Wartime bomber pilot

Born: January 3, 1913

Died: June 6, 2017

Squadron Leader Wally (Wallace) Lashbrook, who has died aged 104, was a pilot with Bomber Command during the Second World War, who flew dozens of missions before being shot down over Belgium and escaping back to Britain.

He went on to be a test pilot and instructor, and after the war, took part in the Berlin Airlift. In later life, he was a leading light in the Ayrshire Army Cadet Force.

A man of uncommon courage and great positivity, he was modest about his achievements, for which he received many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. He stopped flying in 1953, but never lost his love of speed, or his competitive edge.

Wallace Lashbrook was born in the Devon village of Chilsworthy to a farmer, Charles, and his wife Elizabeth, the second of four children.

He won a scholarship to Okehampton grammar school and on leaving, joined the RAF as an apprentice fitter at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire. At the end of his three years, he was the top fitter and had also distinguished himself as an athlete, in bantamweight boxing and pole vaulting.

His first posting was to RAF Mountbatten near Plymouth where he worked on high speed boats with an Aircraftsman named Ross, who, like Mr Lashbrook, had a Brough Superior motorcycle. Ross was in fact the man now commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, living under an assumed name because the air force would not let him enlist as he was already a colonel and they became good friends.

After a spell in Singapore between 1934 and 1936, he returned to the UK and went to Prestwick to train as a pilot in Tiger Moths; while there, he met his future wife, Betty. They married in 1938.

Now sergeant pilot, Mr Lashbrook was then posted to No.3 Group Bomber Command. Until 1940, his role was to ferry aircraft, but in 1940 he moved to 51 Squadron No.4 Group Bomber Command where he flew bombing operations – by January 1941, he had flown 25 missions over continental Europe, earning him the Distinguished Flying Medal.

He was involved in Operation Colossus, the first ever mission to drop paratroopers, in February 1941 (their mission was to destroy the Calitri Aqueduct, southern Italy). After that, he joined 35 Squadron, flying Halifaxes with crews of seven, from Yorkshire.

He had a near miss in April 1941 when the aircraft’s engines failed and he had to land in the dark, crashing into an oak tree. Everyone escaped unharmed, but not so two years later on April 17, 1943, when his Halifax was hit returning from a night raid in Czechoslovakia.

The tail gunner was killed, another gunner wounded and Mr Lashbrook, by then a squadron leader, gave the order to bail out; by the time he left the aircraft it was only 500ft from the ground. He landed hard but he and his other crew were unharmed.

They were on the French/Belgian border and, having split up, Sqn Ldr Lashbrook hid in woods where he was discovered by a French farmer, who contacted the Comet escape line of the French Resistance.

Over the next six weeks, he travelled through France, spending time in the champagne region (where he stayed with a family helping to bottle, and drink, their wine, his lifelong favourite tipple). He was nearly discovered when a German soldier on a train asked him the time in French. Sqn Ldr Lashbrook just extended his arm to show the man his watch. The soldier then went back to looking out of the window.

A guide helped him escape him over the Pyrenees into Spain where he made it to Gibraltar.

Sqn Ldr Lashbrook forged lifelong links after the war with the families of the brave Resistance workers who helped him out of France, not all of whom survived the war.

Sqn Ldr Lashbrook worked as a civil airline pilot after the war, becoming the chief pilot for nascent British airline Skyways.

He noted that “some of it was more dangerous than the war”, particularly a flight out of Jamaica when all the instruments failed. It was a highly fraught situation but he safely landed on Bermuda, only to find someone had put grass in the engine.

In 1948/49, he organised 24 aircraft to help provision West Berlin after it was blockaded by the Soviets, the so-called Berlin Airlift.

He competed in flying races, winning both the King’s Cup and the Air Challenge Cup, but in 1953, gave up flying to focus on his growing family (the second of his two daughters was born that year).

He did a variety of jobs until, in 1960, he became executive officer of the Ayrshire Army Cadet Force. He enjoyed seeing the young people he worked with grow in confidence. A particular passion was promoting their sports, for which he was awarded an MBE, and he helped set up the charity the Ayrshire ACF League.

His daughters remember a father who could turn his hand to everything, from mending a shattered plate to making a ballet dress. After retiring in 1978, he loved spending time with his family, playing bridge, travelling, and attending ACF League events.

He lived with his daughter Jessica after his wife died but latterly moved into Berelands House Care Home in Prestwick, where he was very popular. Local primary schoolchildren loved to listen to his stories.

Sqn Ldr Wally Lashbrook is remembered as a brave, adaptable, upbeat and humble man, who made a great impression on those who knew him. He is survived by his daughters Diane and Jessica, his grandchildren Sarah and Michael, and his step-grandchildren Kieran and Carly.

Rebecca McQuillan