The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. R I Laing
Robert Inglis Laing was born on 13th March 1913 in Wynyard, Tasmania. He was the third son and youngest of four children. His father was a manager in the 'Bank of Australia and New Zealand' and was transferred to New Zealand in 1919.
Robert attended Waitaki Boys’ High School and went on to join the Bank.
After the declaration of war Laing volunteered for flying duties and was sent to the Ground Training School at Weraroa on 20th November 1939, he moved to 2 EFTS New Plymouth on 18th December and then to 2 FTS Woodbourne on 11th March 1940.
With the course completed, Laing sailed for the UK on 12th July in the RMS Rangitane. After arrival on 27th August he went to No. 1 RAF Depot Uxbridge and then to 5 OTU Aston Down on 11th September. After converting to Hurricanes he joined 151 Squadron at Digby on the 30th.
Laing flew two operational sorties in October, on the 18th and 27th.
On 7th November 1940 he joined 73 Squadron at Debden. He left there on the 9th for Birkenhead, where the squadron embarked on the carrier HMS Furious on the 10th, en route for the Middle East.
The Hurricanes were flown off to Takoradi on the 29th and they took off in sixes on the ferry route to Heliopolis, via Lagos, Accra, Maidugari, Khartoum, Wadi Halfa and Abu Sueir. The Blenheim leading Laing’s group lost its bearings and the Hurricanes had to make a forced-landing in the Sudan. There was some delay whilst some aircraft awaited repairs.
On arrival in Egypt the 73 Squadron pilots were attached to 274 Squadron in the Western Desert and 73 Squadron did not become operational on its own account until early January 1941. On the 6th Laing damaged a CR42 south-east of Tobruk. In April the squadron was operating within the perimeter of Tobruk.
On 23rd May 1941 Laing flew one of six Hurricanes, V7424, that were sent to Crete to strafe enemy ground targets. He was the only one to reach the island. Two Hurricanes were shot down by British warships and three others lost contact with the guiding aircraft. Laing landed but before he could take off again his aircraft was destroyed in an attack by German bombers.
He was later picked up by P/O GE Goodman of 73 Squadron in a Hurricane and flew back to Tobruk with Goodman on his lap.
Some time later Laing was strafing a German landing ground at dawn. After setting fire to two enemy aircraft on the ground, his own radiator was hit by flak. Fumes poured into the cockpit as he and another Hurricane headed for Tobruk, closely pursued by two Me109's.
Both Laing and P/O G Tovey were shot down by the 109s of 1./JG 27 flown by Oblt. W Redlich and Uffz. G Steinhausen, who claimed victories at 05:00 and 05:05. Tovey was killed when Hurricane Z4118 crashed into the sea in flames.
Laing survived when he made a forced-landing in Hurricane Z4429 within the Tobruk defence area. He recorded the incident:
We were ordered off early in the morning to fly 30 or 40 miles west to Gazala, to try and knock out any 109s we could find on the ground. It was not a good idea because it was just before dawn and you could not see enough to get yourself into position for a decent burst.
I found two 109s but could not get a decent squirt at them although a Storch lit up nicely – not that it would bring the end of the war much closer! One of the Jerry ground gunners managed to hit my radiator; I felt a solid bang underneath which gave rise to a steady leak of steam and glycol, leaving a distinctive trail as I set off east. I was quite happy that I could at least reach Tobruk, but rather stupidly forgot that I made an excellent target against the dawn sky to which I was heading. I began to relax a little when I got a solid burst from a 109 up the tail, and I found it quite startling to hear the banging on the armour plate behind my seat, while the instruments on the top and sides of the panel disintegrated.
I found myself thinking thank God that armour plating really works. Perhaps they were not using armour-piercing ammo. Some of the firing must have hit the control surface as the Hurricane grew steadily more nose-heavy. Just to add to my predicament the ether in the glycol was rising up from the floor and causing me to become anaesthetised.
Anyway she hit the ground more or less level, with a bounce or two. My straps were none too tight and I banged my face on the gunsight, doing wonders to my natural beauty. She began to burn so I jumped out and started to walk a few miles towards Tobruk, feeling none too chipper. A small cave came into view and I laid down to recover a bit.
I realised later that I had been concussed in the crash, and that I was not in any condition to do any steady thinking or walking. After an hour or two I was found by an Indian patrol and taken into Tobruk, and to hospital.
Commissioned in October 1941, Laing was awarded the DFC (gazetted 3rd April 1942), still serving with 73 Squadron.
At some time in 1943 he was caught in a bombing raid and sustained severe shrapnel injuries which necessitated several months in hospital in Alexandria.
He went home to NZ once he had recovered and was then reassigned to the Colonial Air Training Scheme in Rhodesia. He spent the rest of the war there as a flying instructor at the Belvedere air training school in Salisbury.
Laing had been friendly with Sgt. John Pyott Elsworth, of Rhodesia, in 73 Squadron, Elsworth had gone missing on a ground attack sortie at Mechili on 9th April 1941.
Laing visited Elsworth's sister Valerie and they went on to marry in New Zealand in 1945 (above). They returned to Rhodesia in 1946 and ran a tobacco farm.
Laing retired in 1980 but remained in Rhodesia until 2001 when their farm was appropriated by Mugabe’s 'war veterans', after which they left for Perth in Australia.
Their son Philip remained and was murdered by armed robbers in August 2013 aged 51.
Laing died in Perth on 19th December 2003, a few days short of his 95th birthday.
The majority of research and all images courtesy of Alison Kirkman (daughter) and Jim Laing (son).