Royal Auxiliary Air Force Vignettes

The Macdonald Brothers

Flight Lieutenant Harold Kennedy Macdonald and Pilot Officer Donald Kennedy Macdonald

There are so many exciting, inspirational and wonderful stories to be told about the Battle of Britain, and we hear of exceptional feats of heroism – yet so many sad stories linked to the Battle also abound. This is one, told by Wendy Roberts, the niece of brothers Ken and Don Macdonald, Auxiliary Spitfire pilots with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron. Ken and Don both flew in the Battle of Britain and both died in the Battle just a month apart leaving their mother to die of a broken heart a few weeks later.

This is Wendy’s story:

‘Ken’ and ‘Don’ Macdonald were born in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, the younger brothers of my mother. Ken was 27 and Don 21 when war broke out. Ken was educated at Loretto and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he enjoyed rowing. He joined the Auxiliary Air Force in 1935 and became a Writer to the Signet in 1938, following in his father’s footsteps. Don was at Marlborough College, in England (why, I know not) but then followed Ken to Peterhouse, where he joined the University Air Squadron, leaving Cambridge in Spring 1939 to go to Cranwell.

I was lucky to learn about Ken’s character from Mardi Morton, wife of Jim ‘Black’ Morton; she, Betty Denholm, Ken, Jim and George Denholm had been great friends before the war. Ken, Don, Betty and Mardi were on Skye when war broke out and returned immediately with an especially laid on ferry to Kyleakin. Ken had a great love of the West Coast of Scotland and the Cuillin Hills in particular. He took a lot of beautiful photographs, which we still have. He was said to be imaginative, gentle, sensitive and artistic, “part poet and part philosopher” to quote Mardi; she felt he could have been a writer and photographer, she said he was astute and dreamy with plenty of charisma. He found flying magical for the views and his relationship with the beautiful countryside. He was quoted as saying that no war really mattered as long as the Cuillin Hills survived. I have cycled through Skye and can well understand his feelings. Ken loved driving; he had a motorbike at 16 and an MG Sports car later. He would drive from Edinburgh to Kent where my mother had married a fruit farmer; the story goes that he could take 10 miles off the journey by cutting off all the corners! His favourite Spitfire, ‘Stickleback’, was crashed on landing when he lent it to a friend; he then had ‘Firefly’, a bad starter and slow; the third was better but ‘Stickleback’ was best.

When ‘Uncle’ George Denholm, boss of 603, could not lead ‘A’ Flight, Ken did. A letter I have says that returning to Hornchurch from over the Channel he used to “beat up” my father on the Cliffs of Dover, where he served with the Artillery. He would check on our farmhouse and tell my mother the garden needed weeding! He’ bagged’ a Heinkel 113 near the farmhouse but luckily (or skilfully) not on top of it! He had huge admiration for the Polish and Czech pilots.

Ken died on 28th September 1940. He was leading ‘A’ flight and they were met by about 30 “Huns”. 603 had only seven up and got split up. Ken’s Spit was badly hit over Chatham and he started to climb out to parachute to safety but, realising his ’plane would crash on the R.E. barracks he steered it clear, got out onto the wing and jumped, too late and too low. Jim Morton said, “His dreams and ideals were absolutely real to him”.

Ken had broadcast on the BBC in 1939, after the first enemy night marauder; I would love to get a copy and hear his voice. On 16th October 1939 he was with the group of pilots who brought down the first enemy plane over Britain. He is quoted, engraved on glass, in the War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle and was mentioned in Dispatches on 24th September 1941. Alex McKenzie was his groundcrew, and being on leave in Edinburgh when Ken died, he carried his coffin; he was only 19 at the time. I was thrilled to meet Alex in 1999 at a 603 reunion, and saw him several times after that, and I went to his funeral.

“Brother Don” was a different character, very laid back, always laughing, and a bagpipe-playing extrovert. He moved to Hornchuurch with 603 on 27th August 1940. That night they all laughed a lot at dinner and had a good time. The next day Don flew, to relieve another pilot. Ken saw him looking at his controls, rather puzzled, then off they went, Don’s first real action. He was shot down in flames over the Channel. Ken wrote to his parents: “I’m afraid it would be quite untrue to say there is any likelihood of his turning up….. It is all the luck of the game and we must take it as philosophically as we can. We are left without the warmest laughter we ever basked in.”

After losing two sons within a month their mother never recovered and died of a broken heart in December 1940. After a near accident to Don in 1935 she had said: “They tell me I’m not built to be the mother of heroes, I fear they are right.” My mother, my elder sister and I, aged one, moved to Edinburgh in January 1941 to be with my grandfather and away from East Kent. We stayed until 1945. We built up enormous affection for Edinburgh and our home there, but were too young to understand what had been, and was, going on. I still have many memorabilia of “the boys” including Ken’s college oar, which hangs in our kitchen, and his identity discs. Our son, Don, lives in Edinburgh now, and one of his sons has Macdonald as one of his names, so our connection with such a beautiful city remains. As long as squadrons are necessary…..may 603 continue to thrive.

Wendy Roberts 2011