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What it feels like to: live through 100 years

Squadron Leader Wally Lashbrook.

Photograph: Nick Ponty
Photograph: Nick Ponty

I turned 100 years old on January 3 and celebrated with friends, family and players from the bridge club. I played bridge three times a week until my eyesight started to go a year or so ago. I also played a lot of sport when I was young – I boxed for the RAF, ran the 400 metres and did pole vaulting. During the war, I was a pilot and it was glamorous, dangerous, risky and exciting – all of those things.

I've been retired for more than 40 years now and filled my retirement with gardening, travel and bridge. I lived with my daughter Jessica after my wife Betty died. I was a grandpa-nanny.

I've kept mentally and physically busy and it's only recently that I've had problems with my eyesight and hearing. I still like a tipple: a sherry every day and a lager every now and again. My favourite is champagne – my daughters think that's why it took me six weeks to get out of France when I was shot down during the war.

I was born in Chilsworthy in Devon and caught moles for a living so I could earn enough to pay for grammar school. At 19, I joined the RAF as a technician then went to Plymouth where I worked with Lawrence of Arabia, who was also stationed there. We shared a passion for motorcycles and I've always loved speed, although I gave up driving when I was 84.

When war broke out, I was sent to train as a pilot at Prestwick where I met my wife Betty. We had two daughters, Jessica and Diane. I trained in Tiger Moths and then joined Bomber Command. I was scared stiff. You never thought of turning back, though. Bomber Command were vital to victory.

In 1943, I was shot down over Belgium and made my way through France and Spain. The French Resistance were important to my survival. The only French I knew was "je ne sais pas" but on a train some German officers came into my carriage. The soldier next to me said "Quelle heure est-il?" My limited French wouldn't allow me to give an answer so I extended my arm, he read the time and went back to admiring the countryside. It was one of several close shaves I had.

I still keep in touch with some of the people who helped me in France. In fact, I got a case of champagne from one of the families for my 100th birthday.

It took me until June to get home when I discovered Betty had been paid as a widow. They took all the money back. The only thing they didn't charge me for was the plane.

After the war, I became a test pilot and flew the first Meteor jets and then became a civil airline pilot. Some of it was more dangerous than the war. Once I was flying from Bermuda and all the instruments failed. We got the plane back and discovered someone had pushed grass into the engine. Was it sabotage? We don't know.

Back in Prestwick, I worked with the Army Cadet Force until I retired. The last time I flew was 1953. I loved flying, I must say, but I loved being on the ground better.

I live in a care home in Prestwick now. It's hard not being able to read the paper or play cards but I realised if I didn't adapt, I would be bored, and that's what I've done all my life: adapted.

mark smith

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