Group Captain Bill Randle MBE OBE CBE DFM AFC AM
Group Captain Bill Randle M.B.E. O.B.E. C.B.E. D.F.M. A.F.C. A.M.
Born May 17th 1921 Devon, England. Died August 12th 2012. Age 91
Avoided capture after being forced to bail out of his crippled Wellington bomber over Belgium, and with the aid of the Comet Escape Line travelled through France to cross the Pyrenees into Spain.
In retirement he raised millions of pounds for R.A.F. charities, including the R.A.F. Escaping Society.
On the night of September 16 1942, Randle took off to attack Essen, his 19th operation, and as he crossed the Dutch coast at 21,000ft his Wellington took a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. (note: page of loss on this website)
Despite the damage to his aircraft he pressed on to the target, where he came under more intense fire. After dropping his bombs, he was again hit and the port engine failed. As the Wellington became increasingly difficult to control, he ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft.
Randle landed in a tree near the German-Belgian border and immediately headed for the coast, travelling by night and hiding by day, but after being warned by a farmer that the coast was very heavily defended he decided to turn south. Using local trains, he travelled to Namur but soon realised that, without identity papers, his luck could not last and he set off to walk towards France.
An elderly man put Randle in touch with some monks who sheltered him for 10 days before he was passed to the Belgian Resistance.
After an interrogation to ensure that he was not a German infiltrator, he was given clothing and false identity papers showing him to be a Flemish commercial traveller. In this guise, he was taken to Brussels and a reunion with two of his crew.
Unknown to him, he was now in the hands of the famous Comet Line, created and organised by the remarkable 26-year-old Andree de Jongh (known as Dedee).
The airmen were kept in ‘safe houses’ before Dedee escorted them to Paris.
A few days later they continued their journey by express train to Biarritz, where a young girl took them by local train to St Jean de Luz, where they were dressed as local Basque farmhands before cycling into the mountains to be met by the veteran Basque guide Florentino.
Dedee rejoined the party as it negotiated the narrow forested paths by night, avoiding German patrols before crossing the river Bidassoa into Spain. Dedee then left them, to return a few hours later with a Renault taxi. They were taken to the British consul in San Sebastian before travelling to Madrid and on to Gibraltar. Randle had been on the run for 55 days.
Dedee was eventually betrayed, but survived internment in Ravensbruck concentration camp. After the war both she and Florentino, who escorted nearly 300 evaders across the Pyrenees, were awarded George Medals.
William Samuel Oliver Randle was born in Devon on May 17 1921 and attended Exmouth Grammar School before joining Lloyds Bank.
His first flight was in an Avro 504K of Alan Cobhams Flying Circus and from that moment he was obsessed with flying.
After serving in the Home Guard during the London Blitz he enlisted in the RAF in February 1941, training as a pilot in the United States and in Britain. In July 1942 he joined No 150 Squadron, based in Yorkshire, as a sergeant pilot to fly the Wellington.
He attacked targets in the Ruhr and deeper into Germany.
Soon after returning from Gibraltar Randle was awarded an immediate DFM, the citation stating that he had ‘carried out all his attacks with persistent skill and courage and shown superb captaincy and airmanship’. It was, however, Air Ministry policy that successful evaders would not return to operational flying over north-west Europe. Randle was commissioned and became an instructor at a bomber training unit, a role he filled at various locations for the rest of the war. For his exceptional service he was mentioned in despatches and awarded an AFC.
For five years after the war Randle worked in the Air Intelligence Branch, specialising in combat survival and rescue.
He was attached to the USAF, and in December 1952 left for Korea to serve in the 3rd Air Rescue Group. Flying the SA 16 amphibious aircraft, he made a number of long-range rescue sorties behind enemy lines on search missions and to provide cover for pickup operations of shot-down aircrew.
The Americans awarded him their ‘Air Medal’.
While commanding the Flying Wing at RAF Thorney Island near Portsmouth, Randle began the fund-raising which he would pursue vigorously for the rest of his life.
He served on the air staff in Germany, becoming president of the RAF Germany Athletics Board and leading RAF teams on the Nijmegen March, an activity he continued for a number of years.
In July 1964 he took command of RAF Odiham in Hampshire, which was opening as the RAF’s main support helicopter base, introducing both the Wessex and Belvedere to active service.
The following year, after Ian Smith declared UDI in Southern Rhodesia, Randle was sent to Lusaka as Chief of Staff to the Air Commander. An air defence organisation was established and RAF fighters were deployed to the region.
With the introduction of an oil embargo, Randle left for Dar-es-Salaam to manage an airlift of oil into Zambia. This was not without its difficulties, but the hard-working and diplomatic Randle got matters under control and the airlift proved to be a success.
Randle returned to Odiham in February 1966 . As a leading committee member of the RAF Escaping Society, he was able to arrange a visit to the base by some of the most famous figures of the Comet Line, including Andree de Jongh, and by fellow evaders whom they had assisted down the line. Randle always claimed that Odiham was his happiest and most fulfilling appointment.
He served at the MoD on helicopter operational requirements before taking up a senior post at the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre on the old Battle of Britain airfield at Biggin Hill, where he devoted an increasing amount of time to raising money for RAF charities.
He established a programme of first-day philatelic covers signed by RAF dignitaries, a project which proved highly successful over the years.
Randle decided to leave the RAF under a redundancy scheme in April 1972.
He joined the team creating the RAF Museum at Hendon, first as public relations officer, then as education officer, Keeper of the Battle of Britain Museum, Curator of the Bomber Command Museum (at the opening of which he was reunited with his Wellington crew for the first time in 40 years) and finally as Director of Appeals, a post he left at the end of 1986. He was chairman of the Royal Air Force Escaping Society (1974-77) and a governor of the Royal Star and Garter Home for Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen (1981-87).
He was appointed MBE in 1952, OBE in 1961 and CBE in 1967, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
At the age of 80 he embarked on a career as an author. His autobiography, ‘Blue Skies and Dark Nights’, was published in 2002, and he wrote two novels, ‘Kondor’ and ‘Broken Wings’.
Bill Randle married, in 1945, Wendy Howes. She died in 2006, and he is survived by their two daughters, a son died in childhood.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.