|Left & Far Right - Dickie Lee, Centre -'Tally Ho!' by Alex Hamilton|
Richard Hugh Anthony Lee was born in London in 1917 and educated at Charterhouse School. He joined RAF Cranwell as a Flight Cadet in September 1935 and graduated in July 1937. Lee was posted to Debden on 1 June 1938 to join No.85 Squadron at its reformation. To begin with Lee flew Gloster Gladiator biplanes at Debden, but in early September that same year the Squadron began to re-equip with Hawker Hurricane Mk1s.
At the outbreak of war No.85 Squadron was posted to France where it began to protect cross Channel convoys. On 22 September the Squadron was moved up to Merville to the west of Lille and then on 1 November it moved to Lille/Seclin aerodrome. At this juncture the Squadron was tasked with patrolling over the Channel to protect shipping from possible Luftwaffe air attacks, so the Squadron detached Sections to Le Touquet (north of Boulogne) and St Inglevert near Calais.
On 21 November 1939, while on patrol over Boulogne, Flight Lieutenant ‘Dickie’ Lee scored the Squadron’s first victory of the Second World War, when he successfully attacked a Heinkel 111. The bomber crashed into the Channel and burst into flames. This also secured the Squadron’s first accolade of the war when on 8 March 1940 Lee was awarded a DFC ‘for outstanding brilliance and efficiency.’
It was a cold and monotonous winter for Lee and all those stationed in France, but in May, life as a fighter pilot took on a whole new meaning.
On 10 May 1940, No.85 Squadron’s diarist recorded the following: ‘0410 hours. At the marginally noted hour the Blitzkrieg started, and the first intimation the Squadron received was the sound of innumerable Hun aircraft overhead and the sound of anti-aircraft fire both light and heavy. Within a few minutes one section of “A” Flight and one of “B” Flight were in the air after the Hun.’
Lee was leading B Flight with Flying Officer Derek Allen and Pilot Officer Patrick Woods-Scawen flying as his numbers 2 and 3. The Section attacked a Henschel Hs126 during an observational sortie between Hosingen and Diekirch at about 0435 hours. Their attacks severely damaged the enemy aircraft but it managed to limp back to base with two of its crew wounded.
Later that morning Lee was back in the air flying Hurricane L1779 into combat. Once again Lee led his Section and engaged a Ju 88 at about 15,000 feet between Armentieres and the Foret-de-Nieppe. Lee’s combat report for this encounter reads as follows: After being sighted, e/a [enemy aircraft] dived to very low height. I could only overhaul from astern very slowly. From 500 yards to 700 yards enemy rear gunner fired continuously. I fired short bursts and finished ammunition on closing to 200 yards. No apparent results except black smoke from one engine. My own aircraft shot badly.
Following on from Lee’s attack, Flying Officer Allan Angus closed in on the enemy machine and opened fire at 50 yards range. Two bursts from his eight machine guns silenced the rear gunner and put the enemy’s starboard engine out of action. The bomber was last seen diving towards the ground near Ghent.
Later that evening Lee shared in the destruction of a Ju 86 with Patrick Woods-Scawen and Derek Allen. The section of three Hurricanes attacked the enemy aircraft in line astern. Lee was the first to open fire and his attack set the enemy’s starboard engine on fire. One member of the crew baled out by parachute before Woods-Scawen made a pass at the aircraft followed closely by Allen. The enemy aircraft went down in flames and crashed. When Lee landed his ground crew discovered that he had fired 50 rounds from each of his eight Brownings during the engagement.
The next day the Squadron was back in the thick of it. After a busy morning patrol Woods-Scawen and Allen returned to base without their section leader. Dickie Lee was missing. The Squadron diarist reported the following: ‘11/5/40. Eight E/A were shot down today. Flight Lieutenant R.H.A. Lee failed to return from an offensive patrol covering the advance of the British Expeditionary Force over the Tongres-Maastricht Section – he was reported last seen on a Dornier’s tail at about 2,000 ft.’
Lee had been flying Hurricane N2388, code marked ‘VY-R’ over Maastricht when he engaged a Do 17P at approximately 1300 hours. His aircraft had been hit by AA fire and he baled out of his aircraft slightly wounded. On 12 May, Lee returned to the Squadron. He had shot down two enemy aircraft, before his own Hurricane had been hit by flak. After hanging in his parachute straps, floating earthwards, Lee finally came down in a field, where he spotted a local man passing by. He asked the man which direction he should travel in and was told to head towards some Belgian tanks that were nearby. Lee soon took off in the directions of the tanks, but as he approached them he suddenly realised that they were not Belgian tanks at all, but German! With his uniform concealed in the smock or overcoat he had acquired, the German’s believed Lee to be a peasant and so they locked him in a barn with some other refugees. Ever the optimist, Lee climbed up to a window to look out and noticed a ladder beneath the window, perched against the outside wall. He duly climbed out, walked several miles, and then hitched a ride with some Belgians before returning to his unit.
As the Battle of France continued the German advance increased with lightning speed and the RAF’s withdrawal was soon inevitable. On 22 May No.85 Squadron began to return to Debden to reform and re-equip but Lee was posted to No.56 Squadron to continue the fight.
On Thursday 23 May, Lee flew an offensive patrol from Manston to Dunkirk with No.56 Squadron. The Squadron engaged enemy aircraft over St. Omer and a dogfight ensued between its Hurricanes and Messerschmitt 109s and Bf 110s. Lee joined in the frantic duel and expended all of his ammunition by firing short bursts before his starboard wing was badly hit. Lee broke off and returned to Manston. He was unharmed and his Hurricane was listed repairable.
