Wing Commander Ken Mackenzie: Decorated pilot who rammed a Messerschmitt in mid-air during the Battle of Britain

Monday 29 June 2009 02:07

Although Wing Commander Kenneth William Mackenzie shot down a number of German planes during and after the Battle of Britain, he will always be remembered for one particular incident over the English Channel.

He was flying a Hawker Hurricane, its ammunition spent. His quarry was a Messerschmitt 109 fighter which tried to evade him by diving almost to sea level, intent on heading for France and safety. Mackenzie knocked it into the sea by the extraordinarily dangerous move – very definitely not recommended in any training manual – of using his plane’s wing to shear its tail off, sending it spiralling out of control. When the German plane went into the waves, Mackenzie nursed his damaged craft back to England, crash-landing in a field near Folkestone in Kent.

His highly unorthodox manoeuvre earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross “for skill and gallantry”, the awed admiration of colleagues, and the nickname of “Super Mac”. The incident instantly established him as one of the aces of 501 Squadron, which he had joined less than two weeks earlier.

On the same October 1940 day as he downed the Messerschmitt, he had already shared in another “kill” over London docks and attacked a further plane. In all, he was to destroy at least eight enemy planes, including half a dozen Messerschmitts and a number of bombers, before being taken prisoner. Even in captivity, he proved a handful for the Germans, making numerous escape attempts.

Born in Belfast in June 1916, he was educated in the city, attending Methodist College and then studying engineering at Queen's University. Fascinated with flying from an early age, he was 16 when he qualified as a pilot with the North of Ireland Aero Club. He joined the RAF in 1939 and after training at several sites was posted to Kenley in Croydon, which during the Battle of Britain was one of Fighter Command’s busiest bases.

Mackenzie flew Hurricane fighters, which have been overshadowed by the more famous and more glamorous Spitfires since the war. Advocates of the Hurricane point out, however, that it was Britain’s principal fighter during the Battle of Britain. Its pilots were more numerous – there were 32 Hurricane squadrons compared to 19 Spitfire squadrons during the epic battle – and they shot down far more German aircraft.

The Hurricane was slightly slower and not as sleek as the Spitfire, but Mackenzie excelled at flying it. His 501 Squadron was in the thick of the Battle, as Mackenzie recalled in his 1987 autobiography, Hurricane Combat: the Nine Lives of a Fighter Pilot. The book was commended for what was described as its unvarnished sincerity.

He wrote: “On many, many days it was hectic, nerve-racking, physically and mentally exhausting, but at the same time exhilarating and stimulating. No heroics and little if any sentiment – just a job to be done to the best of our ability.”

The Battle of Britain claimed the lives of more than 500 British pilots in an intensive three-month period. Fewer than 100 of the British fighter airmen who flew in it are still alive. In 1941, Mackenzie switched from daytime dogfights to nocturnal stalking, roaming the night skies in a Hurricane in search of German bombers. By this stage he was with 247 Squadron, based in Cornwall. He shot down two Germans, a Heinkel and a Junkers 88, both of which crashed into the sea.

His own turn to hit the water came in the autumn of 1941 when his Hurricane was hit by anti-aircraft fire during an attack on a German airfield in Brittany. He managed to paddle his emergency dinghy to the French coast, where he was captured by a German patrol. Held in various prisoner- of-war camps, he made a number of attempts to escape via tunnels. These were unsuccessful; but he feigned insanity so convincingly that the Germans repatriated him in October 1944.

This was, from their point of view, a mistake, for he launched into a highly effective new phase of his career as a trainer. Regarded as an exceptional instructor, he trained pilots during the rest of the war and afterwards, successfully adapting to a new generation of fighters such as the Gloster Meteor jet. He went on to serve in the Middle East and Africa before retiring from the RAF in 1967 with the rank of wing commander. He later became secondin- command of the Zambian Air Force and moved on to a business career with Air Kenya. He rounded off an entire career spent in aviation by acting as a consultant.

He moved to Cyprus and later to England, where he was a regular attendee at reunions and events to commemorate wartime flying. In 2000 he moved to Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where a street was named Ken Mackenzie Close in his honour.

While in the RAF he was occasionally described as irascible, though he appears to have mellowed in his last years: one local councillor described him as, “such a nice gentleman and a true hero”. It was also said of him that, “He never tired of chatting to youngsters about those dark days. He was a charming man and full of stories, both about aviation and personalities.”

In addition to the DFC, he was awarded the Air Force Cross for meritorious service. He was a strong supporter of the campaign for a Battle of Britain monument which was eventually unveiled on London’s Victoria Embankment in 2005. He declared: “This is a long time overdue. If we had lost, Britain wouldn’t be here today.”

David McKittrick

Wing Commander Kenneth William Mackenzie, fighter pilot, pilot trainer and aviation consultant: born Belfast June 1916; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died 4 June 2009

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