Pilot Officer Gerald Peabody MacKay
Gerald Peabody MacKay was born 24th October, 1918, in Sweetsburg, Quebec, the only child of Donald Russell MacKay, a dentist, and Alice Maud Peabody.
He was educated at Stanstead College from 1927-1932. After leaving school, aged 19, he joined the 74th Field Battery, Light Artillery, of the Non-Permanent Active Militia at Stanstead, Quebec, serving as a Range Taker in the rank of Corporal, before re-entering education for a year, studying towards a B.Sc. at Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec (September 1938 until June 1939). Following that, Gerald worked for roughly five months as an apprentice tool former for Union Twist Drill Co., Butterfield Division, at Rock Island, Quebec.
Mackay left his apprenticeship unfinished and joined the RCAF in June 1940, listing his hobbies as aerodynamics and aircraft design, swimming, tennis, climbing and fishing. His previous employment and studies must have left him cold as he expressed a desire to run a farm once his military service was over. He impressed his interviewing officer with his confidence, “all together a nice type,” and passed his medical – “well-built, muscular, good nervous stability.”
On 30th June, 1940, Gerry joined Course No.4 at No.2 Initial Training School, Regina, achieving good results in mathematics. Flying Training began with a move to No.4 Elementary Flying Training School at Windsor Mills, where he commenced Course No.3 on 2nd September. His flying instructors, on the Fleet Finch training aircraft, considered him a “careful pilot,” in need of more practice. He had a happy-go-lucky nature, though it was noted that he wasn’t a hard worker in the classroom.
Having passed his course, Gerry moved on to No.2 Service Flying Training School, Uplands, for Course No.13, which started on 16th November. Here he learned to fly the more powerful Yale and Harvard trainers, becoming “competent and quick.” Although he wasn’t a ‘student type’, Gerry’s personality seemed to impress his ground instructors. He was popular and well-liked. They considered him a “good type,” who would one day be suitable for a commission. He was promoted to Temporary Sergeant and received his ‘wings’ on 28th January, 1941.
By the 6th March, 1941, Mackay was already in England, at No.3 Personnel Reception Unit in Bournemouth. On 19th April, he was posted to No.44 Maintenance Unit at RAF Edzell in Aberdeenshire before completing his fighter training at No.56 Operational Training Unit, Sutton Bridge, on Course No.33, which commenced on 23rd June. Here, his instructors would have been combat experienced pilots and Gerry would have gained experience of flying the Hawker Hurricane in final preparation for the move to an operational fighter squadron. Mackay rose to the challenge, being graded above average for everything except night flying – his formation flying was “exceptional” and yet again, his fine personal qualities were noted and he was recommended for a commission.
It also seems likely that, during this time, Gerry met Edith Joyce Overland, a butcher’s daughter, who he married on 6th August, 1941, at St. Peter’s church, Upwell, Wisbech, a week before he was posted to No.402 Squadron at RAF Ayr, Scotland.
MacKay only took part in training flights during his first week with 402, but a move to Southend brought the Canadians closer to the action.
The move south prompted a visit from Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Mallory CB, DSO, Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, on 30th August and the following day MacKay took part in his first operational sortie – a Composite ‘Circus’ with 402 Squadron flying as close escort to 12 Blenheim bombers along with the North Weald Wing – the idea being to lure the Luftwaffe’s fighters up for a fight. However, in this case the opposition stayed on the ground, and although 402 encountered intense flak over the target, all 12 of their Hurricanes returned safely, including MacKay in Z3319.
After this first foray over occupied Europe, MacKay had a week’s leave. Perhaps he celebrated his promotion to Flight Sergeant on 1st September. The rest of the month was spent flying convoy patrols and formation practice flights. In addition, MacKay flew on a couple more ‘Circus’ operations. On 27th September, he was flying as No.2 to Pilot Officer Graham for Circus 103B, escorting 12 Blenheim bombers to Mazingarbe, in the Pas-de-Calais area. On this occasion, the bombers were attacked by Me.109’s and a dogfight developed as 402’s Hurricanes strove to defend them. The target area was reached and the Blenheims dropped their bombs before turning for home. At around this time, MacKay noticed that Pilot Officer Graham had disappeared (later, it was presumed that he had been hit by flak on the way to the target). The other 11 Hurricanes all made it home safely, although MacKay landed at Eastchurch and was delayed there with a punctured inner tube on the tail wheel of his Hurricane (Z3319). He flew back to Southend the following day. The Squadron claimed 1 Me.109 destroyed and 2 damaged, for the loss of Pilot Officer Amos Sydney Graham, whose Hurricane crashed near Calais – he was taken Prisoner of War.
