Alex Vale: Wartime pilot turned police officer


Alexander Augustus Vale, RAF pilot and police officer: born London 30 August 1922; DFC 1946; married 1943 Rose Dann (died 2003; one son, two daughters); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 22 September 2007.

Alex Vale's life was transformed by the Second World War. During the opening phase of the conflict, his youth and staunch pacifism kept him out of military service. But the devastation inflicted on London by German air-raids soon challenged his fashionable pacifist ideals, prompting him to join the RAF. His wartime experiences left him unwilling to resume his pre-war desk-bound routine and, indulging a newfound taste for travel and adventure, he went on to lead a varied existence far removed from the life that his younger self might have envisaged, becoming, among other things, a fingerprint specialist with the Metropolitan Police then the Colonial Police in Uganda.

Vale was born in the tough south London district of Peckham; an escape route from working-class drudgery arrived in the form of a scholarship offering an otherwise unaffordable education at Alleyn's School in Dulwich. Besides demonstrating an aptitude for Latin and Greek, he showed considerable promise as an artist. He accepted a traineeship in the graphic design studio run by Holdron's, a local department store, and hadn't been there long before Britain declared war on Germany.

In 1940, he volunteered for the RAF and was sent to America for training. The following year, he was assigned to a Fighter Command squadron equipped with Supermarine Spitfires. Defying the short life expectancy of RAF fighter pilots, he was still flying combat missions during the spring of 1944. After a spell with a unit based on Malta, he was transferred to Number One Squadron which flew several sorties each day from Predannack Airfield in Cornwall.

In the run-up to D-Day, he and his squadron were ordered to strafe the communications network in occupied France. Only a month before the Allied invasion of Europe, he was shot down over Brittany. When he crash-landed in a field, a farmer hauled him from the wreckage. He was then taken to a local farmhouse, ready for him to be smuggled out of the country by the Resistance. Before that could happen, the Gestapo received a tip-off that led to his arrest.

He was taken to Stalag Luft 3, the prisoner-of-war camp on the Polish border. With the German army in retreat, Vale and the other half-starved inmates were subjected to a gruelling march through thick snow to Luckenwald. At this notorious prison camp near Berlin, they endured sadistic treatment by the guards before being freed a few months later by the advancing Russians.

When he got back to England, Vale was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross. Turning down the opportunity to remain an RAF pilot, he enrolled in the Metropolitan Police. He was immediately sent to the police training college at Hendon. Though the tutors attempted to shock the new recruits by taking them to a mortuary, the war had accustomed Vale to such gruesome sights.

No sooner had Vale finished his probationary period than he obtained a transfer to the Criminal Investigation Department. Off-course gambling remained illegal in those days, yet so-called "bookies' runners" were positioned on most street-corners, accepting bets on behalf of big-time bookmakers. As Vale quickly discovered, it was a system that flourished with the connivance of the police. He and a colleague borrowed a wheelchair and strolled round the streets of Brixton pretending to be a disabled war veteran and his carer. Vale would leap out of the wheelchair and arrest the startled runners. The ploy was so effective that the bookmaker who controlled the business in that part of London persuaded the police to order Vale to stop "harassing" his employees.

Frustrated by his experiences in the local CID, Vale secured a move to the Fingerprint Branch of Scotland Yard. There his career prospects were stymied by a clash of personalities with his commanding officer, Detective Superintendent Fred Cherrill, a celebrated fingerprint expert who made a cameo appearance in the movie The Blue Lamp. In 1951 Vale switched from Scotland Yard to the Fingerprint Branch of the Colonial Police, his new job taking him to Uganda where he learned Swahili and deployed his detective skills on a series of undercover operations.

For the best part of a decade and a half, he remained in Uganda, successive promotions elevating him to the rank of Senior Superintendent of Police by 1965. Eventually, he resigned from his job and returned to England where he and his wife "Danny" were planning to settle with their three children. Eager for a change of direction, he embarked on a teacher training course, at the end of which he revised his plans.

He took a post as a detective training officer in Botswana, where he became an enthusiastic participant in the expat community's amateur dramatic productions. He also revived his dormant graphic art career, producing designs for three sets of postage stamps issued by the Botswana government. One of these earned him an Observer Commonwealth Design of the Year Award. In 1971, Vale moved back to London to a job with the Construction Industry Training Board, where he remained until his retirement in the mid-1980s.

In 2004 he joined a friend on a pilgrimage to the site of his wartime crash-landing. With the help of a French researcher and a regional newspaper, he was reintroduced to the now elderly farmer who had rescued him from his mangled Spitfire. Undaunted by increasing infirmity, he carried on travelling. His destinations included the ruins of the prison camp at Luckenwald where he was fêted by the German press and public. As a reminder of the grim background to his visit, he presented the local museum with an extraordinary set of photos, taken on a camera that had been stolen from one of the guards.

Paul Willetts

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Learning & Development Advisor - North & Scotland - £26,000

£26000 - £27000 per annum + car, pension: Ashdown Group: Learning & Developmen...

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape