James 'Ginger' Lacey: Battle of Britain pilot remembered

By Tom Airey
BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,

James Lacey is thought to have downed 28 enemy planes during WW2

World War Two fighter pilot James Harry "Ginger" Lacey is being honoured with a blue plaque this weekend at his birthplace - now the site of a German-owned supermarket. While WW2 pilots like Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson became household names, Lacey's story is less well known.

With a nickname straight out of a Biggles adventure book, and a life story to match the fictional pilot, Ginger Lacey went from learning to fly to becoming one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain in just three years.

One of "The Few", Lacey downed at least 28 enemy planes during World War Two and was a rare example of someone who served in the RAF on both the first and final day of the war.

Due to both skill and luck, in his own words, he survived nine crash landings and famously shot down a German plane that had just bombed Buckingham Palace.

Lacey died in 1989 and his achievements have been honoured with a blue plaque on the land where his childhood home once stood in Wetherby, West Yorkshire.

The site is now home to an Aldi supermarket, with the plaque displayed at the store's entrance.

"Dad would have enjoyed the irony," said his daughter Min Lacey.

Media caption,

Ginger Lacey was one of the pilots described as the "backbone of RAF Fighter Command"

Born on 1 February 1917 at Fairfield Villas in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, Lacey had a rural upbringing, with his father adamant he would join the family business.

Ms Lacey, 57, said: "He desperately wanted to join the RAF, but his dad wanted him to be a farmer - it wasn't until his father died that he managed to convince his mum.

"He was a pale and skinny kid and his mum thought he would fail the medical, but of course he didn't."

While working as a trainee pharmacist in Leeds, Lacey learnt to fly with the RAF Volunteer Reserve at weekends and became an instructor at the Yorkshire Flying School in Yeadon in 1938.

As war broke out in 1939, he had amassed 1,000 hours of flight time and was sent to France as an RAF flight sergeant to support the British troops.

Image source, Wetherby Historical Trust
Image caption,
Lacey attended Crossley Street Primary School, seen in this photograph sitting in the front row second from the left

Flying a Hurricane with Number 501 Squadron, on the morning of 13 May 1940, he shot down two German planes over the Ardennes region.

Ms Lacey said: "When he landed, no-one believed him. He later shot down another in the afternoon - three in his first combat of World War Two."

For his bravery during the Battle of France, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal, but was not presented with it until the 1980s.

"The Germans marched into Paris on the day he was due to collect it, so they had to put that on hold," his daughter said.

Image source, Central Press/Stringer
Image caption,
Ginger Lacey was stationed at Gravesend Airport during the Battle of Britain
Image source, Central Press/Stringer
Image caption,
Lacey, seen on the left, served in the RAF for the duration of World War Two

By the summer of 1940, France had surrendered to Germany, and Adolf Hitler had turned his attention to Britain, but the Nazi leader needed the Luftwaffe to take control of the skies above the south of England before he could contemplate a ground invasion.

Gordon Leith, curator at the Royal Air Force Museum, said: "It was a critical time. Following the defeat at Dunkirk they must have been aware that invasion was impending and a lot depended on their efforts."

As the Luftwaffe started to bomb airfields and factories, Lacey was ordered back to Britain and was stationed at Gravesend Airport for the majority of the Battle of Britain.

Ginger Lacey's thoughts on the Luftwaffe, from a 1978 BBC radio interview

We called them bandits... which meant either unidentified or enemy aircraft. It was never meant to describe the people in it or anything like that.

I much preferred to kill someone without them even knowing I was there - the first indication he was being shot at was when bullets were coming out of his chest.

You were there to get rid of his aeroplane, it didn't cross your mind that it was a man You were firing at an aeroplane of a different kind wearing the wrong markings and flying in our sky.

We had been told to get rid of them, so we got rid of them; there was no feeling about it.

I didn't go round hating Germans or liking Germans. I had never met a German in my life so I couldn't have any preconceived opinion of what one looked like, acted like or sounded like.

In a 1978 BBC interview, he recalled waking up in a hut by the runway as the pilots waited for the phone to ring.

"You would have a cup of tea, some breakfast, you would go out to your aircraft, a couple of hundred yards, check the aircraft, get our parachutes out, fit our helmets in the aircraft, hang them over the control column and make ourselves as comfortable as possible waiting for the first call," Lacey said.

Number 501 Squadron lost 17 men during the Battle of Britain, with Lacey's roommates regularly changing as comrades were killed.

Asked by the BBC's Norman Tozer how he ended up still alive and holding one of Britain's highest "scores" of the battle, Lacey said it was down to experience and "an awful lot of luck".