October was taken up with convoy patrols and bombing practice. 402 left Southend for RAF Warmwell in Dorset, on 6th November and MacKay got a chance to put the bombing practice to good use on 11th November, when the Squadron took part in a low ‘Ramrod’ operation targeting an ammunition dump in the Foret de St. Saens, escorted by 501 and 234 Squadrons. 402’s Hurricane Bombers each carried 2 x 250lb General Purpose bombs, 11 second delay. They operated from Merston, a satellite of RAF Tangmere, for this operation, taking off at 14.42pm. As they crossed the French coast five miles west of Dieppe, the Hurricanes had to climb from sea level to get over a cliff, and entered cloud:
Sgt. MacKay got lost in cloud, flying north he dropped his bombs on a railway bridge just south of Berck-sur-Mer, the bombs bursting on the tracks near the bridge. He then returned to base alone.
MacKay was lucky in finding a suitable target, one other squadron pilot had to jettison his bombs on the return journey and Sgt. Marshall Robert Ross Vair was never seen again after they entered the cloud. He lies at rest in Janval Cemetery, Dieppe.
The winter months were relatively uneventful for Mackay, being mostly taken up with training flights – formation flying, air-to-air and air-to-ground firing practice etc. In his diary for December 1941, F/Sgt. A. M. Skinner lists Sgt. “Cue Ball” Mackay as part of 402’s “B” Flight, led by F/Lt. ‘Norm’ Bretz, though he gives no explanation for the origin of his nickname. In February 1942, MacKay was discharged to a commission, rising to the rank of Pilot Officer.
In early March 1942, 402 Squadron left RAF Warmwell for Colerne, leaving behind their Hurricane Mk.II’s (and some of their pilots, including Mackay) for the newly formed 175 Squadron, whose work would consist mainly of ground attack. Gerry only remained with them until early May, taking part in five operational patrols, before being posted back to 402. 175 Squadron’s diarist seemed genuinely sorry to see him go:
We learned with regret that P/O MacKay was posted to 402 Sq from whence he had come to us. This is a great pity as he is a charming fellow and a good pilot and section leader. Our best wishes go with him.
MacKay arrived at Fairwood Common, in South Wales, to re-join his old Squadron on 6th May, 1942, along with Pilot Officer W. Q. Dewar. Preparations were underway for the forthcoming move to Kenley, which was filmed by Paramount for their newsreel on 14th May – MacKay ferried Spitfire Vb, BM262 to their new base – One of 19 Spitfires and 1 Miles Magister that 402 brought into Kenley that afternoon.
Gerry flew his first operational patrol from Kenley on 17th May, with P/O Magee and the rest of the month passed with regular patrols and ‘Rodeo’ fighter sweeps, before the Squadron moved to RAF Redhill on 31st.
During June, MacKay took part in 16 operational sorties. Although they were mostly patrols, this also included three large ‘Circus’ operations and two ‘Rodeo’ sweeps. On 12th July, 402 Squadron (including MacKay) were detailed to take part in a low-level ‘Roadstead’ operation escorting Hurricane bombers along with 602 Squadron, but although they encountered accurate flak, no enemy aircraft were sighted. The following day, the squadron were tasked with a diversionary sweep to Abbeville, as part of Circus 199, with 602 and 616 Squadrons, as well as the Biggin Hill Wing. Although 402 reported seeing 7 FW190’s, they didn’t become engaged. However, 602 weren’t so lucky, losing Pilot Officer Edgar Mostyn Innes-Jones, who is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.
MacKay didn’t take part in the air-sea-rescue operation after Wing Commander Brendan “Paddy” Finucane DSO, DFC and Two Bars was lost in the Channel on 15th July. Earlier that day, he had flown on an uneventful ‘Rodeo’ fighter sweep in Spitfire Vb, EP288, his regular mount from this time until the squadron exchanged their Mk.Vb’s for Mk.IX’s.
At 10.00pm on 22nd, Pilot Officers Keith and MacKay were scrambled from Friston, but no action occurred. The same thing happened the following morning at 6.40am, but again, the sortie passed without incident.
On 24th, 3 sections of 2 aircraft each participated in a ‘Rhubarb’ over France. These operations took advantage of low cloud or poor visibility to attack targets of opportunity on the ground. In this case, MacKay was accompanied by Sgt. Gregory Donald Cameron and the pair made two attacks on a stationary freight locomotive, near Ourville-en-Caux, causing considerable damage and observing steam billowing from the engine. Cameron saw machine gun fire coming from the rear of the engine tender. Another section damaged a flak tower.
