Squadron Leader ‘Mac’ McIlroy, wireless operator who was shot down over France – obituary



During the Cold War he specialized in signals and electronics, much of it top-secret, as well as guided-missile systems

Squadron Leader William “Mac” McIlroy, who has died aged 99, was shot down during the Second World War, and later became a signals expert during a long career in the RAF.

McIlroy was the wireless operator of a 408 Squadron Halifax bomber that took off from Leeming in North Yorkshire on the night of April 14 1943. It was his 28th operation. After successfully attacking Stuttgart, the bomber was shot down over Reims by a German night fighter. Seven of the eight-man crew baled out, one evaded capture and the others, including McIlroy, became PoWs.

The pilot, Pilot Officer Mackenzie RAAF, remained at the controls to avoid crashing into houses in the village of La Neuvillette. The villagers later erected a memorial in his memory of his sacrifice.

McIlroy was severely injured on landing and remained in a German-run hospital in Reims for nine months before being transferred to Stalag Luft III, scene of the “Great Escape”.

On the night of January 27 1945, the prisoners were given a few hours to evacuate the camp as the Russians approached from the east. The long column of PoWs headed west with minimum food and belongings during the harshest winter for many years – it became known as “The Long March”, and many prisoners perished. Those who survived eventually reached an overcrowded camp at Luckenwalde.

As the Russians approached, McIlroy and two colleagues escaped and walked westwards for three days. They finally reached the River Elbe, where they met US troops. Within days, they were flown back to Britain.

William Alexander McIlroy, always known as “Mac”, was born on his parents’ farm in Ireland on September 17 1921 and educated at Lisburn Technical School. He joined Post Office Telecommunications as a trainee engineer before joining the RAF in January 1939.

He qualified as a wireless operator and was posted to the flying staff of No 2 School of Air Navigation training navigators. After two years he started a conversion course on bombers.

On the night of May 30/31 1942, Bomber Command launched the first of three “Thousand Bomber Raids”. To achieve the necessary number of aircraft, it was necessary to use some from the bomber-training units. Flying in a twin-engine Hampden, McIlroy flew on all three of the raids, the first to Cologne.

He joined 408 Squadron and completed a further 11 missions on the Hampden before the squadron converted to the four-engine Halifax. On April 3, he and his crew attacked Essen. On return to Leeming, the undercarriage failed to lower and the bomber crash-landed and was destroyed. McIlroy escaped uninjured. Eleven days later he was shot down.

After recuperating on his return from Germany, McIlroy joined 24 (VIP) Squadron as an air signaller. He and his crew were posted to Vienna as the personal crew for General Sir Richard McCreery, GOC of the British Forces of Occupation in Austria. His crew took senior officers, politicians and others to various peace conferences in Europe. Among his passengers was General Sir Bernard Montgomery.

McIlroy’s flying career continued until 1953 and he served on 49 Squadron, initially flying Lancasters and then the Lincoln bomber from Upwood in Huntingdonshire.

McIlroy transferred to the RAF’s engineering branch and specialised in signals and electronics, much of it highly secret. He worked on guided-missile systems, including the ill-fated Blue Streak, and later on strategic communications, which included service in Cyprus.

His final five years in uniform were at the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at Brampton. On retirement in 1976 he spent a further five years as a specialist with the unit before moving to the engineering department at Cambridge University, where he carried out research and tutored PhD students.

Mac McIlroy’s wife Marjorie died in 2003, and their son and two daughters survive him.

“Mac” McIlroy, born April 14 1921, died January 13 2021

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