The War Hero Clan Chief by Julian Champkin

Reproduced from The Scottish Daily Mail, Saturday 29 October 2005: Shot down over the Channel, he helped other POWs escape, became the face of RAF heroism and spied in the Cold War.

Watch almost any film or television account of the Battle of Britain and almost certainly in the black-and-white historical footage will be shots of the archetypal Spitfire pilot. Look carefully and you will see one face in particular, time and again.

He is curly-haired, handsome, young, obviously brave, in his cockpit or beside his machine, wearing a flying helmet and sporting that small, clipped moustache that RAF men in those days seemed to find mandatory. In ground shots he may be smoking his pipe.

There is a reason he turns up so often in archive footage. Back in 1940, few films were made of the battle being fought overhead. The major exception was when the Air Ministry decided to make a documentary film, called Fighter Pilot, about the battle just won.

It was 64 Squadron they filmed, for a couple of days in November of 1940, and the officer commanding that squadron and the pilot in many of their shots was Donald MacDonell. Excerpts from that film have been used in TV documentaries ever since. As just one example, the Science Museum in London has a display about RJ Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire. ‘I went, and that film was playing continually as a background loop,’ says MacDonell’s widow Lois, editor of his newly published memoirs. ‘It was very strange seeing his face all around me.’ The brave and handsome, pilot of the 1940s was, to give him his full name by the time of his retirement, Air Commodore Aeneas Ranald Donald MacDonell, CB, DFC, 22nd Chief of Glengarry and 12th titular Lord MacDonell and Aros.

Shot down, he became a prisoner of war and participated in the famous escape known as the Wooden Horse. And,  if all that were not enough, in the 1950s, while the Cold War was at its coldest and most frightening, he was sent to our embassy in Moscow as air attaché – for which read intelligence-gatherer or spy.

For all the clan connections, the future clan chief of the MacDonell’s was actually born in 1913 in Russia – in Baku, where his father was British vice-consul.

During the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution, the vice-consul facilitated secret negotiations between the commu­nists and the White Russian army.

He did, however, lose all his money in the revolution and had to return to journalism jobs in the south of England. The MacDonell’s had not lived in Scotland for two or three generations.

From the first name given to his child, Aeneas, you might suppose the vice-consul was a classical scholar. Actually, Aeneas was the traditional first name of the Glengarry Chiefs, and was not from the Trojan hero Aeneas at all: it is a corruption of Angus.

Donald’s father and grandfather were both Aeneas Ranald MacDonell. Lois says: ‘It was only when pink-enveloped love letters began being delivered to the grandfather at the family breakfast, and he had to hand them to their proper recipient, his son – to their mutual embarrassment – that they decided any third generation should have another Christian name as well.’

So Aeneas Ranald Donald MacDonell was always known as Donald. He joined the RAF in 1931. During the Abyssinian crisis of 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, his squadron was sent by a ship of the Anchor Line to Egypt, potentially to intervene by force on Ethiopia’s side.

On the voyage out, when an Italian destroyer shadowed them, half the RAF men on board were told to don frocks and skirts as it passed, to fool the Italians that they were merely civilian passengers on a holiday cruise. Donald thought the Italians were proba­bly not convinced – especially as one of the RAF men persisted in smoking his pipe in drag.

More serious warfare was near. Back in Britain, MacDonell found himself commanding a Spitfire squadron in the Battle of Britain. He first had to meld a dispirited unit of raw inexperienced pilots into a fighting unit under stress of battle.

‘He was a natural leader – quite a charismatic person, very unstuffy,’ says Lois. ‘One former squadron member keeps telling me how wonderful Donald was at drawing them all together.’

It was a successful squadron. In the early days, they were bringing down Stuka dive-bombers attacking shipping in the Channel. In the battle proper, it was Messerschmitt fighters and Dornier bombers.

MacDonell was leading his squadron aloft when their base, Kenley airfield, was bombed and its runway rendered unusable. One of the attacking bombers was brought down by a bizarre secret weapon – a rocket which lifted a chain attached to a parachute into the air. The chain descended slowly, the German Dornier flew into it, and was brought down on the airfield boundary.

It seems to have been the only success of that particular British invention. After that, MacDonell was the first to land on the cratered runway. Elsewhere, he scored his victories – he is credited with 11-and-a-half kills -and was shot down twice.

The first time, over Hampshire, he landed in a back garden and was mistaken for a German and held at shotgun-point. The second time, over the Channel, was more serious. In his memoirs, he wrote: ‘Spitfire cockpits were neither pressurised nor heated, but they had oxygen masks. At 30,000 ft, my left hand, the one which rested on the throttle lever, began to get cold. Over the French coast, I was smacking it on my knee to try to restore the circulation.’

The knocking accidentally pulled out the lead of his radio transmitter. He was trying to reconnect it, and at the same time engaging a flight of Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, when ‘there was a hell of a bang somewhere below my cockpit’. He went into a steep diving turn – and then slowly passed out. His oxygen pipe had been severed, and lack of breathable air was suffocating him. He came to in a spin at 7,000ft, still groggy from lack of oxygen, and managed to pull out and head for home. But the lack of oxygen had left him confused and he realised, some minutes later, that he had set course in the wrong direction and was over occupied France – with a shot-up plane, an over-heating engine and guns that would not fire. He turned round, made it through the flak over Calais, but soon afterwards, with the temperature gauges off the clock, ‘with an appalling shudder my Merlin engine seized and I sat staring in disbelief at a completely stationary propeller. I was at about 8,000ft and a quarter of the way across the Channel.’ And another Bf 109 was on his tail. With the German’s cannon shells whining over his cockpit, he baled out and saw his Spitfire nosedive into the sea. He was rescued, but by a German boat, and so captivity began.

