Obituary / Jackie Mann

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The Independent Online
Jackie Mann had his time of glory 55 years ago, when he was a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, but had fame thrust on him by becoming one of the last hostages to be freed in Beirut.

Many will remember the moment the RAF, with rare delicacy, managed to combine time and memory by arranging for a Spitfire to fly overhead as Jackie Mann emerged from the plane which brought him from the forced freedom ceremonies for the benefit of the Syrians in Damascus to the real welcome at the Lyneham air station in Britain.

Mann was a sergeant pilot in the Battle of Britain, and was shot down several times, on the last occasion being seriously burned. He became one of the "guinea-pigs", the fliers whose bodies were painfully and slowly patched up by the great plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, and attended meetings of that dwindling band whenever he could. For Jackie Mann, those wartime days were the highspot of his career. Behind the bar he later managed in Beirut he kept a book listing the names of all those who fought in the great air battle. If someone boasted of having taken part, Mann would look up the book. "Can't find your name here," he would say. And that would be the end of that particular customer.

After his wartime service, Mann joined Middle East Airlines, and eventually became chief pilot of what was and still is the best airline in the region. He married Sunnie McWhirter, who was the company's first air hostess, and together they lived the good life in pre-war Beirut - drinks at the St George's Club with the other English expatriates, the London papers delivered a day late, shopping at Smith's supermarket for English food. Jackie remained the complete Englishman, hardly noticing those among whom he lived. In the 42 years he spent in Beirut, he learned hardly a word of Arabic, and disliked the marvellous Lebanese food.

In other ways too, Jackie Mann was stuck in time. When Middle East Airlines converted its fleet from turbo-prop to jet planes, he found difficulty in making the transition. Eventually, he retired early. Then came the time of the doldrums. He managed two bars - the first, frequented by journalists, he took some pleasure in naming the "Cock and Bull". From flying planes, he moved to talking about them with the expatriate pilots who still flew in and out of Beirut.

Gradually, the scene changed. In 1975 the civil war in Lebanon began, and the good life was over. The streets became the battleground, inflation made comfortable living more difficult, and slowly the expatriate community on which Mann depended dwindled away. When the hostage-taking began almost all foreigners left the country, but Jackie and his wife, who had started a riding stable, had no thought of going. He was convinced he was safe, because, he said, everyone knew he had no money and was of no importance to anyone.

He was wrong: deprived of other targets, the kidnappers seized Mann in 1989, releasing him at the end of 1991. When he came out, Mann revealed he had been beaten during captivity, but within days he turned from a frail old man into the indomitable character many had known - a man who was very angry at his captors. No turning the other cheek for Jackie Mann; if he had managed to get his kidnappers at the end of a gun, there is no doubt what he would have done. His period of convalescence as a guest of the RAF must have been one of the happiest times of his life. He was back in the milieu he loved best and missed so much, given special respect by senior officers young enough to be his sons, who paid to him the tribute due to The Few.

But once that time was over, Mann was not going to remain: after being an Englishman abroad so long, he could not take the cold and fogs of a British winter. He did not go back to Beirut, which he would certainly have done if it had been feasible, but settled instead for Cyprus, that haven of Britishness in the eastern Mediterranean. There, he found old flying cronies, friends from Beirut to reminisce with, English beer and food.

This last phase of Jackie Mann's life, until his wife's death from cancer in November 1992, was perhaps the best of all, a tiny recompense for the awful time of captivity.

John Bulloch

Jack Mann, pilot: born 1914; CBE 1992; married 1943 Mrs Sunnie McWhirter (died 1992; one daughter); died Nicosia, Cyprus 12 November 1995.