Widow keeps memories of husband’s war heroism alive
During the Second World War, Bermudian pilot Robert Outerbridge went around the world on many dangerous missions – rescuing the injured, transporting VIPs and dropping much needed supplies over famished regions.
As part of the prestigious Royal Air Force 24 Squadron, there were times when he had to fly under power lines, dodge missiles and land his plane in total darkness.
Decades later he was nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross, given to British pilots who showed extreme valour and bravery while flying in combat.
“He refused to pick it up,” recalled his widow, Madeleine Outerbridge. “He felt there were others more deserving. But later he said he really regretted it.”
Thirty-six years after Mr Outerbridge’s death, Carol Everson, a caseworker with the Bermuda Legion veterans’ charity, has filed a petition so his family might finally receive the DFC medal.
Mindful that the process could “take months or even years”, she surprised Mrs Outerbridge with a replica, which brought tears to the 80-year-old’s eyes.
She met her husband two weeks after arriving in Bermuda from England to work as a nurse in 1967.
One January afternoon friends asked her to come sailing with them; Mr Outerbridge was part of the party.
She was 25 and he was 43, but they had a lot in common.
“He was very charming,” she said. “We could talk about anything together. He was physically fit and played a lot of golf and I played tennis.”
They were married by July. The couple have a son, James, a daughter, Deborah, and two grandsons.
Mr Outerbridge was one of Bermuda’s first members of parliament and represented Smith’s before party politics was introduced to Bermuda. Under the United Bermuda Party he represented Pembroke East.
He was largely responsible for turning Spittal Pond into a public park when the property was in danger of being developed. He was also a restaurateur and the couple ran Harbourfront Restaurant, then on Front Street for many years.
Mr Outerbridge was 17 when he signed up for the RAF.
In the early years of their marriage he talked about his wartime experiences flying Wellington and Anson aircraft.
“He had his mother, Alice Outerbridge, write that he was 18 on the forms,” Mrs Outerbridge said. “She was a very sweet lady and really did not have any choice in the matter.”
Mr Outerbridge did a few months of training in the Bermuda Flying School based on Darrell’s Island in the early 1940s. Following an interview with the RAF, he flew to Winnipeg, Canada, for further training, before going on to London.
“They were in the war the next day,” Mrs Outerbridge said. “He spent six years as a flight lieutenant, starting with the RAF’s crack 24 Squadron in Hendon, whose nerve-racking terms of reference were that they should fly at all costs, under all weather conditions,” Mrs Outerbridge said. “When all aircraft were grounded except yours, it helped your chances if you were at least a better than average pilot.”
On one occasion Mr Outerbridge flew an injured pilot, who had crashed on the Isle of Man, to a hospital in the north of England.
With a 100ft cloud ceiling and a visibility of less than half a mile, Mr Outerbridge and his crew were called “lunatics” for flying.
“After finding the airport of Jurby, on the Isle of Man, they collected and strapped in the injured pilot and flew straight back, hedge-hopping all the way under power lines,” Mrs Outerbridge said.
They had to time their landing with a stopwatch because visibility was so bad.
“Everyone had the shakes when it was over,” Mrs Outerbridge said.
She still has the flight logbook that her husband kept. He marked only two black-ruled lines on June 6, 1944.
On D-Day, allied landings on the beaches of Normandy, France marked the start of a long and costly campaign to liberate north-west Europe from Nazi occupation. There were 1,200 British planes in the air that day flying a courier service of people and missives.
“Everything was OK until the Germans pulled a spot air raid,” Mrs Outerbridge said. “There were thousands of ships on the invasion beaches and he was flying and diving through all this in a little De Havilland flying low in the way of the Allied guns.”
After that narrow escape, Mr Outerbridge did supply drops and flew out casualties in Burma, Malaysia and South East Asia for two years.
Mrs Outerbridge said: “Of the close pals that he went through training with only one other survived with him. No one came out of the war as the same sort of person.”
Bermudian Lyall Erskine Mayor, a pilot who was a good friend of Mr Outerbridge, survived. Another Bermudian pilot, Noel Meyer, was not so lucky.
On January 19, 1942 he was on the way home after being injured when Lady Hawkins, the ship he was on, was torpedoed and sunk outside Boston. He was one of 251 who died.
After a few years, Mr Outerbridge stopped talking about the war.
“I never questioned him about it,” said his wife, who thinks he may have been suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
“There was no treatment,” she said. “They were just told to carry on with your life. The older he got, the more upset he got.”
In 1978, they visited the Royal Air Force Museum London, which had a display of the type of planes that Mr Outerbridge flew.
“When we got there he did not say anything,” Mrs Outerbridge said. “I could feel his pain. I just let him walk around. Looking back, maybe I should have tried to talk to him about it.”
A voracious writer, Mr Outerbridge penned his memoirs but was unsuccessful in getting them published. His manuscript has since been lost.
Although he died in 1986, Mrs Outerbridge still feels her husband’s presence.
“I am very spiritual-minded,” she said. “I always feel his energy around me. I talk to him constantly.”
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