Keith Frederick Thiele c. 1941
|Born||25 February 1921|
Christchurch, New Zealand
|Died||5 January 2016 (aged 94)|
|Service/||Royal New Zealand Air Force|
|Years of service||1940–1946|
|Unit||No. 3 Squadron RAF|
No. 41 Squadron RAF
No. 405 Squadron RCAF
No. 467 Squadron RAAF
No. 486 Squadron RNZAF
|Commands held||No. 3 Squadron RAF|
|Battles/wars||Second World War|
|Awards||Distinguished Service Order|
Distinguished Flying Cross & Two Bars
Keith Frederick (Jimmy) Thiele, DSO, DFC & Two Bars (25 February 1921 – 5 January 2016) was an officer of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the Second World War. He was one of only four New Zealand born airmen to receive two medal Bars to his Distinguished Flying Cross.
Thiele was born in Christchurch, New Zealand on 25 February 1921. He was educated at Waltham Primary and Christchurch Boys' High Schools. Thiele was working as a junior reporter on Christchurch Star-Sun newspaper when war was declared. He was 19 when he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in December 1940.
Second World War
After completing the pilot training course in RNZAF Station Harewood in April 1941 with the rank of pilot officer, Thiele was sent to England in June 1941 where he was seconded to the Royal Air Force. On a train from Liverpool, Thiele spotted his first Spitfires and was convinced they were for him. At the reception centre later that evening he was asked to declare his flying preference and he wrote "fighters", but was posted to RAF Bomber Command.
RAF Bomber Command
Thiele was posted to an operational training unit before being transferred to the Canadian No. 405 Squadron at RAF Pocklington a few miles east of York. Thiele's first mission was almost his last. Returning from Cherbourg in France in January 1942, Thiele got the green light to land, but as he touched down was confronted by another aircraft. The two planes collided engine to engine, ripping the wings off. The court of inquiry absolved him. On 30–31 May 1941, flying a Halifax, Thiele took part in the thousand-bomber raid on Cologne. By late October 1941, Thiele had completed 32 operations flying both Halifaxes and Wellingtons. There followed a number of missions over Essen amidst very heavy flak and German searchlight exposure. Thiele was promoted straight from pilot officer to flight lieutenant, skipping the intermediate rank of flying officer, and then to squadron leader in the space of a few months. Later, 22-year-old Thiele would revert to the rank of flight lieutenant in order to return immediately to operations rather than becoming a flight instructor.
In August 1942, after completing a further 25 missions, Thiele would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). His citation in part read: "he has shown great skill and has pressed home his attacks regardless of opposition. His keenness and efficiency have been an inspiration to other members of the Squadron. He has always been a leader and has just proved a thoroughly courageous and skilled Flight Commander". He was then granted six months leave.
At the end of 1942, after only two months leave, Thiele was one of the volunteers to return to active service on Lancaster bomber, when he was transferred to the Australian No. 467 Squadron stationed at RAF Bottesford. He took severe risks and displayed leadership, tending to a sick comrade on one flight, and on another mission to Berlin flying low enough to knock out Nazi searchlights and anti-aircraft. In March 1943, Bomber Command ordered an attack on Nuremberg into the heart of the Third Reich.
It was flying a Lancaster that Thiele completed 20 more missions and, in May 1943, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for displaying outstanding courage, keenness and determination during operations. On 12 May, Thiele was flying a Lancaster of No. 467 Squadron on a mission to Duisburg, an industrial city. He had nearly reached the target when his aircraft was hit by a flak underneath the fuselage, which severed the rear half of the starboard outer engine, punctured the starboard inner engine and blew out most of the perspex in the cockpit. Thiele, dazed by a blow from a shell splinter that had struck him on the side of the head, limped the aircraft back from Duisburg on two engines. Shortly after crossing the English coast he was unable to maintain height, but displaying superb airmanship he struggled on and succeeded in effecting a crashlanding at an airfield in Norfolk. For this feat, Thiele was awarded a Bar to his DFC, the citation praising his "courage, skill and determination of a high order."
