RAF veteran who parachuted to safety from crashing bomber

Veal made Ireland his home for over 50 years and was a well-known member of the community in Wicklow town

Ted Veal

Ted Veal


Born: October 9th 1921
Death: May 9th 2021

Ted Veal, who has died in his 100th year, was a radio operator and rear gunner in the Royal Air Force during the second World War and, by dint of his great age, was one of the last of the generation which rose to the challenge of defeating Nazism.

War was “bloody mad”, he told this newspaper’s Ronan McGreevy while, aged 93, taking a roller coaster ride in Tayto Park, Co Meath, “but this one had to be done”. The thrill of the amusement park ride was “absolutely brilliant” he said, adding the advice, perhaps aimed at younger readers, that “as long as you yell as you go, you’ll be alright”.

English-born, he made Ireland his home for over 50 years and in recent decades was a well-known, and much loved, member of the community in Wicklow town.

Edward Veal was born in London in October 1921 within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside, a claim that permitted him to assert a Cockney heritage. His parents were Sidney Veal and his wife, Rose. The couple also had two daughters.

Sidney Veal’s prime years were spent in the British Army, seeing service in the Boer War, at the Khyber Pass and in the first World War, for which he received the Mons Star. After the war, Veal senior worked for London Bus.

The Younger Veal was sent to school in Tooting but he left in his early teens and became an office boy. It was perhaps not surprising given his father’s combat-laden army career, that when war loomed again, Ted Veal opted for the Royal Air Force.

It was during a night raid over Italy, just four days before the D-Day landings of June 1944, that Veal almost lost his life. Flying as rear gunner on a US-built Baltimore light bomber, with a pilot and two other crew members, one engine failed on the outward run from England, the second dying as they turned for home.

Pilot Flight Lieutenant Peter Hill (only son of Air Chief Marshal Sir Roderic Maxwell Hill, commander-in-chief of RAF Fighter Command, who was aged 25 and was married with a baby daughter) ordered his crew to bail but Veal, from his position in the rear of the plane, was the only one able to parachute to safety as the plane spun out of control and crashed into the Abruzzi Apennine mountains killing all the others.

The then 93-year-old former second World War Pilot Ted Veal with a photo from his service days prior to his trip on Tayto Parks ‘Cú Chulainn Coaster’. File Photograph Nick Bradshaw
The then 93-year-old former second World War Pilot Ted Veal with a photo from his service days prior to his trip on Tayto Parks ‘Cú Chulainn Coaster’. File Photograph Nick Bradshaw

“I pulled the cord, my parachute opened, and I landed on my backside. It was my first parachute jump,” he told Peter McNiff, his friend and biographer, many years later.

Assuming he had perished, the War Office wrote to his parents saying he was dead. “He loved to tell the story of his mother’s reaction when he turned up,” recalls McNiff. “She wasn’t at all surprised and said, ‘If Ted fell into a cess pit he would always come up smelling of roses’.”

As a survivor of a parachute exit from a disabled plane, Veal automatically became a member of the Caterpillar Club. Fortune favoured him on landing when he was found by a friendly farmer who, at risk to his own life, provided hiding place in a cave in the woods.

As the Allies fought their way north through Italy, liberating Rome on the day troops landed on Normandy, New Zealand soldiers rescued Veal. Back in England, he was promoted from Warrant Officer to Flight Lieutenant and took part in the airlift of troops from Berlin and North Africa.

Veal never forgot his friends. “I’d been flying with two of the crew for a long time,” he recalled in his 90s. “Everyone now and then I remember them especially when there are things on TV, but I always look forward, I don’t look back.”

After the war, he was passing Rhodesia House, the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) government offices in London when he wandered in on spec to see what jobs might be available in the southern Africa colonial outpost.

He got work in the region’s copper belt and learnt mine engineering and management. He also found his wife, ex-Alexandra College pupil and former Guy’s Hospital London nurse, Deirdre Wilkinson, a native of Skryne Castle in Co Meath, to whom he proposed at Victoria Falls.

After almost two decades in southern Africa, the couple, who had no children, returned to Ireland in 1969 to help mind her ailing father. They settled in Ashford, Co Wicklow, and Veal quickly found employment with Avoca Mines, the Canadian-owned operation that sought, but failed, to revive profitable copper mining in the Wicklow valley of the same name. It closed finally in 1982.

By common acclaim, Ted Veal was a genial and gentle man who lived life to the full, even during his most advanced years. He had a horse named after him, though mis-spelt as Ted Veale, which in 2013 won the Cheltenham County Hurdle.

Ted Veale was predeceased by his wife and sisters. He is survived by Mary Wilkinson and members of the wider Wilkinson family, including Patricia Wilkinson of Newmarket in England, and by nephews Tim and Robin.

His ashes will be interred in the garden of Skryne Castle, joining those of Deirdre.