Laddie Lucas lived a full life, as a champion golfer, an MP, a businessman and a writer as his volumes of autobiography attest. However I am principally concerned in this post with the time he spent on Malta during 1942 as an RAF pilot and from June as squadron leader with 249 squadron.
Laddie arrived on Malta on 17 February 1942, on a Sunderland Flying boat from Gibraltar. He describes his previous experience with the RAF in the Portreath sector (West Country) as ‘singularly dull’. That was soon to change. He and his friend Raoul Daddo-Langlois had volunteered for what had originally been billed as a posting to Burma. Their first encounter was with Squadron Leader, Percival Stanley ‘Stan’ Turner, a Canadian who’d fought in the Battle of France, at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain. He flicked open Lucas’ greatcoat and took disdainful note of the young Flight Lieutenant’s lack of decorations. That also was to change during Laddie’s time on Malta.
He wrote about his experience in two books Malta: The Thorn in Rommel’s Side (Penguin 1993) and Five Up: A Chronicle of Five lives (Crecy 1999). He has a journalist’s eye for a story. He does tend however to stick to the facts and his books are those of a man who’d been brought up not to show his emotions. Just occasionally he lets his guard drop. It was through one of these clinks in his armour that I got a glimpse of a scared young man whose cockpit was filing with smoke and who was desperate to find somewhere to land – not easy on Malta with all its stone walls and tiny fields.
This incident became one of the poems in Convoy. Laddie made light of it in an article he wrote which appeared on the front page of the Daily Express on 23rd May 1942. He’d taken advantage of a brief period he’d spent on Gibraltar waiting to fly planes off an aircraft carrier back to Malta to send the article home as “a lobby briefing so that the editor might have it as background to counter some of the ridiculous propaganda which is being written about the fighting here’ (Lucas (1993) p156). But in Malta: The Thorn in Rommel’s side he comments that the experience was ‘still cut deep in the memory’.
Aside from the ferocity of the air battles where they were well and truly outnumbered by enemy fighters and bombers another issue for the pilots was that they were often not able to fly due to lack of planes. This was akin to asking an Olympic athlete to put in a world breaking sprint on the track but without having spent much time running.
“I flew only five times in April on interceptions for a total flying time of five hours and twenty minutes. Few, in my flight logged more. True such flying as we did was packed with action. Every minute of every scramble, from take-off to landing, was full of incident.” (Lucas (1993) p96).
Laddie also makes an appearance in the longer poem about Operation Vigorous, the convoy that set out from Alexandria in June 1942. It was late in the day and he and his flight were expecting to be stood down…. when the telephone rings…
In July 1942 He was awarded the DFC for an attack on three Italian Bombers. The citation reads
Acting Squadron Leader Percy Belgrave, LUCAS (100626), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Nor. 249 Squadron.
Squadron Leader Lucas displayed great courage in an engagement against 3 bombers escorted by 14 fighters. He unhesitatingly led his squadron through the enemy's fighter escort and, diving down, they, destroyed all 3 bombers, 2 of them falling in flames. Squadron Leader Lucas has destroyed 3 hostile aircraft and damaged 7 others.
It was in July too that Lucas came to the end of his tour of duty on Malta. He and Daddo-Langlois were the only two pilots still flying of those who had come to the island in February. The newly arrived AOC Keith Park had decided they should be sent back to England. Laddie writes
"...I knew I had had my chips and ought to be taken off but the news depressed me. I have never been any good at saying goodbye... Leaving 249 which, for months, had been my life, and where I found friendship, kindness and loyalty, was just like going away to school. I longed suddenly to be picked up from the bar, parcelled up and, without anyone else noticing, deposited by some magic in London without having to say any goodbyes. I didn't know how I was going to face them. I was close to tears when I put my head on the pillow of my bed in the Xara Palace that night. Exhaustion leaves you with no resistance once you let go."