James Atterby McCairns was born in Niagara Falls, USA in September 1919; son of an English engineer, he came to England when he was 12 years old.
In March 1939 he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and after his training was posted to No 616 Squadron.
In the early summer of 1941, No 616 was one of the Spitfire squadrons in the Tangmere Wing commanded by the legless ace Wing Commander Douglas Bader and on July 6 the Wing was tasked with supporting six Sterling heavy bombers bombing a target in Lille, France.
Unfortunately, McCairns was shot down and wounded, but was able to force-land his Spitfire on the beach at Dunkirk.
He was captured by the Germans, but managed to escape on January 22, 1942 from a prisoner-of-war (PoW) camp, Stalag IXc.
He was looked after by the Belgian resistance which arranged for his repatriation via Gibraltar. ‘Mac’ never forgot the debt he owed to these resistance workers.
In spite of not holding a commission, not being fluent in French and not having the normal requirement of 500 hours’ night flying experience, he was accepted as a Lysander pick-up pilot to carry agents and resistance personnel into and out of French farm fields at night.
His first operation from Tangmere was on the night of November 25/26, 1942 and his last with No 161 Special Duties Squadron on December 16/17, 1943. During these 13 months he was commissioned and completed 34 missions, of which 25 were successful, more than any other pick-up pilot. Nineteen of his operations were double Lysander missions, mostly with Peter Vaughan-Fowler as the other Lysander pilot.
The majority of Mac’s flights were uneventful, his most dangerous one being his return flight to Tangmere after hitting a 12ft poplar tree on final approach to a field near Amboise on the night of April 14/15, 1943.
Thinking only an aerial had been torn away, he took off, but realised immediately that he had a more serious problem. However, he managed to fly back to Tangmere and after landing, found that the spinner, the centre boss of the propeller, was badly dented on one side and that the tailplane was attached by only one bracket held on by a single screw.
In September 1943, Mac with his CO, Squadron Leader Hugh Verity, and Peter Vaughan-Fowler, carried out the squadron’s first treble Lysander aircraft operation.
The mission was successful and accomplished with all three Lysanders landing, dropping-off and picking-up agents and departing in nine minutes.
On returning safely to Tangmere, Mac recounted that he had flown at low level along the Loire waiting for his turn to land and had heard a strange ‘phitt’ sound in the cockpit. The next morning his ground crew showed him two round holes in the side windows of his cockpit.
A bullet had entered the cockpit and must have missed his nose by just three inches.
During his tour with 161’s Lysander flight, McCairns was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses to add to his Military Medal he had been awarded for his escape from the German PoW camp in 1942.
Following his successful tour with 161, he was posted to a staff position to scrutinise proposed landing sites for Lysander and Lockheed Hudson (a much larger aircraft) clandestine operations.
He completed the war flying Hawker Tempests with Nos 3 and 56 Squadrons.
After the war James McCairns remained in the RAF, but was tragically killed when flying a No 616 Squadron Mosquito which crashed near RAF Finningley, Yorkshire on June 13, 1948.
n This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s curator, is the18th in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the museum, including opening times and entry prices can be found on the website: www.tangmere-museum.org.uk