Obituary: Air Marshal Sir Arthur McDonald

In 1937 Arthur McDonald was put in charge of the so-called Biggin Hill experiment. This was vital in developing the system of ground- to- air control without which the RAF could not have won the Battle of Britain. It also convinced the Government that the expense of building a chain of radar stations around Britain's coast was a worthwhile one.

McDonald was born in South Africa and grew up in St Kitts and Antigua. Later he obtained an Engineering degree at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1924 joined the RAF. After a routine peacetime career his critical appointment came in 1937.

When Sir Henry Tizard and his colleagues first demonstrated the potentialities of radar (or Radio Direction Finding as it was then called), there were many who remained to be convinced of its practical application to air defence - and indeed of the real validity of any air defence ("The bomber will always get through," Stanley Baldwin, among others, was quoted as saying). Among those who maintained faith in its practicality was Lord Swinton, the far-seeing Air Minister.

On the airfield at Biggin Hill there was established an experimental flight of fighters designed to assess the merits, not only of radar, but of the whole concept of ground command and control, of which Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, the recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, was such a fervent advocate. Swinton told McDonald at the time of the experiments: "I hope you realise that the whole future of this country depends on the results which you obtain at Biggin Hill."

The results produced convinced even the most sceptical of observers. The vital radar stations, command and control installations and a barely adequate number of modern fighter aircraft were provided in the nick of time before the outbreak of the Second World War. For his contribution to that success McDonald was awarded the Air Force Cross.

He repeated that success in 1941 with the so-called Duxford flare path. At the time enemy intruder aircraft were proving a real menace to our night- flying operations owing to the intensity of airfield lighting which such operations demanded. McDonald's Duxford flare path was so cleverly designed as to be invisible to the enemy, so much so that during its use only one aircraft was shot down when landing at Duxford, and that because the pilot, a visitor, insisted on using the normal landing lights.

Unusually McDonald combined high technical ability with a real gift for dealing with human beings at all levels. Not only was he eventually to become Air Member for Personnel in the Air Council but he was popular and respected in a number of service appointments mixing with international organisations and people. These included being AOC of Training at air headquarters India and Commander-in-Chief of the fledgling Pakistani Air Force. He won a great reputation for understanding, managing and encouraging some of the best people involved in the formative years of several air forces; and for fairness and integrity in the Royal Air Force.

Outside the Service his overriding interest was in sailing, where he excelled both in administration and personal performance. He founded the renowned Seletar Yacht Club in Singapore and later helped to start the Royal Air Force Sailing Association on the Welsh Harp; both clubs being for all ranks. He raced 12ft dinghies with the Ranelagh Sailing Club and later X-boats with the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, winning his last race when over 90 years old. His wife, and the mother of his four children, served as his skilled and enthusiastic crew throughout his sailing career. He represented Great Britain in the Firefly single-handed class at the 1948 Olympic Games, in which he was the oldest competitor and so took the Olympic oath at the opening ceremony.

Arthur McDonald lived his long life in challenging times. He met all the challenges that came his way.

Christopher Foxley-Norris

Arthur William Baynes McDonald, air force officer: born 14 June 1903; AFC 1938; CB 1949, KCB 1958; Commander-in-Chief, Royal Pakistan Air Force 1955-57; married 1928 Mary Gray (two sons, two daughters); died 26 July 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee