - Narrative update

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Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Stan D. Bishop, John A. Hey MBE, Gerrie Franken and Maco Cillessen - Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, Vols 1-6, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiton - Nachtjagd Combat Archives, Vols 1-13. Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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