Obituary: Wing Cdr Laddie Lucas
Friday 03 April 1998
The defence of Malta in 1942, in which he commanded 249 Squadron, was perhaps one of his greatest achievements. Often outnumbered 10 to one, his squadron shot down more planes than any other over the skies of Malta. His flair, his humour, his understanding of his men and his refusal to give in against the most daunting of odds carried him through this arduous campaign.
He was born Percy Belgrave Lucas in Sandwich Bay, Kent, in 1915. Based in the area were a company of Highlanders who would attract the attention of his young nursemaid by asking after "the wee laddie", a name by which he would be known for the rest of his life.
His gift for golf was developed early under the tutelage of his father who was the secretary and co-founder of Prince's Golf Club at Sandwich. Laddie, a left-hander, was sinking putts at six and in his teens practised with the champion English golfer Henry Cotton. During the Second World War, in 1944, his intimate knowledge of the course probably saved his life: his Spitfire was hit by an Me 109; not at all keen to bale out, he spotted Sandwich Bay at the same moment as his engine died. Gliding in and keeping the clubhouse as a marker, he missed the 2nd, 4th, 12th, 8th and 9th to land belly-up out of bounds just short of the River Store. He recalled being very unhappy at the state of the greens.
Lucas was educated at Stowe, where he excelled at games. His father had died when he was 11 but his perceptive headmaster J.F. Roxburgh encouraged him to develop his many gifts. Lucas went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1934. He read Economics, captained the golf team, was the top amateur golfer in the 1935 British Open and at 19 found himself hailed as the finest left-handed player in the world. After the war, he captained the Walker Cup team in 1947 and 1949.
When he came down from Cambridge, he was interviewed by Beaverbrook for a post on the Sunday Express. Blunt and incisive, Beaverbrook was impressed by Lucas's replies to his questions. He took him to supper that night and asked him the same questions. Lucas gave the same answers and Beaverbrook hired him as a sports writer. That unconventional meeting touched a spark with Lucas; he learnt from Beaverbrook that you had to give young people their chance, encourage them, let them have their head, give them responsibility. In future years, he was to do so again and again. He remained with the Sunday Express until the outbreak of war when he volunteered for the RAF.
Lucas became one of the first pilots to learn to fly under the Empire scheme in Canada. He was posted to 66 Squadron in 1941, based in Cornwall. He took his family crest in his cockpit while carrying out strikes against shipping in the Channel.
In February 1942 he was posted to Malta, where he joined 249 Squadron. Soon afterwards, at the age of 26, he was given command of it, and forged a fighting unit from many disparate elements - Canadians, Poles, Australians - giving them responsibilities normally reserved for more experienced pilots. Despite several forced landings, Lucas was seldom out of his cockpit.
For the next four months, the three squadrons on the island fought off German and Italian bombers, often outnumbered 10 to one and initially flying out-of-date Hurricanes against Kesselring's vastly superior Messerschmidts. It seemed that Malta was doomed, but reinforcements by sea, including Spitfires, eventually turned the tide.
The other great influence on Lucas's life, the aviator Douglas Bader, had always believed in attacking out of the sun, with the advantage of height and speed. During the Battle for Malta, Lucas successfully carried out a classic Bader attack on three Italian bombers which were guarded by 80 Me 109s, and for this feat he was awarded a DFC.
In the autumn of 1942 Lucas was assigned as personal assistant to the Duke of Kent, but he felt that his friend Michael Strutt, who already knew the Duke, would be more suited to the post. Strutt duly took it up, and two weeks later both were killed in an air crash. This event haunted Lucas for many years.
In 1943, he took charge of 616 Squadron, then became leader of the Spitfire wing at Coltishall, Norfolk. In 1944 in the Ardennes, he commanded 613 Squadron and was involved in low-level tactical support missions and strikes. In 1944-45 he served with Tactical Air Force in North-West Europe. In 1945 he was awarded a bar to his DSO (awarded in 1943) for making numerous attacks on enemy communications, often in appalling weather conditions.
Also in 1945, encouraged by Beaverbrook, Lucas stood as Conservative candidate for West Fulham, but failed to be elected. He returned to the RAF to see out his commission and came back from France with bottles of champagne in the space where he had stripped out his guns. These were drunk at his wedding in 1946 to Jill Addison, the sister of Douglas Bader's wife, Thelma.
In 1950, Lucas won the seat of Brentford and Chiswick, which he held for nine years. He contributed much to the debate on aviation, but became disillusioned with his government's reluctance to join Europe. In 1959, he left to make a fresh career in commerce.
From 1946, he had worked with the Greyhound Racing Association, which had extensive property holdings including White City Stadium. He became managing director in 1957 and chairman in 1965. He expanded the stadium's use, notably hosting the evangelist Billy Graham's crusade. The firm was badly hit by the property collapse in the Seventies, and, after a difference of opinion with the backers, Lucas took early retirement in 1975.
At the age of 60, he took up his pen again and wrote a compelling autobiography, Five-Up (1978), The Sport of Princes (reflections of a golfer) (1980), and other books including Flying Colours: the epic story of Douglas Bader (1981), Wings of War: airmen of all nations tell their stories 1939-45 (1983), Out of the Blue: the role of luck in air warfare 1917-66 (1985) and Malta - the thorn in Rommel's side (1992). He then wrote three books with his wartime friend and fellow air ace Air Vice-Marshal Johnny Johnson.
Johnson said of him: "I do not think I have ever met a finer Englishman. He had tremendous qualities of goodness, leadership and character. Everything Laddie did he did well."
Percy Belgrave Lucas, pilot, politician, writer, golfer: born Sandwich Bay, Kent 2 September 1915; DFC 1942; DSO 1943, and bar 1945; MP (Conservative) for Brentford and Chiswick 1950-59; CBE 1981; married 1946 Jill Addison (two sons, and one son deceased); died London 20 March 1998.
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