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Ulster log: When a war hero's life hung by a silk thread

By Eddie McIlwaine

Published 10/10/2015

Former RAF flyer Billy Stirling
Former RAF flyer Billy Stirling
Bright light: Alice Greeves will be involved with the Mourne Highland Dance

Former RAF flyer William (Billy) Stirling is being recognised today at the age of 94 as the oldest holder of the coveted Caterpillar Pin. It is an award reserved exclusively for airmen who parachute to safety from planes that have flown into trouble or have been fired on and are about to go down.

And aviation historian Ernie Cromie says: "If William isn't the oldest Caterpillar still alive in the UK, he comes close."

My story about Billy's exploits is a follow-up to other Caterpillar heroes I have been writing about.

Billy qualified dramatically for the medal 72 years ago in wartime 1943, after he bailed out of an aircraft over the Indian Ocean and was plucked out of the water by the crew of a launch from his base at Port Alfred on the Cape Province coast.

"My pilot, Flight Lieut James Milman, managed to land our aircraft at great personal risk," recalls Stirling. "He and his wife took me out to dinner that night to celebrate our escape. But, sadly, he was killed only 13 days later when his Air Speed Oxford crashed. He was in his 20s and I was 22 and his death broke my heart. He was a fine young man."

Billy - who lives in Castlerock with Grace, his wife of 65 years - and his pilot were training air gunners in Avros Ansons when the plane developed hydraulic problems and caught fire. He was ordered to jump by Milman, who stayed on board in his courageous bid to land the aircraft.

Billy, who has a son, Jeffrey, and a daughter, Helen, joined the RAF in 1939 just as the Second World War broke out and wound up his service with 120 Shackelton Squadron at Ballykelly before being demobbed at Long Kesh in 1946.

In civvy street, he joined the NI Road Transport Board and later the Ulster Transport Association (UTA), where he was a bus driver.

"I keep my Caterpillar Pin safe," says Billy. "I'll never forget the day I earned this unique medal."

The Caterpillar Club was founded by Leslie Irvin of the Irvin Airchute Co of Canada in 1922 and his company's parachutes have saved many lives.

The club pin makes reference to the silk threads that bound parachutes together - recognising the debt owed to the silk worm. "Life depends on a silken thread ..."

Highland dance star Alice is in wonderland

She has just become the new Ulster Highland Dance Champion — but every now and again Alice Greeves likes to swap her kilt and sporran for a trim summer dress like the one she is wearing in my picture today.

“There’s nothing like a change,” says the 18-year-old favourite in the east Belfast group Bright Lights where she is talented in both Highland and Irish dancing.

She is involved in the Mourne Highland Dance and is looking forward to next year’s Red Sails Festival in Portstewart which takes its  name from the great Red Sails In The Sunset, written by the late Jimmy Kennedy as he watched a boat sailing out of Portrush harbour.

Alice is involved, too, in Positive Belfast, tracing the history of the city through dance.

Why I’ll be having a bet on long-shot O’Donnell

I’m having £1 on Daniel O’Donnell winning Strictly Come Dancing at odds of 33-1. I’m risking my oncer on the assumption that all the old dears and silver heads in the land will be voting for my old friend and keeping him in the running.

I’m pretty good at picking long-odds winners. I had a horse called Heavenly Scent romping home at 50-1 the other day at Pontefract. 

I can’t make up my mind though, whether I prefer O’Donnell the singer or O’Donnell the dancer. Either way, Danny is always the gentleman to know. According to The Sun newspaper, Daniel says he won’t be taking off  his top any time soon on Strictly and will be keeping his clothes on during the competition.

The Donegal singer, always game for as laugh, joked he won’t be going topless until he gets a six-pack.

“As long as I have clothes on. It’s the lack of clothes that would be dreadful for me,” he admitted.

“Maybe if I get my six-pack sorted but that might take two or three Christmases, not this Christmas,” he told the paper.

 Have a look at him tonight on the BBC1 series (6.30pm).

It's a matter of principal for Fiona

There aren't too many teachers who get to play the iconic role of Norma Desmond on stage at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, but Fiona Keegan, principal at St Kevin's Primary in the city, is one of them. 

She has been starring in the St Patrick's Choral Society production of Sunset Boulevard at the theatre and brings the curtain down tonight on her final performance.

Away from the blackboard, Fiona has appeared on stage with St Agnes' Choral Society and has been on tour in India and Sri Lanka. Her style as Calamity Jane once earned her the award of best female singer from the Association of Irish Musical Societies.

Book perfect for a 'boozy sister'

A rare book described by Dylan Thomas as an ideal gift for a boozy sister will be a highlight of the Belfast Book Fair in the Wellington Park Hotel today.

The first edition copy of At Swim-Two-Birds by Strabane-born author Brian O'Nolan, aka Flann O'Brien, was first published by Longmans in 1939 on the recommendation of the celebrated Graham Greene. It was published under the pseudonym of Flann O'Brien, a name O'Nolan had previously used to write satirical letters to the Irish Times.

James Joyce declared it to be the work of "a real writer" who had "the true comic spirit". Greene's verdict was that "it is a book in a thousand, in the line of Tristram Shandy or Ulysses", while Dylan Thomas said of it: "This is just the book to give your sister - if she's a loud, boozy girl."

Megan is reeling in the years

Between them, Belfast Temple Band of the Salvation Army (conductor Jack Burch), Downshire Brass (conductor Michael Alcorn) and retired SallyAnne choirmaster Alex Murray can chalk up 210 years of history.

The Temple choir is 125 years old, Downshire Brass has been around for 25 years and Alex and wife Pearl have just celebrated their 60th anniversary.

So all three are sharing an anniversary concert in the Temple on the Cregagh Road tonight (7.30)

And up-and-coming soprano Megan McBride, a Queen's University student aged just 20, will be there too, with Joe McKee as compere.

Belfast Telegraph

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