Archie McInnes (OK 1936) died July 31, 2019
That Archie McInnes lived to 100 was little short of miraculous. During the war he was shot down in his Hawker Hurricane over the Western Desert near the Egyptian-Libyan border. Not only did he lose the lower part of his left arm and break his neck when he crash-landed, but he went on to contract septicaemia and typhoid in hospital.
Yet he was determined to fly for the RAF again. Having designed his own prosthetic arm and been cleared medically fit to fly, he again served in the cockpit of a Hurricane.
It was on October 30, 1941, when McInnes was flying “tail-end Charlie” in a formation of Hurricanes, that he spotted two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters taking off from a desert airstrip below. He radioed to his leader to warn him of the danger, but his transmissions went unheard, probably because his set was faulty. McInnes found himself outnumbered in a dogfight. He dived to try to shake off the first attacker and managed to bring his machine guns to bear as it swept past him, but by then the second Messerschmitt was on his tail.
McInnes felt the armour plating behind his seat taking hits as he started to lose control of his aircraft. He tried to pull the nose up and the last thing he remembered before blacking out was seeing the speedo reading 200mph as the Hurricane smashed into the sand, twisting its nose one way and the tail the other.
The young Scottish pilot came to and saw a hand working to unstrap him from the cockpit and pull his canopy back. Eventually he realised it was his own. He managed to get out of the aircraft and could see some hazy figures in the distance, but when they did not come to his aid, he staggered towards them. They turned out to be an advance patrol of British soldiers doing a morning recce in no man’s land. They apologised to McInnes for not helping him because he had landed in the middle of a suspected minefield. They gave him morphine and a cigarette and took him to an advanced hospital in Mersa Matruh where his battle for survival began.
Some days later in Cairo, surgeons amputated the lower part of his left arm where gangrene had set in. Yet it wasn’t until he was being evacuated on a ship to South Africa, and was complaining of headaches, that doctors realised he had also broken his neck.
His return to the cockpit was the result of his determination not to allow his injuries to stop him making his contribution to the war effort and, after “flying a desk” at the Air Ministry in London for nine months in 1943, he was back at the controls of a Hurricane.
Archie McInnes flew Hurricanes during the final weeks of the Battle of BritainArchie McInnes flew Hurricanes during the final weeks of the Battle of Britain
A modest and self-effacing man, who in his final years reluctantly assumed the mantle of one of the last of the “Few”, McInnes proved a cheerful and charming ambassador for a dying generation who had flown in defence of Britain during its hour of need.
Archibald McInnes was born in 1919 in Clarkston, Glasgow, the eldest of five children of Archie and Janet McInnes. His father had served in the Machine Gun Corps on the Western Front during the First World War and ran a business supplying equipment for the laundry industry.
When Archie was five years old the family moved to Vauxhall in south London. He was sent to prep school in Bexhill in Surrey and then attended King’s College School, Wimbledon, southwest London where he was a keen sportsman, playing cricket, rugby and golf. An early adventure was a cycling trip to Brighton, East Sussex.
His father was not keen on him joining the RAF, but at the age of 17 McInnes volunteered. He subsequently learnt to fly on Tiger Moths near Cambridge, completing his training at the age of 21 and being commissioned the next day. His first posting in the summer of 1940 was with 601 Squadron in Exeter, which flew Hurricanes and was being rested after frontline duties in the Battle of Britain.
In October McInnes moved to 238 Squadron at Chilbolton in Hampshire, where he again flew Hurricanes on patrols over the south coast during the final weeks of the battle. After completing his tour, which included escorting bombers over northern France, McInnes, together with a Hurricane stowed in pieces below decks, embarked on the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands for the voyage to the Mediterranean.
In the early stages of the trip they were diverted in the Western Approaches to join the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. McInnes eventually flew from the deck of HMS Victorious to Malta and from there to Cairo, where he began his stint in the Western Desert flying bomber escort missions and fighter patrols.
After his convalescence and with the rank of flight-lieutenant, he was deputy director of air tactics at the Air Ministry before he retrained as a pilot at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. The RAF supplied their own contraption to help him to operate the throttle of a Hurricane, but it was not fit for purpose and broke on McInnes’s first flight. He designed his own more robust solution, which was put into production.
McInnes was demobbed in 1946 and went to work with his father in the family firm. When that came to an end he moved to Cambridge to work with an old friend, who had set up a business marketing wine in a bag.
McInnes married Helen Frank, a university secretary, in 1950. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Peirson Frank, the chief engineer of London county council during the Second World War. She died in 2006. They had one daughter, Sandra, who is an administrator with the British Antarctic Survey.
Archie McInnes in a flight simulator during a visit to RAF ConingsbyArchie McInnes in a flight simulator during a visit to RAF Coningsby.
For most of his life McInnes kept his counsel on his war career until 2016 when he met the aviation enthusiast Jonny Cracknell, who encouraged him to attend Battle of Britain anniversary events and wrote a book about his life, Against Adversity, published this year.
To start with, McInnes felt unworthy to speak on behalf of the “stars of the show”, who had shot down German aircraft, but he came to see that he and the other last survivors of the Battle of Britain represented all those who had gone before them, many of whom died without recognition.
In recent years McInnes, who lived in a village near Cambridge, visited air shows and sat in Hurricanes and on one occasion talked through how he learnt to take off with only one arm. In 2018, aged 99, he enjoyed a ride in a two- seater Spitfire from Biggin Hill accompanied by a Hurricane.