Andrew Vine: Remembering Yorkshire’s greatest fighter ace

James "Ginger" Lacey was one of the RAF's most successful pilots during the Battle of Britain.
James "Ginger" Lacey was one of the RAF's most successful pilots during the Battle of Britain.
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On Battle of Britain Day, we should give our thanks to heroes like Jim “Ginger” Lacey

I SHALL think of Jim today, and of the stories he told about fighting the desperate battle in the skies 75 summers ago.

It is Battle of Britain Day, and James “Ginger” Lacey, the Yorkshireman who was one of the RAF’s greatest fighter aces, was right in the thick of it. The vapour trails he and the other young pilots left in the sky were signposts to this country’s survival and freedom. Today, we should remember them and give thanks.

I came to know Jim towards the end of his life, when the red hair that had bestowed on him a nickname straight out of a Biggles adventure story had mostly vanished.

Over a pint or two, and with a little coaxing, he would talk about what had happened, always falling quiet first, smoking his pipe and gazing into the middle distance as if looking back at that summer and early autumn when he was only 23.

And then he would begin speaking, and the matter-of-factness of his tone as he told stories of the Battle of Britain that raised the hairs on the back of my neck only made his remembrances more remarkable.

The Wetherby boy came to manhood as a sergeant pilot battling for his country and his life. Jim was one of the few RAF pilots on operational duties on both the first day of the Second World War and its last.

He had fought in the skies over France as the British Expeditionary Force was driven back to Dunkirk, but the greatest battle was yet to come.

Jim’s face would light up with a wry grin that made it suddenly boyish again as he recalled how close he came to death. Over France and Britain, he was shot down or forced to land because of combat damage nine times. There was nothing remotely boastful about him, though he had plenty to boast about.

On September 13 1940, he engaged Luftwaffe raiders over London, and shot down one of the aircraft that had just bombed Buckingham Palace. Jim paid a price, and had to bail out of his fighter, unable to find his airfield in worsening light.

But two days later, on what became Battle of Britain Day in commemoration of one of the most ferocious days of fighting that lasted from dawn to dusk, he was back, shooting down a bomber and three fighters. Jim would pause, puff on his pipe in silence for a minute or two, then grin again and note that the Germans got their own back on the 17th when they shot him down.

He ended the battle as the RAF’s second-highest scoring ace, with 28 enemy aircraft destroyed, five more probable kills and nine damaged.

Jim was a career RAF officer, serving until his retirement in 1967. When I got to know him he was still flying, from an aerodrome near Bridlington, teaching pupils eager to share a cockpit with one of The Few.

They are very few now. Jim died in 1989, aged 72, and since then time has accomplished what the Luftwaffe never could, thinning the ranks of the men who saved our country from invasion until just a handful remain.

That’s all the more reason to remember them today. I know how lucky I was to be able to sit with Jim and listen, captivated, and to meet his steady gaze as he spoke about the realities of the Battle of Britain and the loss of friends.

His voice is still to be heard in an archived BBC radio interview from 1978, and it captures Jim’s spirit, but what it cannot convey is the core of steely determination that radiated from his presence, nor his modesty over what he did.

Jim’s Distinguished Flying Medal and bar, plus the French Croix de Guerre, spoke of his bravery, which if raised, he would simply smile away.

Inevitably, once all the men like Jim are gone, something will be lost of our understanding of the Battle of Britain. The characters of the men who fought it and safeguarded the nation from falling into the horrors that befell occupied Europe were vital components of their victory in the air.

The tone of Jim’s voice and the look in his eyes conveyed much, and in conversation it was possible to glimpse that long-ago 23-year-old scrambling from his airfield on the outskirts of London and heading skywards, not knowing if he would return.

There is a plaque in his memory in Bridlington’s Priory Church, and whenever I visit the town around this time of year, I spend a few moments paying my respects.

But we all can pay our respects to Jim and the rest of those young men today simply by looking around us at a free country in which we can do or say pretty much what we like, and never forgetting that they made it so.