Second World War flying ace from Leeds honoured with bomber fly past and blue plaque

A blue commemorative plaque in the car park of Aldi's  Wetherby store. PIC: SWNS
A blue commemorative plaque in the car park of Aldi's Wetherby store. PIC: SWNS
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A Second World War flying ace from Leeds is being honoured today with a bomber fly-past and a blue plaque at his birthplace.

James Harry ‘Ginger’ Lacey shot down 28 enemy planes during World War Two, survived nine crash landings - and famously downed a Nazi plane which bombed Buckingham Palace.

Lacey, who died in 1989, has had a blue plaque installed in his honour where his childhood home once stood in Wetherby, West Yorks.

But the site is now home to an Aldi supermarket with the hero’s plaque displayed outside the entrance to the store.

Born on 1 February 1917 at Fairfield Villas in Wetherby, Lacey had a rural upbringing.

Lacey’s daughter, and closest living relative, Min Lacey said: “Dad desperately wanted to join the RAF, but my grandfather wanted him to be a farmer - it wasn’t until his father died that he managed to convince his mum to let him earn his wings.

“Because he was so sickly as a child, I think she agreed because she thought he would fail the medical - which 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 was sent to France as an RAF flight sergeant to support the British troops.

He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery in the air over France, 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.

“He attended a ceremony in France in the 80s where he rekindled the eternal flame beneath the Arc de Triomphe and he was presented it by airmen from the Free Polish Squadron.

She added: “He wasn’t expecting it at all.”

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.”

Lacey was stationed at Gravesend Airport for the majority of the Battle of Britain.

Speaking before his death, Ginger Lacey said: “We called them bandits... which meant either unidentified or enemy aircraft.

“You were there to get rid of his aeroplane, it didn’t cross your mind that it was a man

“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.

“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.

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 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 German plane that had 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 explained.

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

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

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.

Lacey deployed to the East after the war in Europe finished, and added a Japanese plane to his tally.

Lacey was later a technical adviser on the 1969 film Battle of Britain, starring Michael Caine.

Mr Lacey said: “While he was helping with the filming for ‘the Battle of Britain’, we had a lot of journalists here from all over the world, including a bunch from Japan.

“They asked him: ‘How many planes did you shoot down?’

“My father replied: ‘28 overall, 27 German and one Japanese I’m afraid.

“The Japanese journalists all huddled together for a few minutes, and then formally announced: ‘We forgive you’.”

Married with three children, Lacey flew full circle after the conflict and started to teach flying again in Yorkshire, until he died of old age in 1989.