Too late the hero

HE was one of the greatest of the Few - the handful of young men from Fighter Command who wrecked Hitler's invasion plans by stopping the Luftwaffe winning control of Britain's skies.

But more than 60 years after his death, the nation has yet to properly recognise Achibald McKellar's contribution to the RAF's greatest triumph.

The Battle of Britain pilot from Bearsden chalked up 21 confirmed "kills", earning him a place in RAF history as one of its top fighter aces.

A grateful country awarded the dashing young squadron leader the DSO, DFC and Bar.

But the nation continues to deny him a place on the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour at Westminster Abbey - because he died eight hours too late.

He was killed when his Hurricane was shot down and crashed in the grounds of a manor house in Kent early on November 1, 1940. The Battle of Britain is officially considered to have ended at midnight the previous day.

"Killer McKellar" was not on the roster for duty on the day he died at the age of 28. He only took on the patrol as a favour to a fellow pilot who had just returned from leave.

Later that fateful day Archie's flight lieutenant recorded in his diary: "Archie McKellar's charming personality, generosity, wit and vivacity will be much missed, not only by the squadron, but by all with whom he came in contact."

And the then Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair said: "When I met this little Scot, I recognised in him the qualities of a leader of men. His squadron would have followed him anywhere."

Two days before he died, Archie had been awarded the DSO for "outstanding courage and determination" and his "magnificent inspiration to his fellow pilots."

ARCHIE was born in Paisley but his family came to live in Bearsden in the mid-30s when they moved into a house in Brora Drive, Kessington.

Two obstacles stood in the way of the boy whose exploits read like something out of a Boy's Own adventure story. First his father, John, who had taken Archie into the family plasterer's business as an apprentice, refused him permission to apply to join the RAF. Somewhat prophetically, he told him flying was too dangerous an occupation. Archie sidestepped that obstacle by taking flying lessons in secret at the Scottish Flying Club at Abbotsinch, paying for them out of his own pocket.

The first his father knew of his son becoming a pilot was when he one day swooped low over the family home, waggling the wings of the Tiger Month trainer and dropping a box of chocolates to his mum, Meg.

The other obstacle that presented itself to Archie was that at 5ft 4ins, he was too short to reach the foot controls of the fighters he flew. Wooden blocks made up for his lack of inches.

On November 8, 1936 Archie was commissioned as a pilot officer in the City of Glasgow 602 Squadron. By 1938 he attained the rank of flying officer. But even born airmen like Archie can make mistakes and a year later, when learning to fly the squadron's new Spitfires, he forgot that unlike the Gloster Gauntlets he'd been used to, it had a retractable undercarriage. He forgot to lower the wheels and made a rather undignified belly landing.

Archie did not have to wait long to prove he could handle a Spitfire. On October 6, 1939 Britain came under aerial attack for the first time in the war when Junkers JU88 bombers raided Rosyth naval base. One of the bombers crashed into the Forth after falling victim to Archie's guns.

Just 12 days later Archie led the attack on a Heinkel HE111 which crashed on a hillside near Humbie in East Lothian. It was the first Luftwaffe plane brought down on British soil. Before the year was out Archie had turned another hapless Heinkel crew's visit to Scotland into a one-way trip.

By the following June Hitler was in command of the continent and the British Empire braced itself for its finest hour. Archie McKellar was posted to 605 County of Wark Squadron with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

His achievements there included downing three Heinkels in one action over Newcastle with another bomber, last seen with smoke gushing from an engine, listed as a probable. He is also recorded as having shot down eight planes in eight days.

BUT perhaps his most remarkable feat was in downing three Heinkels with a single burst of fire.

That happened on September 9 when the squadron, by this time based at Croydon, was scrambled to intercept a large force of bombers and fighters heading towards the south east. Archie fired on one Heinkel which immediately blew up, taking another raider with it. A third Heinkel flew into the stream of bullets, black smoke erupted from its engines and it too plunged to the ground.

As the London Blitz reached its height, Archie wrote to an uncle in Glasgow: "I have been down here for two weeks, taking part in the Battle of London and find it most exciting."

One story, possibly apocryphal, tells of Archie dining in the mess one evening when the airfield was bombed. Abandoning his meal, he raced out to his Hurricane and took off into the night sky, returning not long after to finish his meal and tell his astounded companions: "I got the ........."

Archie's courage and brilliant handling of a combat aircraft won him the admiration and respect of his fellow airmen. Some of his fellow officers, however, schooled in the old boy network, were dismayed to see him on familiar terms with the lower ranks. "Just call me Mack," he would tell them. The stiff upper lip set didn't like it. It was whispered that some in the officer's mess saw the plasterer's son from Bearsden as something of an upstart.

How Archie met his end on that fateful morning of November 1 remains a mystery. He became separated from his comrades in a brief scrap with the enemy over Kent. One theory is that he might have rendezvoused later with Messerschmitt BF109s, mistaking them for planes from his own squadron. Others dispute that, saying a man who once bagged five 109s in one day would never mistake them for friendly aircraft. Others believe he simply made the cardinal error of going off in pursuit of the enemy on his own.

An intriguing postscript to the story lies in the discovery of the wreckage of an ME109 close to that of his own plane. Was it Killer McKellar's final victim?