Decorated WWII Fighter Pilot Keith Thiele

Squadron Leader Keith Thiele, who has died in Sydney aged 94, was decorated four times as a bomber and a fighter pilot and was one of only four New Zealand-born airmen to earn three Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC). Christchurch-born Thiele also handled two crash landings and escaped from a POW camp by bicycle.

His career as a bomber pilot began in October 1941 when he flew Wellingtons with No 405 Squadron. Returning from a raid on Cherbourg in January 1942 he had to make a crash-landing in his damaged aircraft.

After converting to the four-engine Halifax, Thiele flew on the first “Thousand Bomber” raid to Cologne and the second to Essen a few days later. His Halifax came under heavy attack but he successfully weaved his way through the searchlights and anti-aircraft fire.

On his 56th operation he attacked Duisburg on the night of 12 May 1943. As he approached the target his Lancaster was hit by flak but he pressed on and held the bomber steady. Over the target, the aircraft was hit again, completely destroying an engine.

He had just stabilised the aircraft when another shell disabled a second engine, damaged the cockpit and wounded Thiele and another crew member. He regained control and headed for England steadily losing height. He made a crash landing at an airfield in Norfolk without injury to his crew, an action which resulted in the award of an immediate Bar to his DFC. The citation highlighted his “exceptional valour and skill”.

At the end of his tour, he was offered command of No 617 Squadron but Thiele, the thrice-decorated 22-year-old squadron leader, turned down the opportunity because he was determined to fly fighters.

In February 1944 he achieved his ambition when he converted to Spitfires joining No 41 Squadron based in southern England.

Over the next six months he flew 100 operations escorting light bombers and on cross-Channel sweeps to attack ground targets including operations on D-Day. As the V-1 flying bomb campaign opened, he flew “anti-Diver” patrols over Kent and shot down one of the terror weapons.

In early January 1945 he was given command of No 3 Squadron flying the RAF’s most powerful piston-engine fighter, the Tempest. He continued to attack ground targets but on February 10 during an armed-reconnaissance sortie he was hit by ground fire over Paderborn and was forced to bale out.

Slightly wounded, he was taken prisoner and received some rough treatment, but he was only held captive for a few weeks before escaping from a transit POW camp near Frankfurt. On March 31, he and a colleague slipped away on bicycles and later “acquired” a motorcycle.

They crossed the Rhine on the bridge at Remagen before reaching US ground forces. He returned to his squadron but was not medically fit for further operational service. A few weeks later, he was awarded a Second Bar to his DFC, one of only 50 awarded during World War II.

After the war, Thiele returned to New Zealand and, after a brief spell as a journalist, he began a long career as an airline pilot. He then moved to Australia and became a senior captain with Qantas.

He later built and operated a marina in Sydney and, aged 80 sailed his own yacht across the Tasman Sea to see New Zealand’s first America’s Cup defence.

Original article by The Telegraph, January 27, 2016.

Photo by RNZAF Museum.


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