On 27 May, Lee flew another offensive patrol from Manston with the Squadron, this time flying Hurricane P3311. On this occasion Lee was shot down by Bf 109s during an attack on He 111s of KG 54. Lee ditched his aircraft in the sea off Ostend at 1615 hours and an hour later he was fished out of the water and taken ashore.
On 31 May Lee was awarded a DSO. The London Gazette published the following: 'Flight Lieutenant Richard Hugh Anthony LEE, D.F.C. (33208. This officer has displayed great ability as a leader and intense desire to engage the enemy. On one occasion he continued to attack an enemy aircraft after his companion
had been shot down, and his own machine hit in many places. His section shot down a Dornier 215 in flames one evening in May, and another in the course of an engagement the next day. In his last engagement he was seen at 200 feet on the tail of a Junkers 89, being subjected to intense fire from the ground over enemy occupied territory. This officer escaped from behind the German lines after being arrested and upheld the highest traditions of the Service.'
In June Lee returned to No.85 Squadron under the command of Squadron Leader Peter Townsend. His experience was called upon to help bring new recruits up to scratch before the Squadron was again ready for operational flying.
On 26 June Dickie Lee and his close friend Gerald ‘Zulu’ Lewis (also in No.85 Squadron) flew to an investiture where Lee received his DSO and DFC for his service. (The pair travelled in Miles Master N7546).
Lee’s reputation as a daring and aggressive fighter pilot was quickly spreading around the air force. Peter Townsend’s good friend, Flight Lieutenant John Simpson of No. 43 Squadron, wrote a letter to his intelligence officer, after hearing about the exploits of Dickie Lee. Simpson, who coincidently often flew with Patrick Wood-Scawen’s younger brother Tony, wrote the following: “I hear that Dickie Lee has done wonders. You see how those boys, who were always looked upon as being the naughty ones, are doing so well. They needed a war to convince the old gentlemen in Whitehall. Do you remember that Dickie was almost given his bowler hat for low flying? That same low flying has apparently stood him in good stead.”
In Hector Bolitho’s book Combat Report published in 1943, he wrote of an afternoon he spent with Lee, Townsend and Simpson: “Peter Townsend and Dickie Lee had been posted to an aerodrome a few miles from the house... In the early summer, John (Simpson) and I went out to find them... We found Peter and Dickie and took them back to the house. Dickie followed the car on a hellish motor bicycle. It was a pleasant enough afternoon and we lay on the lawn, the four of us, with a bowl of ice, a bottle of gin, some tonic water and four glasses, and talked the world away. All three, looked older. Both Dickie and Peter had been shot down and a certain solemnity seemed to have touched them. Dickie had changed more than others. We used to call him Dopey in the old days because he always fell asleep if the conversation took a serious turn. He was already a hero and in most newspapers there had been photographs of him receiving his decorations from the King. The long hell in France had left creases at the corner of his sleepy eyes. But he would have none of our attempts at war talk. He said that he had a date with a blonde in Saffron Walden and that he could not stay very long. Dickie’s taste in blondes was not always reassuring to his friends, but he was obviously more concerned with his date than with our efforts to make him talk of how he had won the DFC and DSO on his tunic. I remember that when he stood to go I noticed a hole in the leg of his trousers. It was where a bullet had gone through without touching his skin. I suppose that Peter and John and I were a bit pensive, being the older ones, so Dickie yawned and said, ‘Well, I must get cracking.’ He made one gesture to sentiment before he went. On the day that war was declared he left his favourite pictures with me... before his squadron flew off to France. They were photographs of friends, of aircraft, and one of a spaniel. He asked me for them, so I brought them down from the attic and he flew off to his blonde with them, piled before him on the screeching, violent motor bicycle.”
From the outset of the Battle of Britain Lee’s Squadron was heavily involved in the fighting over the Channel and southern England.
On 18 August 1940 (‘The Hardest Day’), Dickie Lee failed to return to Debden.
Flying as Blue 1 in Hurricane P2923 ‘VY- R’ during this patrol, Dickie Lee was last seen by Squadron Leader Townsend and Flying Officer Arthur Gowers ten miles north-east of Foulness Point chasing Bf 109s out across the Channel. In Townsend’s book Duel of Eagles he wrote the following of Lee’s last action: “‘Come back, Dicky,’ I called but he was drawing away. Again and again I called, but he kept on. It was useless to chase Huns out to sea; they would be back again the next day. Something had got into Dicky and there was no stopping him. We were both low on fuel and I was out of ammunition. There was only one thing to do: turn back.”
Townsend’s last sighting of Lee illustrates the bold determination that the twenty-three year old fighter pilot possessed in protecting his homeland from a formidable enemy. It seems that in spite of Lee’s low fuel and the extreme dangers of pursuing enemy aircraft alone out to sea he would not pass up the opportunity of allowing Luftwaffe fighters to escape his grasp. Although the cause of Dickie Lee’s demise remains unknown it is tempting to assume that his unrelenting, fearless desire to rid the sky of enemy aircraft no matter what the cost got the better of him. Lee’s body was never found.
Lee’s young life was cut far too short. There would be no more lazy afternoons with his friends, no more dates with blondes, no more racing around on his motorcycle and no more low ‘beat-ups’ in his Hurricane. Like many other young airmen at the time, Lee was popular, handsome, fearless and willing to die for his country. For this he ought to be remembered.
Lee is acknowledged on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 6.
Lee is acknowledged on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 6.
|Left - Lee in centre, Right - Lee with Zulu Lewis|
|Dickie Lee receives medals from King George VI|