Tribute by Group Captain Paul Macdonald
It is with great sadness that I have to inform the membership that dear Jack Vowles has made his last “Fly Pass” sadly he passed away on 15th January 2015. He was very proud of his association with the Royal Air Force and with Malta, and rightly so.
Jack wasn’t conscripted in the Second World War; he was a volunteer joining in 1939. He was seventeen years old. Clifford, Jack’s Dad, said it would make a man of him. Bertha, Jack’s mother, was not quite so impressed. As for the girl Jack had been courting since he left school at sixteen. Jack wanted to be a pilot but given the skills he developed in his father’s business, the RAF insisted he become an engineer. Jack Vowles was no ordinary engineer. He soon found himself posted to RAF Bircham Newton, a fighter base in Norfolk. He served there throughout the Battle of Britain. One morning, there were four strange aircraft on the airfield. They weren’t British but they had roundels. They were French, even though it was months after the armistice they signed with Germany. With an understanding of French, Jack volunteered to re-label all the metric instruments in the aircraft. One day, when in the cockpit, a voice said:‘Hello, what are you doing?’
The newcomer identified himself as was Pilot Officer Williams - ‘Willie’ from then on. Jack explained and Willie asked if the aircraft were serviceable. When Jack said yes, Willie simply said: ‘Let’s go, let’s fly them.
’Over the next few days Jack accompanied the young pilot on air tests on each of the four aircraft. Experimenting with the engines, Jack discovered how they could achieve more power. And then one day the aircraft were gone; so was Willie. The word was they’d gone to Malta. As far as Jack was concerned, he was done with them. But he wasn’t.
The aircraft were Lockheed Martin Maryland’s, built in the United States to fill a French order, crated and shipped to England, re-built, then taken to Malta by an Australian. They created a legend. Jack Vowles is part of that legend.
When Jack was warned for embarkation, he headed for Halifax and his girlfriend. Her name of course was Barbara. They were married by special licence two weeks short of Jack’s twentieth birthday. After precious few days together he joined a convoy on the Clyde. Jack and Barbara had no idea how long they’d be apart. In the event it was the best part of four years.
Ten days later Jack found himself outside the guardroom at RAF Luqa in Malta. He wasn’t very happy, having left a few things behind. He’d left his young bride of a few days in Halifax. He’d also left all of the fillings from his double teeth in mid-Atlantic. Despite the time of year, it had been so cold they had all shattered. The ship’s dentist gave Jack the bad news every single one of his double teeth had to come out then and there, and there was no anaesthetic. A medical orderly sat on each of Jack’s knees with another holding his shoulders down.
Jack had also left something else behind - his ship, aground on the Spanish coast. The captain told everyone to prepare for internment. There were 664 airmen on board. They made up their own minds and promptly took to the boats to row toward Gibraltar.
So, when Jack eventually got to Malta, separated from his mates and with very sore gums, he was decidedly unimpressed with life. Then he heard a familiar voice: ‘Hello Jack. What are you doing here?’ It was Willie. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing or who I’m with’, said Jack.‘Well, you’re with us now,’ said Willie, ’69 Squadron.’ Then Willie said: ‘There’s someone I want you to meet tomorrow morning’. The following morning Jack met a man he had would refer to as ‘Warby’ for the rest of his life, a man who left an impression on Jack that never left him - Adrian Warburton.
Warby wanted to know everything Jack had told Willie. He explained if he overflew an enemy airfield which had German fighters on the ground, he had a good chance of making it home. If they were airborne, he had an evens chance at best. But if they were higher than he was, it would be a ‘shaky do’. He needed more speed. He asked Jack to show him how to get it. Jack explained.‘Let’s go,’ said Warby.
Within minutes they were airborne and Jack demonstrated what to do with the engines to get more speed. What Jack showed Warby saved his life and that of his crew. On landing, Warby said ‘I want you to look after my aircraft from now on’.
Adrian Warburton went on to become the RAF’s most highly decorated recce pilot of all time becoming a wing commander at twenty-four. Then he went missing; he was found nearly sixty years later.
Jack went on to serve with 69 Squadron for the rest of Malta’s war. He slept in tents, barrack blocks, the Tower House Hotel in Sliema and he was bombed out of all of them. He was hospitalised twice, once to have his appendix removed, after which he was put on light duties for a while, while bombs fell all around. Jack ended up living in somewhere he thought entirely appropriate: the former Poor House and Lunatic Asylum near Luqa. Jack had nine lives and used up eight of them in some of the most extraordinary and harrowing circumstances imaginable.
When Barbara met Jack at Halifax railway station when he was shipped home she gasped when she saw how much weight her former strapping husband had lost. He had lost something else too; many of his friends. He visited them often and when he left he would say farewell to them in Maltese - sahha.
In November last year I was very pleased to pay a visit to them on Jack’s behalf. They rest in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Capuccini. Five share the same grave, all having died on the same day only a few feet from Jack. Not far away from them is another grave: Flight Lieutenant Edward Julian Ainslee Williams DFC. Jack knew him as Willie.
On Willie’s graves is a short verse:‘It is well with you, among the chosen few; the very brave, the very true.’
It applies to all of those who rest there. And it applies in full measure to Jack Vowles. It is an honour to have known Jack and to have spent so many hours talking to him. It’s an honour now to say a little about him. As I look around it is very clear he made very good use of his ninth life. But it was time to hand it back a fortnight ago. By then he was in a beautiful place with caring staff all around and his family not far away regardless of distance. So farewell to my newest and my oldest friend. Sahha Jack.
A few words from Michael Gaw - GCIA National Secretary and great friend of Jack's
Most of the members that have attended the Annual Malta Reunion, AGM’s and other events will remember Jack with his camera taking video films and selling them on to the members afterwards, I have a collection going back many years. He was very persistent in getting the right shot and woe be tide anyone who got in his way. We join with Paul in saying goodbye to an old and loyal friend of the Association may you rest in peace. “You will not be forgotten, we will remember you”