Edward Tolan, who has died at 94, was a retired Squadron Leader who flew 30 perilous nighttime missions over military targets in Germany during 1943 alone, and whose bravery was rewarded with the presentation of the Distinguished Flying Medal by King George VI.
A rear gunner in a Halifax aircraft crew, he came under fire on every mission, both from ground defences and from the air, and he always maintained it was sheer luck rather than skill that saw him survive when so many others did not.
His exploits were rewarded after the hostilities with a 1939-45 War Star, an Aircrew Europe Star, Defence Medal and 1939-45 War Medal – all of which meant a great deal to him, he was to recall in 2002, “not least because I flew with an excellent crew and there are just two of us left now”.
Mr Tolan’s distinguished career began on his 18th birthday in 1941 when he joined the RAF and became a ground-crew armourer for 102 Squadron at the Topcliffe and Dalton bases in North Yorkshire.
A year later, he achieved his dream of becoming a member of an air crew when he was made a sergeant mid-upper gunner on Halifax bombers serving with 78 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse and Breighton, Marston Moor and Acaster Malbis.
In recent years, he was asked to recount his time with 102 Squadron, and recalled stepping off the train from Halifax to Thirsk and then having to walk the six or so miles to Topcliffe on a wet and windy night to report for duty. Rumours of aircraft sabotage were rife, so each night airmen were equipped with a rifle to patrol the Squadron bounds. Given the prolonged snows in and around the Vale of York that winter, it was a bitterly cold duty that no-one relished.
His 1943 missions included sorties over the Ruhr, known to the crews, somewhat ironically, as “happy valley”, Hamburg, Berlin, Dusseldorf and the German rocket fuel plant at Peenemunde. On several occasions they were forced to limp home on just three or two engines.
“Every mission could have been the last,” Mr Tolan said. “You saw people around one day and they weren’t there the next. Other people who had been with you for 28 or 29 operations and were just about ready to go on rest were shot down.
“If you got back, you were no more skilled than anybody who was killed, you were just lucky.”
In 1945 he was promoted to Flying Officer, and served with the 158 Squadron at Lissett.
After the war he studied economics at Leeds University but re-joined the RAF at the time of the Berlin Airlift crisis in 1948.
He went on to serve in Germany, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Malta and America, with his last active post before retirement in 1975 at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.
Born in Halifax, “Eddie” Tolan was the eldest of three brothers, one of whom, Joseph would twice serve as Mayor of Calderdale.
All three were to establish fearsome careers on the rugby field. Remarkably for those days, the brothers were occasionally able to play both codes of the game and held them in equal esteem – but it was as a hooker in rugby union that Eddie would forge his reputation.
He once happily forgave and shook hands with the opposition prop that had stamped on him during a ruck, causing him to lose his bottom row of teeth. He lost the rest top-edging a cricket ball into his mouth.
Rugby – with cricket not far behind – was his chief passion, and he was to play at the highest standard after the war, alongside internationals doing their National Service. He captained Halifax Vandals RUFC and played for Ripon and Harrogate, to where he and his wife, Margaret, had moved in the 1950s.
He finished his working life at BAe Systems at Salmesbury and Warton. A devout Catholic, he became a “meeter-and-greeter” at his local church.
He is survived by Margaret, their two daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.