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How pride came after a fall for my friend and war hero Alfie

By Eddie McIlwaine

The Caterpillar Club is alive and well today thanks to RAF veteran Alfie Martin (97), who is anxious to track down any other surviving members of this exclusive fraternity of men who owe their lives to the parachute.

Alfie himself bailed out of a doomed aircraft in 1942 and plummeted down to earth safely.

There used to be quite a few Caterpillars in Northern Ireland, all of whom served in the Second World War, mostly in the RAF, whose last hope of survival when in an aircraft in serious difficulties was the parachute.

But the passage of time has taken its toll and, in civilian life today, there aren't too many opportunities to bail out of planes to survive.

Flying Officer Martin, once of 102 Squadron, who lives in Dunmurry, was decorated with a DFC for his exploits and later wrote a bestseller called Bail Out, about how he managed to avoid ending up a prisoner of war after jumping from his plane in occupied France. He has since returned to France to meet members of the Resistance, which smuggled him through enemy lines to Gibraltar.

Alfie's Halifax bomber was returning home from a raid on Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, piloted by Squadron Leader Wally Lashbrook, who also survived, when their plane was riddled with enemy gunfire. Wally was also smuggled to safety and, like Alfie, was awarded a DFC.

Sadly, one member of the crew was killed - 22-year-old Flying Officer George Williams, to whom a memorial has been erected on the spot where the plane came down.

After bailing out, Flying Officer Martin slipped through German army patrols and escaped into Spain and then onto Gibraltar, from where he was flown back to his base in Bristol.

The Caterpillar Club was formed in Dayton, Ohio, in October 1922 as a worldwide organisation for military and commercial aviators who had saved their own lives with a parachute.

It was so called because the main sail and the shroud lines of a parachute were made of the finest silk.

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