In early August, 402 Squadron were re-equipped with the Spitfire Mk.IX, putting them on a more equal footing with the FW190. MacKay got his first chance to fly one on 2nd August, when he took BS122 for a cannon test. The following day, the squadron took their new mounts to Martlesham Heath for air firing practice, which took up most of the following week. MacKay flew to RAF Matlaske and back to Martlesham Heath in EP288 on 5th August, his last flight in a Spitfire Mk.Vb, as far as we know.
The 17th August brought a change of command at 402 Squadron as Squadron Leader ‘Norm’ Bretz took over from Squadron Leader Morrow, who had been awarded the DFC a couple of weeks previously. That day, the Squadron was visited by Air Marshals Breadner and Edwards, as well as Air Minister, Mr.Power – it isn’t clear from the records whether this was occasioned by the change of leadership or the upcoming Operation Jubilee.
MacKay went on leave from 13th (the day before 402 moved from Redhill to Kenley). He returned on 20th August and therefore missed taking part in 402’s fighter escort and patrols covering the ill-fated Dieppe Raid (Operation Jubilee) on 19th August.
The day after he came back from leave, 402 were due to fly a ‘Circus’ operation, and operated from Martlesham Heath – MacKay took off at 10am, flying Spitfire Mk. IX, BS122, but the operation was recalled.
Gerry’s next operational sortie, on 24th August, was to be his first and last in the Spitfire Mk.IX. Flight Lieutenant Ian Keltie remembered that it was a particularly hot day, “in more ways than one.”
S/Ldr. Watkins led 402 and 611 squadrons for Composite ‘Circus’ 208, escorting B-17 Flying Fortresses targeting the Ateliers et Chantiers Maritime de la Seine shipyards at Le Trait. Three of 611 Squadron’s aircraft couldn’t release their drop tanks and only made it ten miles into France. They orbited the area and waited for the ‘beehive’ to return. The bombers reached their target but most of their bombs were seen to fall into the river. 611 Squadron were flying at 28,000ft with 402 above them at 30,000ft when 12 FW190’s were spotted coming up from the west in pairs and threes 2000 ft below 402.
611 Squadron continued to cover the bombers as S/Ldr. Bretz dived to attack followed by his squadron. During the engagement over the Yvetot area, 402 lost height and were at 22,000ft when a further 40 FW190’s joined the melee. As the bombers and their escort were already well out to sea, 402 sought to return to England as best they could, but lost two pilots – Gerry MacKay, last seen diving into the first attack, and Flight Sergeant Victor Howard Miller, last seen spinning down at 24,000ft over Bolbec. The rest of 402 made it back to England, one aircraft landed at West Malling, and two crash-landed, one at Ripe (pilot uninjured, possibly P/O Magee in Spitfire IX BS123) the other back at Kenley, (F/Lt. Bland badly wounded in Spitfire IX, BS198). F/Lt. Keltie also made it back to Kenley, and was surprised to find he could stand – his flying boot was full of blood. He and F/Lt. Bland were taken by ambulance to an emergency hospital, probably St. Lawrence’s, Caterham, as Keltie refers to it being in “the wing of an insane asylum that was down the hill from Kenley airport.”
For 402’s losses and injuries, Bretz and Bland both claimed an FW190 destroyed, P/O Keene and F/Lt. Compton claimed ‘probables’ – four other pilots claimed to have each damaged a FW190.
On 4th September, S/Ldr. Bretz wrote to Gerry’s Father, Dr. MacKay, to add more detail to the terrible news that his son was “missing,” explaining that Gerry and his wingman were “last seen attacking 3 FW190’s,” during the “severe dogfights” of 24th August. He held out some hope:
One Spitfire was seen going down, apparently under control, into France. Another Spitfire was seen to crash into the sea about five miles north of Fecamp. Gerry could quite well have been in one of these. There is a good possibility that he may be reported Prisoner of War.
However, at the end of October, Gerry’s wife, Edith, received the news that she must have been dreading – information received from the International Red Cross indicated that MacKay had been killed on 24th August. She was heavily pregnant and all hopes of being reunited with her husband were extinguished. Her baby daughter, aptly named Geraldine, was born on 30th November, 1942.
Perhaps MacKay’s Spitfire was the one that Bretz described as heading towards France “apparently under control” – paperwork from the Missing Research and Enquiry Units in 1947 states that BS122 crashed at Blosseville-sur-Mer, and the pilot, MacKay, was laid to rest at St. Valery-en-Caux. He lies alongside Sgt. Victor Howard Miller, his wingman, killed on the same sortie.
‘Norm’ Bretz, who had served alongside Gerry since his earliest days with 402 Squadron, described him as:
…one of the best pilots this Squadron has ever had.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.