Sunday, March 28, 2010

The WW2 RAF poster boy now aged 91

The dashing young airman who became the poster boy of the RAF during World War II has been revealed – 65 year after the conflict ended.

Squadron Leader Ian Blair, now 91, was 22 years old when the famous snap was taken in 1940 after his daring flying in north Africa earned him a medal.

But he didn’t realise his fame until two years later when, on a break in Bournemouth, he saw his face on a propaganda notice warning 'Careless Talk May Cost His Life'.

Flying ace: Squadron Leader Ian Blair with the classic World War II poster he unwittingly posed for at age 22

The poster, aimed at raising morale on the Home Front and spreading vital educational messages, was one of the most enduring images of the war.

Last week, a recently unearthed stash of mint condition pictures sold at auction for more than £25,000 after attracting bids from around the world.

Mr Blair, from Brentwood, Essex, who was born the year the RAF was formed, yesterday told of the moment in 1942 when he first saw the poster.

He said: ‘I wasn't even aware that it had been produced. The photo had been taken two years earlier, in North Africa, when I was a 22-year-old corporal.

‘I didn't think anything more of it, and then all of a sudden, there I was, hanging on the wall of a post office.’

In the famous image, Mr Blair is smiling in his airman's kit as if he hadn't a care in the world.

But just the day before, the former air ace of 113 Squadron had saved himself and a comrade with an act of bravery that won him the coveted Distinguished Flying Medal.

Dashing: Mr Blair was pictured in north Africa in 1940 after earning the Distinguished Flying Medal for bravery

He said: ‘I look cheerful in the photo. I always look cheerful. But it doesn't tell you the true story - the full picture.

‘The day before, we had been sent out to bomb an enemy airfield at Derna, about 400 miles west of Alexandria.

‘We were in a Blenheim bomber, and I was the observer. That's the guy in the front who does the navigation and drops the bombs.

‘But as soon as I had released the bombs, a fighter-plane attacked us.’ Glasgow-born Sqn Ldr Blair still has the blood-stained flight log he made that day. The pencil entries end suddenly.

He said: ‘There was an almighty bang. When I looked round, the pilot - a chap called Reynolds - was slumped forward on the controls.

Hero: Mr Blair with his medals on his dress uniform

‘I think it was the very last round that killed him. It was really unfortunate. His luck had run out.

‘Then the aircraft went into a steep dive.’

Despite having never flown an aircraft in his life before that moment, the young airman - paid one shilling and sixpence per day extra to fill in as part-time air crew - took charge.

He said: ‘From that moment the only thing going through my mind was survival. Everything happened so quickly, and we had to get the heck out of there.

‘I managed to pull the pilot's body off his seat and get the aircraft under control. But we still had to get home and land the thing.

‘My gunner, Hank, sent a message back to base saying: “We're in dire trouble here, the observer is flying the aircraft.”

‘Lo and behold, when we got back to base there was whole gallery of people, cars, ambulances and fire tenders all lined up waiting for the ultimate - but it didn't happen.

‘I had spent a long time watching pilots, and made a textbook landing. We came down in a shower of dust.

‘Perhaps I was a bit over-confident. The air officer commanding the base apparently said: “If that guy can fly an aircraft without a pilot's course, let's send him on a pilot's course.”’

He was presented with his DFM by George VI.

Mr Blair, who joined the RAF as a boy entrant apprentice aged 16 in 1934, went on to fly Spitfires against the Luftwaffe, and was shot down twice before the war ended.

He said: ‘They say that if you walk away from a landing, it's a good landing.

‘I spent 11 months in hospital after one crash but the strangest effect was psychological.

‘Each aircraft has its own smell. After the incident in the Blenheim, I couldn't bear the smell of Blenheims. It was the same after I was shot down in a Spitfire.

‘The quack prescribed a daily glass of milk with three drops of iodine. My friends were quite envious because nobody else got milk.’

Iconic: The well-known propoganda poster was among a selection recently sold for £25,000 at auction

After the war he served in Singapore and Malta and retired from the RAF in 1977, having served for 44 years.

He was an honoured guest at the RAF's 90th birthday celebrations two years ago, where he was introduced to the Queen.

Today, he says his thoughts are with British servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said: ‘I know how difficult it is on the ground with Improvised Explosive Devices. The sense of the unknown must have a terrible effect on their morale.

‘You can't compare the two eras though. Back in my day we never had enough equipment. The finances were always a problem. There was never enough money for anything.

‘The trouble with the politicians was that they wanted the Forces to do too much with not enough people.

‘What really impresses me nowadays is the computerisation. The mind boggles.

‘When I was a navigator, we had to work out our courses laboriously. Now you just press a button.’

In his tenth decade, Mr Blair - who had four children with his late wife, Vera, and has ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren - shows no sign of slowing down.

He regularly tours the country giving PowerPoint presentations to schools and veteran's associations on his wartime experiences.

He said: ‘I can't leap into a Spitfire with careless abandon as I used to in my younger days. But I do enjoy sitting in flight simulators.

‘I have always been interested in flying. My first flight was when I was ten. I paid three shillings to go up with my hero, pilot Sir Alan Cobham.

‘And at Sir Alan Cobham's flying circus I met WE Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.

‘Were the books true to life? Not really. Well, perhaps to some degree.’

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