Keith Thiele

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Keith Thiele
Keith Thiele.jpg
Keith Frederick Thiele c. 1941
Birth name Keith Frederick Thiele
Nickname(s) Jimmy
Born (1921-02-25)25 February 1921
Christchurch, New Zealand
Died 5 January 2016(2016-01-05) (aged 94)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Allegiance  New Zealand
Service/branch  Royal New Zealand Air Force
Years of service 1940–1946
Rank Squadron Leader
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 & 2 Bars
Mentioned in Despatches (2)

Keith Frederick (Jimmy) Thiele DSO,[1] DFC[2] & 2 Bars (25 February 1921 – 5 January 2016) was an officer of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the Second World War.[3] He was one of only four New Zealand born airmen to receive two medal bars to his Distinguished Flying Cross.[4]


Thiele was born in Christchurch, New Zealand on 25 February 1921.[5] He was educated at Waltham Primary and Christchurch Boys' High Schools.[6] Thiele was working as a junior reporter on Christchurch Star-Sun newspaper when war was declared. He was 19 when he joined the RNZAF in December 1940. 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.[7] 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 bomber command.[8]

RAF Bomber Command[edit]

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, 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.[8] 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. With the Halifax he participated in the first of the "Thousand Bomber raids" over Germany and Cologne. There followed a number of missions over Essen midst 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.[8]

In August 1942, after completing a further 25 missions, Thiele would be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.[9] 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".[10] He was awarded the DFC and granted six months leave.

At the end of 1942, after only two months leave, he 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.[11] He took severe risks displaying raw courage, 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: typically selfless, heroic and marked out by leadsership qualities. 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, with the result he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for displaying outstanding courage, keenness and determination during operations.[1][10] On 12 May 1943, Thiele was on his second tour he 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, the citation reading "exceptional valour and skill" to his DFC, and the Official Report concluded for "courage, skill and determination of a high order."[12]

Flying operations with Bomber Command[edit]

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.[13] 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 didn't 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 RAF Bomber Command.[8] Thiele believed that he had been picked out by Ralph Cochrane of Group HQ as a likely successor to Gibson, a position that would eventually go to Squadron Leader George Holden.[14] Thiele's decision not to join 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.[8]

Ambitious fighter pilot[edit]

In February 1944 Thiele converted to fighter command, transferred to No. 41 Squadron based in the south of England.[15] 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.[8] 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.[16]

Later promoted to flight command he joined No. 486 (NZ) Squadron in October 1944 to pilot Hawker Typhoons from Volkel, the Netherlands, on which he completed 50 operations.[3] 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.[10][a] During 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.[17]

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.[8] He was officially reported as missing in action.[18] 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.[8][19] On 31 March 1945, he cycled out of the camp with another POW slipping away to freedom. They probably stole the motorcycle they acquired on which they headed for the border frontier.

After the 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.[7][19] 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".[20] Thiele relinquished his commission on 5 December 1946.[3]

Post war and later life[edit]

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.[21] Thiele is also a member of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of people who have successfully used a parachute to bail out of a disabled aircraft.[10][22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[8] In 2005, he sold all his medals at auction.[10] In later life, Thiele retired to the Queensland town of Bundaberg.[7] He died in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on 5 January 2016, at the age of 94.[25] He is survived by a daughter.


  1. ^ research has not yet provided an exact calculation as to the grand total of enemy planes that Thiele actually shot down.


  1. ^ a b "No. 36015". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 May 1943. p. 2154. 
  2. ^ "No. 35661". The London Gazette (Supplement). 7 August 1942. p. 3497. 
  3. ^ a b c The Pilots of 41 Squadron RAF, 1939–1945 Archived 20 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved 26 April 2011
  4. ^ Cambridge Air Force (2009). Roy Oldfield Calvert DFC and Two Bars. Retrieved on 16 February 2009.
  5. ^ New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (2008, p. 49). Chapter Three: Bomber Command. Retrieved on 26 April 2009.
  6. ^ Third Award New Zealand Airman. Evening Post, Volume CXXXV, Issue 130, 3 June 1943, Page 4. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  7. ^ a b c Coats, Patricia (2005). Keith's Great Escape. APN News & Media Ltd. Retrieved on 26 April 2009
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lambert, Max (2005, pp. 204–209). Night After Night: New Zealanders in Bomber Command. Published by Harper Collins, Auckland. OCLC 238569316. ISBN 1-86950-542-5.
  9. ^ "No. 36015". The London Gazette (Supplement). 14 May 1943. p. 3497. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Lot Details 994, 2 March 2005. Dix Noonan Webb: Specialist Auctioneers. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  11. ^ Holyoak, Vincent (4 April 2010). Bottesforn Living History. Chapter 10: Happy Valley. Retrieved 26 April 2011
  12. ^ "No. 36030". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 May 1943. p. 2362. 
  13. ^ Royal Air Force. Personal Effects of Guy Gibson on show. Retrieved 24 April 2011
  14. ^ Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation – Air Chief Marshal The Hon Sir Ralph Cochrane
  15. ^ Daily Telegraph, op cit., p.27
  16. ^ Daily Telegraph, ibid p.27
  17. ^ Daily Telegraph, ibid., p.27
  18. ^ Roll of Honour: Air Force Casualties. Evening Post, Volume CXXXIX, Issue 68, 21 March 1945, Page 6. Retrieved 26 April 2011
  19. ^ a b Liberated Airman. Evening Post, Volume CXXXIX, Issue 84, 10 April 1945, Page 7. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  20. ^ "No. 37070". The London Gazette (Supplement). 7 May 1945. p. 2415. 
  21. ^ Waterson, Duncan (2008). Dictionary of Sydney: New Zealanders (Industry). Retrieved 26 April 2011
  22. ^ Neal, John (2005). Bless you, Brother Irvin: the caterpillar club story. Published by General Store Publishing House, Ontario. OCLC 679837059 ISBN 1-894263-94-4.
  23. ^ Photo of Keith Thiele in later life, signing a letter commemorating the inaugural flight.
  24. ^ Mundle, Rob (8 December 2009). Rob Mundle releases his latest book 'Hell on High Seas'. Seabreeze Sailing News. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  25. ^ Kiwi WWII hero dies in Australia