Group Captain WSO ‘Bill’ Randle CBE AFC DFM made his first flight as a passenger in an Avro 504k of Alan Cobham's Flying Circus from a field on Woodbury Common in Devon. That trip confirmed in him an already held ambition to become a pilot. Like thousands of others, the Second World War provided Bill with an opportunity, and 1941 he gained his wings as one of the first graduates from the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma under a training programme known as the Arnold Scheme. On his return to England with a total of 145 hours and 33 minutes flying time, all on single-engined trainers, he was surprised to learn that he had been posted to 12 Operational Training Unit (out) at Chipping Warden, to become a bomber pilot.
By May 1942, Bill was a sergeant pilot with No 150 Squadron, Bomber Command, based at Snaith in Yorkshire, and had already established something of a reputation as a survivor and escaper, having walked away from no fewer than 3 crashes in Vickers Wellingtons, the last of which began with a propeller falling off over East Anglia and ended with a devastating wheels-up landing, in dense fog, on the village green at Dittington, near Peterborough, with the 'Wimpy' careering through a small barn and a house before exploding. "My log book records the only casualties as one cow, about 15 chickens and one very frightened lady, who awoke in bed after we smashed through her kitchen, bringing her down from the bedroom above", recalls Bill. In the course of his career Bill was eventually to survive no fewer than 8 Wellington crashes, for which his colleagues jokingly awarded him an 'Iron Cross, Second Class' in the hope that "this officer will thus be encouraged to strive even harder in the cause of our beloved Luftwaffe"!
Together with his crew of 2 Canadians, a Scotsman and a seventeen year-old Cockney gunner, Bill Randle flew regularly over Nazi Germany, until on 16 September 1942, his Wellington III BJ877 Z-Zebra was hit by a solitary anti-aircraft shell at 23,000 feet over Zwolle, on the Dutch coast, while en route to Essen on his 27th operation of the war. Unaware that his aircraft was badly damaged, he flew into the Ruhr, where he dropped his 4,000lb blockbuster on the target and stayed with the bomber stream, only to be hit again while turning over Aachen. After about 20 minutes, Bill began to lose control and with the Wellington flying a large erratic circle even closer to the Ruhr barrage, Bill and his crew bailed out at 16,000 feet. All landed safely in Belgian countryside, though Bill sustained minor eye and hand injuries while bailing out. Like all Bomber Command aircrew they had been well briefed in escape and evasion tactics (Bill had not one, but two escape kits on him!) and were well aware of the wonderful help available to Allied aircrew from Resistance workers in Europe.
Bill Randle, like the others, began walking by night in a north-westerly direction while hiding and living off the land by day. The idea was to get to the Channel coast, steal a boat and sail home to England. Still wearing his RAF uniform, he walked into a Flanders village and made contact with some local inhabitants who gave him civilian clothes, about £90 in cash, and advice that he was not on the Resistance escape route and should reverse course away from the heavily patrolled Channel coast and head instead for the Mediterrean and Marseilles.
Bill began this journey alone, travelling at first by train, but realising that rail travel would inevitably involve presentation of identity documents that he did not have, he got off the train at Namur to continue on foot. In the Ardennes he made contact with Resistance workers running the most famous escape route of all – the Comete Line. “Thereafter all was straightforward”, he says modestly. It depends on what you mean by 'straightforward'. He spent 10 days hiding in a 'safe house' in a Carmelite monastery, followed by interrogation by Resistance workers, to ensure that he was not a German infiltrator, before being kitted out with clothing and false identity papers showing him to be a Flemish commercial traveller trading in bathroom ceramics. In this guise he journeyed to Brussels and a reunion with Z-Zebra's rear gunner, Sergeant Bob Frost, and Dal Mounts, an American pilot attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force who had flown with him as a passenger on the last flight.
Then, together with a Polish pilot, Teddy Frankowski, who had been wounded in the back but managed to walk almost all the way from Wilhelmshaven to Brussels, they were led by the famous guide Dedede Jongh down the escape route via Brussels, Paris, Biarritz and St Jean de Luz, to the foothills of the Pyrenees, where they were transformed from business-suited commercial travellers into bicycle-riding Basques. They were led over the mountains by the most skillful of hill guides, Florentino, who took more than 300 members of Bomber Command across the Pyrenees into Spain. Spirited across Spain, they finally reached the British Embassy in Madrid, and crossed the border at Algeciras into Gibraltar, from where Bill Randle returned to England a mere 2 months after being shot down. His navigator Sergeant 'Scottie' Brazill returned after 5 months, and bomb-aimer Sergeant Wally Dreschler came home a month later, after enduring a wretched spell in a Spanish concentration camp. Wireless Operator Sergeant Norman Graham was the only one of Z-Zebra's crew to be captured, deliberately giving himself up to protect the Belgian family who had been hiding him.
