The best known of all the aircraft operated by XV Sqn throughout its history is the Short Stirling bomber named ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, bearing the serial N6086, and coded LS-F.
Rachel Workman, an American by birth, met and subsequently married Sir Alexander MacRobert, a Scottish gentleman thirty years older than her. It was his second marriage, his first wife having died six years earlier. Alexander MacRobert was a man of means, and had been knighted for his public services in both Britain and India. Following the marriage, on 7 July 1911, Rachel Workman naturally became Lady MacRobert and went to live with her husband in Scotland.
In 1922 Alexander MacRobert was granted a further honour when he was created a Baronet. Unfortunately, he only held the title for a short while, as he died on 22 June 1922. However, during their eleven-year marriage the couple were blessed with three sons, Alasdair, Roderic and Iain. Upon the death of his father, Alasdair succeeded to the Baronetcy.
Sir Alasdair developed an interest in flying and formed a company which provided aviation related services. Unfortunately he lost his life on 1 June 1938, when he was killed in a plane crash near Luton, Bedfordshire.
Roderic, who had been commissioned into the RAF and was serving with 6 Sqn in Palestine, acceded to the title. Three years later, having been promoted to Flight Lieutenant, Sir Roderic MacRobert was commanding a detachment of Hawker Hurricane fighters in Iraq. On 22 May 1941, he was engaged in a strafing sortie against an airfield at Mosul. Having made one attack in which he set fire to two fuel lorries, Sir Roderic dived in for a second attack. He was seen to achieve his task, pull up and climb away, but after that his aircraft was lost to view. The young Baronet’s remains were later recovered and laid to rest in Mosul War Cemetery.
Like his brother whom he succeeded, Sir Iain, aged 24, was a commissioned officer in the RAF. On receiving the news of Sir Roderic’s demise, the RAF granted Sir Iain a short period of leave, which he spent with his mother. Approximately five weeks later Sir Iain himself was reported missing whilst undertaking an air-sea rescue search for a bomber crew known to have ditched into the North Sea. Sir Iain MacRobert has no known grave and is remembered on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey.
Although Lady MacRobert had lost her husband and three sons, she elected to remain in her adopted homeland and gave thought to how best she could serve the war effort. Her answer was to provide the cash for the purchase of a Short Stirling bomber and four Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft. The bomber was to carry the name ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, together with the family crest and coat of arms, whilst three of the Hurricanes were to be named after her sons respectively. The fourth fighter was to carry the inscription, ‘MacRobert’s Salute to Russia’.
Lady MacRobert had stated a preference for a Scotsman to pilot the bomber, but the honour befell Flying Officer Peter Boggis, from Barnstaple, Devon, who was serving with XV Sqn. The fact he was not Scottish did not matter. Later, in 1942, having met Lady MacRobert, Peter was accepted as a friend and remained so until the day she passed away. Likewise, Peter’s late wife Kay was not only a friend but also served as a Trustee of the MacRobert Trust for a total of 41 years.
On 10 October 1941 Flying Officer Boggis and his crew were lined-up in front of the Stirling whilst Wing Commander Ogilvie, OC XV Sqn, officially handed over the aircraft to them. During the ceremony a letter written by Lady MacRobert, in which she wished the crew of her ‘Reply’ good luck, was read aloud. Following the formal part of the ceremony, a number of photographs of both the aircraft and its crew were taken for publicity purposes. The crew then climbed aboard the bomber and took-off for an impromptu flying display.
Fg Off Boggis and his crew with the original Stirling 'MacRoberts Reply'.
The most notable raid in which ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ participated occurred on 18 December 1941, when XV Sqn attacked the French harbour at Brest, where the German warships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were berthed. It was for this attack that a number of Sqn personnel received decorations, including a DSO to Wing Commander Ogilvie and a DFC to Flying Officer Boggis. Lady MacRobert was justifiably proud of her ‘Reply’ and its crew. Having completed his second tour of operations, Peter Boggis was posted to 15 Sqn Conversion Flight as an instructor on 26 January 1942.
Unfortunately, ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ was destined to leave the Sqn a week or two later, in less than glorious circumstances. The aircraft, which was deployed to Lossiemouth, was one of ten aircraft tasked to attack against the ‘Tirpitz’ which was moored in Trondheim Fjord. The weather over the Scottish airfield was less than ideal and eventually only five aircraft took-off, but these were later recalled to base.
The weather did not improve, and a week later it was decided to scrub the operation and return to Wyton. Having left Lossiemouth on 6 February 1942, four of the Stirlings diverted to Peterhead, due to the ice and snow. The following morning, whilst attempting to takeoff, ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ slid off the runway and careered through a dispersal area, colliding with a parked Spitfire. The Stirling lost its undercarriage and port mainplane in the process.
Whilst the crew returned to Wyton aboard another Stirling, ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ was loaded on to a low-loader truck for its journey back to Cambridgeshire. Unfortunately, as the vehicle passed through Aberdeen a number of people recognised the MacRobert name on the aircraft’s fuselage. Needless to say, it was not long before news reached Lady MacRobert herself.
Once back at Wyton the groundcrew set about removing the appropriate panels and applying them to another Stirling bomber, W7531, also coded LS-F, in order that the ‘MacRobert’ legend could continue. Regrettably, the second aircraft to carry the name was shot down over Denmark on the night of 17 May 1942. The crew, with the exception of Sergeant Jeffs, the mid-upper gunner, all perished in the crash. Sergeant Jeffs was thrown from the aircraft as it impacted with the ground.
Sadly, the loss of the second ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ brought with it the end of the MacRobert tradition. Lady MacRobert died on 1 September 1954 and was laid to rest in consecrated ground at Douneside, the home she had shared with her husband and three sons. Such was this remarkable lady’s love of the RAF that she proved a major benefactor to the RAF even after her passing.
Sqn Ldr Boggis unveils the MacRoberts crest on Buccaneer XT287
The Squadron’s association with ‘MacRobert’s Reply’, which had ceased in 1942, was rekindled in April 1982, at Mildenhall when Squadron Leader Peter Boggis DFC performed an unveiling ceremony. Two Buccaneers and the Hawker Hunter from XV Sqn had flown across from Laarbruch to attend the annual Mildenhall Register reunion at the Sqn’s former wartime base. One of the Buccaneers, ‘XT287’, coded ‘F’, had been selected to be the first aircraft since 1942 to bear the name ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ and was also adorned with the MacRobert family crest. Although he was unaware of it at the time, when Peter Boggis dedicated the aircraft as ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ he was starting a tradition that has continued to the present day. Since then every XV Sqn aircraft coded ‘F’ has carried that name and crest.
The current 'MacRoberts Reply'