One of the first things he was handed by his captors in prison camp, was a sealed brown envelope. Inside it, a sheet of notepaper read: ‘Bad luck. For you the war is over!’ It was signed ‘Werner Molders’, the German air ace who had shot him down.

Prison camp was an ordeal for MacDonell, as for others. There were many escape  attempts, mostly unsuccessful. Some were quite bizarre, such as the would-be escaper who planned to tie together all the elastic trouser-braces in the camp and have himself catapulted over the wire while the Germans were not looking. Not surprisingly, that one never got off the ground.

MacDonell found himself on the camp’s escape committee, co-ordinating many of these efforts – hence his involvement with the Wooden Horse. He thought it at first an imaginative effort, but hopeless – the go-ahead was given in the expectation that it would be discovered by the Germans and divert attention from a much bigger, longer tunnel that was being dug from the cook-house.

But it was the unfinished, bigger tunnel which the Germans tracked down. Earth from it, hidden in the barrack roof spaces, caused the roof beams to collapse and crash down on the heads of the searching German guards.

It was the Wooden Horse tunnel that succeeded. The ‘horse’ itself was a gymnasts’ vaulting-horse, which was carried out into the open compound, close up against the wire, each day. While the prisoners amused themselves with physical exercise jumping over the horse, an escaper was hidden inside it inside it, concealed from the eyes of the guards, digging the tunnel.

By day, the horse hid the entrance to the tunnel. Each night, a lid covered with sand disguised it, and the horse and its digger were carried back into the huts. Three men got out that way, and made it home to Britain. One of them, Eric Williams, wrote a book about it, which was filmed, starring Anthony Steel.

MacDonell was not one of the escapers – it was his job to organise the rota of volunteer jumpers who had to exercise, on inadequate rations, for hours each day as cover for the tunnel being dug beneath their feet. As camp adjutant, MacDonell also tried continually to get the best treatment he could for the prisoners from the Germans.

Douglas Bader, the legendary Spitfire pilot with no legs, turned up as a prisoner. They had known each other as squadron leaders – but it was not a happy reunion.

MacDonell had worked hard to make the Germans respect the Geneva Convention rights of the prisoners – he felt the brash Bader imperilled it by his lack of understanding. Fortunately, Bader was transferred to another camp within a few days. But the nervous strain began to tell on MacDonell and he began to have blackouts, from which he had suffered previously, before the war.

It was in the German prison camp that he heard of the death of his father, and his inheritance of the clan titles of the MacDonells and Glengarry. It was to be years before he returned to claim his inheri­tance, and also to see for the first time his new son.

His homecoming at the end of the war was not happy. While he was away, his first wife, Diana, had developed incurable schizophrenia. When he got to London, she was not there. When he found her in Ireland, she was a grotesque caricature of the woman he had left behind.

His young son Ranald, whom he had not seen, looked from MacDonell to the car driver and asked pathetically. ‘Mummy, which might my Daddy be?’

Diana had eventually to be con­fined to a mental hospital for the rest of her life, and MacDonell had to combine the rest of his service and diplomatic career with bring­ing up a young, motherless family of three. Nor were matters made better by his posting to Moscow in the 1950s, when tensions were at their highest. He was not one to reveal even out-of-date secrets, so much of his spying activities there must remain unknown, but again he found himself in what was virtually another prison.

HIS flat was undoubtedly bugged and he was followed everywhere by KGB men, whom he christened ‘goons’ after prison camp guards. On two occasions, the embassy was besieged by ‘spontaneous’ – in fact, carefully choreographed and officially-organised – anti-British demonstrations.

There were humourous moments, though. Diplomacy turned out to be an ordeal by vodka, pressed on MacDonell at every opportunity at diplomatic gatherings by his Russian hosts. International prestige depended on who was still standing at the end – and Russians can drink an awful lot of vodka.

The little of McDonell’s spying that he did talk about has a pleasantly amateur air, bordering on farce, such as trying to take photographs of a Russian airfield from the lavatory window of a train – the Russians foiled him by rescheduling the train so it passed the airfield at night. After that, MacDonell left such antics to the Americans, who did not mind their ‘diplomats’ being regularly exposed for such activities and expelled. There were certainly more serious aspects to it all, which MacDonell did not reveal.

When his young family came out on a holiday visit, the goons were baffled by ten-year-old Ranald’s butterfly net and collecting jar. They seemed to regard it as some kind of secret weapon, and followed the child till he returned to the family picnic.

MacDonell did get permission to revisit his birthplace in Baku – but Soviet bureaucracy made him turn round and go back to Moscow within hours of arriving, forbidding him a proper view of the place.

He returned to Britain and, in 1973, he married his second wife, Lois. He was in his sixties when they began a second family, with a son and a daughter. In 1981, they retired to Fortrose on the Black Isle.

MacDonell died in 1999. A memorial to him, with the RAF crest and the Glengarry raven, stands outside the new Museum of the Isles at the Clan Donald centre on Skye.

From Dogfight to Diplomacy: A Spitfire Pilot’s Log 1932-1958, by Donald MacDonell, Pen and Sword Books, £19.99. Available from our Clan Donald Amazon Bookshop, currently at £13.99.