The MI9 rule that no one who used an escape route could return to operational flying applied to Bill Randle until after D-Day when the routes no longer had need to run to Switzerland and Spain. Soon after his return to England he was commissioned and then, after a short time lecturing on evasion and escape, he settled down to instructing on Wellingtons at the OTUs at Pershore, Stratford-on-Avon and Lossiemouth. He converted to Mosquitos in late 1944 and, still in Bomber Command, finished the War with No 692 Squadron at Gransden Lodge. He was awarded the DFM in January 1943, Mentioned in Dispatches and earned the AFC in 1944.
On 1 January 1946 he was granted a Permanent Commission and started his peacetime career by reverting to training Wellington pilots. In 1948 he began a five year stint in Intelligence work, first as Chairman of AI9, which had taken over the wartime duties of MI9, and then as an Exchange Officer with the USAF, a fascinating tour which lead to his training as a helicopter pilot and a tour of operations in Korea with the 5th Air Rescue Squadron. On his return to the UK he was appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) and awarded the US Air Medal. Bill completed the RAF Staff College course in 1954 and went on to appointments as Joint Secretary of the Defence Policy Committee and Secretary of The Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Defence Science. He returned to flying in 1957, converted to jet fighters, and did a flying tour in Flying Training Command which finished in 1960 with the award of an OBE and a posting to the Joint Services Staff College. After graduation, he served as Wing Commander (Admin Plans) in RAF Germany and in 1963, on promotion to group captain, he undertook the Senior Officer's War Course at Greenwich. From 1964 to 1967 he commanded Royal Air Force Odiham, which he unreservedly reckons were the best years of his service life. Odiham was then working-up as the RAF's Support Helicopter base, introducing both the Wessex and Belvedere to active service. During this time he served as Forward Air Commander of No 30 Group and spent a lot of time away from the Station on duty in Northern Ireland, Germany, Borneo and Zambia.
In 1967 he was made a CBE and posted to the Ministry of Defence as DDOR responsible for the operational requirements of the Anglo-French helicopter package of the Puma, Gazelle and the Lynx. In 1969 he was posted to Biggin Hill. In 1971 Bill Randle retired from the Royal Air Force and went to work at the embryonic RAF Museum, where he served until his second retirement in 1987, first as Public relations Officer, then as Education Officer, Keeper of the Battle of Britain Museum, Curator of the Bomber Command Museum (at the opening of which he was reunited with Z-Zebra's crew for the first time in 40 years) and finally as Director of Appeals. He was Chairman of the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society from 1974 to 1977 , and a Governor of the Royal Star and Garter Home for Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen from 1981 to 1987.
Bill Randle started his very long career as a fund-raiser during which he has raised millions for Registered Charities in the mid-50s. As a serving officer there had to be a limit to his part-time work but he assiduously kept at it throughout his various postings. He dealt with straightforward appeals for funds through the medium of 'begging' letters, undertook and organised sponsored walks and special events such as fly-ins, go-cart races, classic car rallies and specific air displays – anything calculated to make money. He completed the Nijmegen Marches no less than 6 times and once actually led the RAF Laarbruch Pipe Band, sponsored to playing bagpipes over the whole 125 miles of the Marches which, in the event, only just about broke even because of replacement costs in re-reeded pipes and re-skinned drums! His fund-raising work sometimes got him into trouble. He was brought before the Magistrates twice; the first time for allowing the sale of bottled cockles to those attending the Thorney Island Air Show not knowing that his willing army of airmen cockle-pickers had been gathering their largest molluscs in the sewage contaminated mud of Emsworth harbour; the second time for unwittingly diverting the tidal flow in and out of Chichester harbour by building a causeway between Thorney and Pilsea Islands as part of his plan to provide beach facilities on Pilsea for the Service families!
It was in 1968 that he invented his most productive means of raising money in the form of the philatelic commemorative flown covers. Over twenty five years on, he is still hard at it, developing programmes of this sort which mean so much to Registered Charities. More than £4 million has been raised in this way. Bill Randle regularly presents Forces First day Covers in aid of local charities as well as supporting the larger nationals. For example, he is equally happy to support the Bromley Centenary Appeal for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children as he is to fund the RAFA Eagle Lodge Sheltered Housing Appeal. Bill Randle has a longstanding connection with Biggin Hill, starting from 1969, when he became Chairman of the Cranwell Board at the Officers' and Aircrew Selection Centre. Amongst other duties, he controlled the last 2 Battle of Britain Open Day air displays at Biggin Hill in 1970 and 1971, after which he retired from the Royal Air Force. Every year since he has been an active Committee member of the Biggin Hill International Air Fair and, in his well-known fund-raising capacity, will be found as usual each year, on duty co-ordinating activities in the Charities Centre. One thing you will notice if you meet Bill is that he clearly enjoys every minute of the day and, in particular, the time spent on charitable work. When asked why he still works 7 days a week, he reminds us that there are no half measures in charitable fund-raising. “If you see the slightest opportunity to make money, you must grab it and keep on, until it becomes impractical to spend time on it.” Bill's great failing he readily admits is that he finds it so hard to say no to a good idea, or to turn down a challenge. Also when Bill reached the age of 80 he began writing books. To date he has had four published and there is another on the stocks.
Information has been provided by Group Captain Bill Randle from an extract from the Royal Air Forces Escaping Society Magazine. (November 2008)