In mid 1943, Thiele declined a posting to No. 617 Squadron under the command of Guy Gibson, the man who had led that squadron on the May 1943 Dambusters raid that blew up the Ruhr dams. A few weeks after the raid, Thiele received a message that Gibson wanted to see him at RAF Scampton, in Lincolnshire. Thiele, with 50 operations behind him, told Gibson that he had had his fill of bombers and was desperate to fulfil his ambition to fly Spitfires. He informed Gibson that he did not want to appear ungrateful but disclosed he already had the wheels rolling to go to a unit flying experimental Spitfires as a step out of Bomber Command. Thiele believed that he had been picked out by Ralph Cochrane of Group Headquarters as a likely successor to Gibson, a position that would eventually go to Squadron Leader George Holden. Thiele's decision not to join No. 617 Squadron proved the right decision. On the night of 15–16 September 1943, 5 of the 12 Lancasters were lost during a mission to bomb on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, including Holden's, which was shot down by flak with no survivors.
Ambitious fighter pilot
In February 1944, Thiele converted to RAF Fighter Command and transferred to No. 41 Squadron based in the south of England. Thiele was posted to a transport squadron and then almost immediately to the trans-Atlantic Ferry Command to fly Canadian-built Lancasters to England. He spent three months in Canada before flying one of the first Lancasters to England. He was trained by a Spitfire conversion unit in December 1943. Eventually after two months intensive work he flew Spitfires XIIs and Tempests from Tangmere with No. 41 Squadron, flying cross-channel support missions in support of the June D-Day landings on the Normandy coast. He was one of the experienced pilots sent to destroy V1-flying bombs destined for London. As the campaign opened he had been delegated to shore patrols along the Kent coast and the Narrow Seas in defence of coastal shipping, victims of sabotage attacks from occupied France.
Later promoted to flight command, Thiele joined No. 486 (NZ) Squadron in October 1944 to pilot Hawker Typhoons from Volkel, the Netherlands, on which he completed 50 operations. He then joined No. 3 Squadron, in the same wing, becoming the squadron's commanding officer in January 1945. By this time, Thiele had flown around 150 sorties in Spitfires and Tempests, gaining two confirmed transport aircraft "kills", damaged 14 locomotives, many barges and motor transports.[a] In December 1944, a Messerschmidt Bf 109 was shot down over Malmedy. On 29 December, he saw the enemy pilot bail out of a Bf 109.
On 10 February 1945, Thiele was shot down in his Rolls-Royce piston-powered Tempest fighter-bomber at low level by enemy anti-aircraft fire, but managed to bail out of his burning aircraft over Paderborn. He was officially reported as missing in action. Slightly wounded, Thiele was taken captive by the flak crew that had shot him down and, following interrogation, he was sent to a prisoner of war (POW) camp at Dulag Luft near Wetzlar.
On 31 March 1945, after the POW camp was liberated but before any transport or Allied forces arrived, Thiele and a Canadian airman stole bicycles and then a motorcycle, and he got back to his base five weeks before the end of the war in Europe. In May 1945, Thiele was awarded a second Bar to his DFC for displaying "the highest qualities of skill, together with great bravery and iron determination. His example has inspired all". Thiele relinquished his commission on 5 December 1946.
Post war and later life
After the war, Thiele returned to New Zealand where he commenced a career as a journalist. Dissatisfied, he moved to Sydney, Australia, and for many years flew as a senior captain for Qantas. Thiele was a member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of people who had successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft. He was the captain of the inaugural jet service from Brisbane to London in October 1959, flying the Sydney to Singapore leg of the trip in the Boeing 707. An avid adventurer, twice during sailing excursions on the notorious Tasman Sea, Thiele had his tiny yacht (named Spitfire) smashed by mountainous waves, yet he managed to sail home. Thiele later built and operated a marina in Sydney and sailed his own yacht across the Tasman Sea to see New Zealand's first America's Cup defence when he was 80. In 2005, he sold his medals at auction. In later life, Thiele retired to the Queensland town of Bundaberg. He died in Sydney on 5 January 2016, at the age of 94. He was survived by a daughter.
- Research has not yet provided an exact calculation as to the grand total of enemy planes that Thiele actually shot down.
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- Daily Telegraph, op cit., p.27
- Daily Telegraph, ibid p.27
- Daily Telegraph, ibid., p.27
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- Photo of Keith Thiele in later life, signing a letter commemorating the inaugural flight.
- Mundle, Rob (8 December 2009). Rob Mundle releases his latest book 'Hell on High Seas'. Seabreeze Sailing News. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
- Kiwi WWII hero dies in Australia