BY KEITH MACKENZIE
Fred Baillie – or to give him his full title, the Reverend Canon Dr Fred Baillie – is as old as the country of his birth, and with a life story just as colourful.
He may now be 94, but this Home Farm nursing home resident is possessed still with the clear mind and sharp intellect which saw him selected to carry out vital intelligence work in the Middle East during the Second World War.
Canon Baillie has lived in Portree for the past 13 years – his son Roger is the town’s long-serving coastguard. But when he speaks the distinctive brogue reveals his roots in Northern Ireland, where he was born in 1921 – the same year as the island was partitioned.
His father was a Scot, who worked as a stationer, and his mother a mix of Cornish and Irish blood.
Having completed a “first-class primary education”, the young Fred won a bursary to go to the Royal Belfast Academical Institute. He spent four years there, but having had enough of the formal rigours of education grew restless and set out to see the wider world.
Initially he wanted to follow those on his mother’s side of the family who had been sailors. But at 16 years and two months Fred was too old to join the boys’ service, and not old enough to join the regular Navy.
Instead, he opted for the Royal Air Force, which he joined as an apprentice in 1937 – signing up for 12 years. Who then could have predicted what those next dozen years would have in store.
“It was the 26th of January 1938 – I remember it well for being one of the greatest displays of Aurora Borealis we’d ever seen,” he recalls of the day he said farewell to his parents at Belfast docks to set sail for Liverpool, and then to RAF training at Ruislip in Surrey.
The training there – allied to a few quirks of fate caused by the friendships he made – would set Fred on the path to an adventurous military career.
One of his closest friends was the French son of a British car executive based in Monte Carlo. “Monty”, as Fred called him, agreed to teach him French, in exchange for help with his English.
Another young recruit introduced him to the boxing ring. And later, as Fred continued training at Cranwell, he learned not to fly planes but to drive a motorbike – although only after being pressed into service after colleagues had enjoyed one too many on a night out.
These skills – the French language, physical fitness, an ability to drive and a willingness to step up to the plate when required – would all be called upon after the outbreak of war in 1939.
Fred’s first overseas posting was to Iraq – and the air force base at Habbaniya, about 50 miles from Baghdad. He was transported from Marseille to Egypt aboard the ‘Lancastria’ – a fated liner later bombed, with huge loss of life, off the French port of St Nazaire.
With German forces making gains in Egypt, the most way for Fred and his colleagues to continue their journey was to board American tour buses through Sinai, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and then Iraq, where he eventually arrived in February 1940.
As it turned out – and there’s a hint of historical irony in this episode – the British forces were eventually tasked, following a Nazi-backed coup d’etat, with the job of restoring Iraq’s supreme leader.
Although restricted to a force of about 2,000 personnel, and with many of the aircraft at their disposal obsolete, the British held off the siege at Habbaniya. And when reinforcements arrived the British-backed regent was successfully restored to power.
“Churchill had given the order – strike and strike hard,” Fred recalls. “But up against us were about 10,000 Iraqis, many of whom had been armed and trained by the British.”
Although a bomb dropped by an Italian Savoia-Marchetti left Fred with a back injury that still troubles him to this day, there was to be no break from the war.
“I had some assets – I could speak French, had picked up a little Arabic, and I could drive,” he recalls. “It had all been recorded. I got news of my next posting – to go into Baghdad.”
This was to be the start of Fred’s involvement with covert operations with a unit called the Combined Intelligence Centre Iraq and Iran. His base was a house in Baghdad – meant to be a new RAF centre, but in reality an undercover listening post as allied forces endeavoured to stay on top of any moves to further destabilise the region.
The next stop would be in neighbouring Iran.
“One day a man arrived in Baghdad calling himself Major Chisholm,” he adds. “It wasn’t his real name, and it’s only recently that I actually got a hint of who this man was (and some things, even 70 years later remain classified).”
Fred, along with a Kurdish driver, had to take the mysterious Major to Tehran. In Iran German influence had been strong, to the extent that the ruling Shah had briefly sided with the Axis powers only to be quickly ousted by British and Russian forces and then replaced by his son.
“The Shah’s army was knocked off by the British presence, but in the aftermath the arms were pinched by the tribesmen,” Fred recalls. “We had to counter that and get them on our side.”
German networks had also permeated many of the major Iranian businesses, and it was these which the CICI monitored very closely using a variety of techniques.
“In the centre in Tehran was a locked-off room with bars on it. We began to get an idea then of what was going on,” he adds.
There are some details about which Fred is sworn to secrecy. But the hint is that the Queensberry Rules he learned in the boxing ring may not always have applied amid the tensions of war.
“The objective was to single out leading figures of anti-British propaganda. You can guess at some of the work that went on. But we gathered what information was needed.”
In 1943 – by which time he’d risen three ranks to sergeant – Fred made the long journey back to the UK. He was then to become part of a unit responsible for the recovery and repair of any crashed aircraft after the D-Day invasions.
A lorry crash in Belgium briefly curtailed his work, but he was soon back to see the job through – surviving another close shave when a V2 missile struck the observation tower at Antwerp Airport, leaving him with tinnitus ever since.
Forces life wasn’t all-consuming, though, and in July 1945 Fred got leave to return to Belfast and marry Freda – the pair having written to each other right throughout the conflict.
Just two days later, details of his next posting arrived – he was to go immediately to the Dutch East Indies.
Of the place now known as Indonesia, Fred remembers: “This was a most mixed-up and bloodthirsty war. There must have been about 2,000 islands, and every one of them seemed to be shouting for freedom.”
The islands had been occupied by the Japanese but latterly Japan had sought to help General Sukarno’s independence movement, bringing brutal reprisals for the former colonialists.
“Our job was to rescue European prisoners and get them back to Europe – I’ve never seen my own lot so traumatised,” Fred says.
In Batavia (now Jakarta) he saw a colleague shot dead by a sniper as they walked down the street. Yet one of Fred’s jobs there was to drive the senior air officer through the capital in a car displaying two Union Jacks.
“He thought it was wise, and I wasn’t allowed to question him.” he adds, ruefully.
Although Fred was offered the chance to continue his airforce career, by now he wanted home. He served only for a brief spell in Malaya, followed by a final short posting in Aldergrove, County Antrim.
He returned to settle in Belfast, and he and Freda would go on to raise a family of two boys and two girls.
Although he had been a confirmed atheist, Fred would – through his wife’s influence – gradually find himself drawn into the Episcopalian Church of Ireland.
What would become a 60-year career as a priest and military padre – including years in some of Belfast’s most troublesome districts – began after being asked to lead a Boys Brigade troop.
“It gave me the beginning of a settled life,” he said. “Gradually I was drawn in. It was suggested, when the Church of Ireland began to suffer a deficit in the priesthood, that I consider it.”
Fred began his studies by taking an advanced certificate in religion with the University of London, and found himself unable to step away.
“I’d always been a reader,” he says. “But then the historian part of it takes over, then the historian-philosopher. In the end I got two doctorates and a string of degrees – and all because I started off by saying (and he points to the sky at this point) I didn’t like you!”