Mystery of vanishing Spitfire pilot

Ronn Ballantyne, photographer. originally from Selkirk.
Ronn Ballantyne, photographer. originally from Selkirk.

A FORMER Selkirk photographer, exiled for the past 24 years in the Canary Islands, admits he is still obsessed with a wartime mystery he cannot get out of his head.

Ronn Ballantyne’s photographic business and shop in Tower Street, Selkirk were well known. But in the early 1990s he sold up and moved to the sunnier climes of Lanzarote, where he now runs a thriving photographic studio.

But an encounter with an elderly Canadian, who visited Ronn in his Selkirk shop just before he moved overseases, has continued to intrigue him.

Ronn got in touch with TheSouthern this week to see if any readers could shed light on the fascinating tale told by this Canadian, who claimed to be a former wartime fighter pilot.

Ronn said: “About 24 years ago, a tall distinguished Canadian gentleman walked into my photography studio in Selkirk and asked me what it would cost to accompany him to a site a few miles out of town in the direction of Hawick, close to the A7 near Dryden, to take some photographs.

“He related a strange tale to me about how he was flying a Spitfire in the Second World War, overshot Biggin Hill and crash landed out of fuel in that location. He survived the landing and made his way to the roadside.

“He said he was then given a lift to Selkirk where he had a beer in the County Hotel, after which he made his way to the railway station. He boarded a train to Edinburgh where he eventually reported at RAF Turnhouse.

“I was so intrigued by his strange tale that I offered to do the job for free. We agreed to meet the folowing day at 1pm.

“I was so wired by his story that I started calling around the town to see if I could get some background. I called various farmers on the outskirts of the town, the local press and several old established pillars of the community, some of whom had vague memories of some kind of crash landing.

“Pretty soon the story was circulating around the town. But the following day, the gentleman failed to turn up at the pre-arranged time. I called the hotel where he had been staying and they told me that after returning from dinner in the town the previous evening, he had advised that he would be checking out the following morning, several days ahead of plan.

“I can only assume that he had got wind of the fact that his presence and story was creating a buzz in the town and felt a bit uncomfortable.

“I have my own ideas of possible scenarios but overshooting Biggin Hill and landing in the Scottish Borders is not one of them! If anyone can help me explain this situation or point me to somewhere that can, I would be very grateful.

“Even after 24 years, I cannot shake the story from my head.”

To aid his quest, Ronn posted the same information on several specialist aviation websites, frequented by enthusiasts knowledgeable about wartime air crashes.

As the Spitfire was the iconic British aircraft of the Second World War, coming to symbolise this country’s defence against the Third Reich, the majority of those that went down over British soil are fairly well documented.

The perplexing element of the story, aside from the fact no official record of the crash seems to exist, is that the distance from the famous Battle of Britain wartime airfield at Biggin Hill to Selkirk is more than 300 miles –quite a distance to overshoot your destination by.

But Ronn says he has no reason to doubt his Canadian visitor’s version of events, describing the man as a very polite, cultured, person, being distiguished in appearance, tall, silver-haired, and wearing a shirt and tie, good walking brogues and a long poplin type raincoat of the sort favoured by American and Canadian men at the time.

Ronn explained: “It was only a few years after the event that this thing started to interest me. Had I done some serious investigating at the time, I am sure I could have come up with answers. That is something I regret.

“I am the first to admit this is a very strange story.This is why it has remained very much alive in my head for so long.

“The gent in question, as I have already said, was a dignified, well dressed, erudite Canadian, who had clearly made his way to Selkirk to re-visit a scene of a wartime drama, if he was to be taken at face value.

“He had already visited what he told me was the site and wanted to return with me to shoot some pictures of the area along with the views and presumably with him in some of the shots. We never got as far as that.

“We discussed possibility, location, cost, along with why he wanted the shots taken. Bear in mind, an old farmer from the area had memories of some kind of incident involving an aircraft during the war.

“It was really only later that the story re-surfaced in my mind and I now live overseas. But I do plan to do some real checking when I visit this year.”

Well-known local historian, Walter Elliot, who spent much of his working life as a fencer in the hills and glens around Selkirk, was contacted by Ronn about the story last year.

He doubts the validity of the Canadian’s tale. “No, I don’t think it was true. I fenced all round that area over many years and never noticed anything that would indicate a crash site. And no-one living round there ever mentioned the crash. If a plane had come down during the war, I’m sure it would have been remembered by someone.”

However, TheSouthern struck the jackpot when it got in touch with Netta Mackenzie and her husband Ian, who have run the Ivy Bank guesthouse in Selkirk since 1971.

It was at their B&B that Ronn’s mysterious visitor stayed during his time in the town. Mrs Mackenzie, who can recall the visitor clearly, says his name was Harold Raasch and that he gave a home address in California.

“He came every year for many years. He first came in 1984 until he passed away, which must have been in the 1990s. I received a letter from his daughter informing us of his passing,” she said.

“Mr Raasch, I think, spent a lot of time trying to find the site where his plane had crashed during the war. But I always thought it had been in the Teviothead area, rather than at Dryden. He was a very charming man and I certainly believed him about his crashed plane.”

Netta’s husband, Ian, says Mr Raasch told him that his crash happened after he got lost in fog.

The airman had then followed the coastline and when the fog finally lifted, he had spotted hills, which turned out to be the Eildons, and headed for them to get his bearings before having to crash land after the Spitfire’s fuel tank ran dry.