"I was shot down nine times in 16 weeks. Twice I got out with my aeroplane burning from end to end, once with no tail on it," he said.

"When someone has done that to your plane, you've got to have had a lot of luck to have avoided the bullets which mangled the aeroplane."

Battle of Britain: July to October 1940

  • In July 1940 the RAF deployed 640 planes while the Luftwaffe could call on 2,600 fighters and bombers
  • Although Fighter Command was initially outnumbered, Britain ramped up factory production and by October had more fighter planes than the Luftwaffe
  • Nearly 3,000 aircrew served with RAF Fighter Command
  • The average age of a pilot was 20
  • The RAF lost 1,023 planes and the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 planes

His daughter thinks his survival and hit rate was down to his shooting skills, with ammunition in short supply at the time.

She said: "He was a very good marksman, he brought down aircraft with five shots, so he was never going to run out of ammunition, was he?

"He was also able to conquer sheer terror day after day: can you imagine being in that tiny cockpit, frozen, terrified, doing seven flights a day and not knowing if you were going to come back from any of them?"

During the Blitz, Lacey was scrambled to stop a Heinkel He 111 plane that had flown above the capital and bombed Buckingham Palace.

"He was injured when the rear gunner fired back at him and he had to crash land. He was actually forced to glide the aircraft back to Gravesend," Mr Leith said.

Image source, Central Press/Stringer
Image caption,
Lacey was presented with the first parachute to be manufactured in Australia in 1941

Despite still being in his early 20s, Lacey was one of the more experienced pilots of the Battle of Britain.

Mr Leith said: "He was one of the famous sergeant pilots which made up the backbone of RAF Fighter Command.

"He isn't as well known as some of the officer pilots, but for those who study it he is given the respect he deserves as one of the leading pilots of the battle."

He added: "Not many survived the entire war, most were either killed, injured or taken prisoner, so for an aircrew member to have a record like that, it must have been pretty scarce."

Image source, Fox Photos/Stringer
Image caption,
Lacey was asked to be a technical adviser on the 1969 film Battle of Britain
Image source, Ronald Dumont / Stringer
Image caption,
Bianca Jagger and Michael Caine, pictured on the set of the film

After the Battle of Britain, Lacey was promoted to flight lieutenant and awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Medal.

He continued flying fighter missions until the end of the war, including a transfer to India where he took on the Japanese.

At the end of World War Two, he was credited with having shot down 28 confirmed planes, four "probables" and nine damaged - one of the highest tallies of all the RAF's British fighter pilots.

Image source, Douglas Miller/Stringer
Image caption,
Lacey, pictured on the left, returned to Yorkshire to be a flying instructor after he left the RAF

Married with three children, Lacey went full circle after the conflict and started to teach flying again in Yorkshire.

His daughter recalls a particularly memorable 16th birthday present, after he had told her he had not planned anything special.

"He flew a plane up and I jumped out of it with a parachute," Ms Lacey said.

"It's the third scariest thing I've done in my life, behind going on Mastermind and showing my dog around the Crufts arena."

Image source, Min Lacey
Image caption,
Ginger took his daughter Min for a parachute jump on her 16th birthday

Lacey was asked to be a technical adviser on the 1969 film Battle of Britain, starring Michael Caine, as director Guy Hamilton - who had a distinguished war record himself - wanted the movie to be as true to real life as possible.

Living in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, Ginger later became an instructor at Hull Aero Club, helping more than 4,000 flyers attain a private pilot's licence.

Peter Spencer, club secretary, said: "His style was unorthodox but very accomplished on account of his experience flying RAF fighter aircraft in the war.

"In 2016, we dedicated our new training facility at Beverley Airfield in his memory."

Image source, Wetherby Civic Society
Image caption,
The plaque has been installed at the site where Lacey was born in Wetherby

Peter Catton, of the Wetherby Civic Society, which was behind the move to award the blue plaque, said: "It sounds like he had a very wry sense of humour and was a practical joker, so I think that he would have found it quite funny that he was being commemorated in a German-owned supermarket.

"I get the impression that he loved flying, and I think he was a genuine hero, but I doubt that he would have recognised himself as one."

Image source, Seb Davey
Image caption,
A Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster bomber performed a flypast above the plaque-unveiling ceremony in Wetherby

The blue plaque was officially unveiled on Sunday, with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight performing a flypast.

Clare Vause, store manager at Aldi in Wetherby, said the team were pleased to "play our part in marking this important historical milestone".

Attempting to sum up Lacey's legacy, Mr Leith said: "He was a very popular, influential person who served his country, was keen to get people into flying and a real RAF enthusiast."

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