Obituary: Air Commodore Frederick Rainsford

Bernard Adams
Friday 09 April 1999 23:02

FREDERICK RAINSFORD had a "good" war - as a bomber pilot who flew many missions over Germany and North Africa, commanded two bomber squadrons and was decorated. But it was his peacetime contribution to the Berlin airlift which he believed was the chief achievement of a lively lifetime of public service.

Like many others, he believed that the success of the airlift was vital in deflecting the threat of a Third World War. June 1948 was a moment to be resolute: "To have surrendered [Berlin] would have been contrary to all that we had fought for and so dearly won," was how he put it in his Memoirs of an Accidental Airman (1986).

The memoirs tell, with his characteristic self-deprecation and wit, of an Anglo-Irish childhood which was the prelude to a remarkably full and varied life. He was born in 1909 in Castlebar, Co Mayo, in the west of Ireland, where his father was stationed as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The troubles of the early 1920s forced the Rainsford family out of their Carrick-on- Shannon home and into residence in the safer haven of Belfast.

Rainsford had a brother and three sisters (of whom the youngest, Marie, survives him in Co Galway), and his father's pension as a retired policeman did not go far. So, after being educated in Belfast at Campbell College, and rejected by the Navy, Frederick, "undecided as to how to earn a living", went to Kenya as a pupil farmer on the Mau Escarpment.

The Depression brought this episode to an end, so he enrolled as an agricultural student at Queen's University, Belfast, where he became president of the literary and debating society, the Literific. At university he learned to fly and in 1936 he was commissioned in the RAF and served at various stations in England before the outbreak of war.

First he was involved in training pilots; then in 1941 he was sent to command a Wellington bomber squadron in North Africa. Flying from Kabrit on the Suez Canal, the Wellingtons tried to support the Army by cutting off the Germans' sea-borne supplies, raiding Benghazi harbour night after night.

Rainsford graphically describes his feelings in those gloomy months before the Alamein dawn:

We had been quite a while in the desert, had done our best, but it didn't seem to be getting anywhere. It was a mood of course that passed, but there is a definite limit to anyone's courage and endurance and by January 1942 some of us felt we were getting a little bit near it.

He felt the pity of war more acutely than its glory. In North Africa, and later, he found it intensely difficult to come to terms with the loss of so many close friends.

Eventually he flew home and, with difficulty, regained some equilibrium. Then he had a spell training pilots to fly Wellingtons, in which role he had the help of one of the war's least likely but most charming adjutants, Bob Boothby. It was in this job that the "Accidental Airman" briefly lived up to his name. While teaching a senior officer how to fly a Wellington, Rainsford set out to demonstrate a copybook landing but, ignoring warning signals in the cockpit and even radio messages from the ground, did so without the benefit of his undercarriage, which he had completely forgotten to lower.

This setback did not prevent him from learning to fly Lancaster bombers and taking command of 115 Squadron in 1943. There he flew missions over the Ruhr, and other European targets and constantly wrestled with the problem of "whether to put my name down for an attack on Berlin, or to try to persuade myself that the Commanding Officer was quite indispensable and that I was too valuable to lose". The award of the DFC in October 1943 made clear what his superiors thought about his solution to this problem.

He fell ill at the end of 1943 and the rest of his war was quieter. He ran a station on his own, Gamston in Nottinghamshire, and when the war ended he briefly became a civil servant, before returning to the RAF as Deputy Director of Air Support and Transport Operations at the Air Ministry in King Charles Street. One of Asto's roles was to supply, in the event of an emergency, the British garrison in Berlin.

By mid-June 1948 co-operation between the Allies and the Soviets had broken down, and by the 24th the city was blockaded. The only access for the Western powers was through three air corridors. It was soon clear that the whole operational strength of Transport Command was going to be required if the British garrison and the citizens of Berlin were not to starve.

By July the tonnage of supplies had been doubled, and the Americans had begun to fly into Berlin, Templehof. The Army became involved in loading aircraft at RAF airfields in Britain, and within a few weeks there was an aircraft movement at Berlin, Gatow, every 90 seconds.

From early on Rainsford was effectively the senior staff officer in the Air Ministry responsible to the Government for maintaining the airlift. He faced the problem of the sheer physical tiredness of crews flying day and night, sortie after sortie, in all weathers. Then there was the question of using civil aircraft to supplement RAF planes; the Treasury began to balk at the cost and the Air Minister, Arthur Henderson, would summon him at the slightest sign that the tonnage of deliveries was dropping.

The airlift continued throughout the winter of 1948-49 and became a huge operation, apparently capable of going on indefinitely. By June 1949 this intense, but peaceful, battle was won when the Soviets lifted their blockade; Rainsford's contribution was recognised with his appintment as CBE.

Next his career took him to Athens, as Air Attache, and then, after leaving the RAF in 1962, he took to the Diplomatic Service like a duck to water. He had postings in India and Korea before finally becoming Deputy Consul General in New York.

Frederick - or "Turkey" as he was widely known - Rainsford delighted in people and words and humour. He loved the poetry of Yeats and said: "I still feel that to write one good poem is ample justification for our brief sojourn on earth."

Frederick Fitzpatrick Rainsford, air force officer and diplomat: born Castlebar, Co Mayo 1 December 1909; DFC 1943; CBE 1949; married 1939 Doreen Ralph (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1949 Audrey Meyer (one son, one daughter); died Brockhampton, Gloucestershire 13 February 1999.

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