It’s June in 1944. What would become known as D-Day is a mere four days away. The Martin 187 Baltimore and its four man crew are performing a routine bombing raid enemy lines in the East of Rome.
The aircraft suddenly encounters difficulties on its return journey as an engine begins to fail. With the other three members of the crew stationed in cockpits near the front of the plane, Wicklow native, Ted Veal, a rear gunner, managed to perform an escape from the flailing jet from the rear.
His first ever parachute jump, the London born Ted found himself sliding down the side of the Italian mountain range before hearing the clamorous sound of the Baltimore 187 exploding in the distance behind him, with his colleagues still on board.
Veal would take cover behind enemy lines and, after surviving a number of close encounters with the German forces, the Allies advanced into Italy and he was returned to his platoon a few days later.
While Ted’s story of defying death and becoming a member of the illustrious Caterpillar Club, a club exclusive to those who have successfully parachuted out of burning aircraft, is well documented, the story of his fellow crew members are less known.
Veal spent time visiting the families of his fallen colleagues in the aftermath of his war involvement. Later in 1944, Ted would visit the family of the Baltimore’s pilot, Peter Hill. He met with the mother of Hill in her Hampshire home and his grandparents in London. Ted also met Hill’s three year old daughter Valerie, who goes by Val.
Today, it’s June 2019 and we sit around a riverside table alongside Ted, Val, who now goes by the surname Irvine, and her husband Chris in The Bridge Tavern in Wicklow Town. A meeting 75 years in the making has come about after a cousin of Val incidentally stumbled across an Irish Times video of a 93 year old Ted riding the wooden rollercoaster at Tayto Park.
With the flowing Vartry River stream as the backdrop, the trio reminisce about Peter’s life.
Having learnt his trade in Dunkirk, Val tells us that her father was transferred to the RAF. Though excelling in his role, Peter was no conventional flyer.
“Peter was colour blind, he wasn’t supposed to fly solo because he couldn’t tell the colours of the landing lights, whether they were green or red,” told Val.
“That would be an important thing to be able to do”, joked Chris. But, Val was quick to mention that colour blindness came with its unorthodox advantages, such as being able to see through camouflage.
However, it was Ted who knew Peter Hill the most. The pair met for the first time in 1941, and the duo flew together for a further three and a half years before Hill’s death in June 1944.
“I knew Peter for three and a half years,” remarked Ted. At the time, the majority of pilots were officers and did not socialize with aircrew, mainly staffed by other ranks, as the 24 yr old pilot deemed it ridiculous as he had been on the same missions with his crew for years.’
Ted was fortunate to experience many cultures and countries alongside Peter. Whether it was bombing crossroads, towing gliders, the two did it all together. However, their most famous story began after a bizarre incident in French airspace.
“We were deployed to drop leaflets over France. Of course, they saw us as a threat and thought we were dropping bombs. We fled over Spain, to North Africa, over the desert, eventually ending up in Sicily before engaging in battles in Monte Casino before the crash.”
The leaflets read – “Don’t give up—we are on our way and will be freeing you from the Nazi regime very soon.”
Outside of flying and dropping bombs, when the focus was firmly on the job at hand, the two, along with their fellow crew members, regularly socialised over a drink. The best memories were often the ones that could not be remembered.
“My fondest memories with Peter are all the great nights we had socialising over a nice beer, or two. One time we went to a nightclub in Cairo, Egypt. I remember going to the club, but I don’t remember leaving,” Ted reminisced fondly.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a chat about what you do remember, Ted,” joked Chris as laughter rung out around the table.
Peter’s death was widely reported in the media in the United Kingdom. To this day, Val has kept all newspaper cutouts of stories relating to her father.
Some of the headlines read – “Air Marshall’s son gave life to hit target” in the Sunday Expose and “Preferred death to failure” in the Sunday Dispatch.
The outlook of the World has drastically changed since the war struck days of the early 1940’s, and much of the same can be said about the lives of those around the table.
Ted, having married an Irish woman named Deirdre Wilkinson, spent 17 years mining in Zambia before relocating to Wicklow where he spent further years working in the Avoca Mines, as well as becoming Chair and President of Kilmantin Arts in Wicklow Town.
Ted’s wartime experiences were documented in his book “Ted Veal’s War and Peace”, which was written and published by Peter McNiff in 2010.
In Val’s family, the grandson of Peter Hill has taken inspiration from his grandfather’s past ventures and has enlisted in the RAF, where he is currently training.
After a day touring the garden county in the torrential rain, glasses were raised to toast a meeting that was 75 years in the making.