Andrew Blow writes: One of the few remaining Bomber Command heroes of World War II, Les Rutherford died at home at North Hykeham near Lincoln aged 101 on Sunday, December 1st 2019.
Les, a former 50 Squadron bomb aimer, appeared in our DVD “Operation Failed To Return" - the wartime story of 50 and 61 Squadrons which, for the most gruelling part of the campaign, were together at RAF Skellingthorpe, the nearest base to Lincoln.
We also had the pleasure of filming Les several times in the grounds of the International Bomber Command Centre where he would appear on Open Days to help fundraising.
By the time Les celebrated his 100th birthday in autumn 2018, the IBBC had opened and we filmed his party there - a happy function attended by family members from far and wide, members of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, RAF College Cranwell and others.
Once again Les was in our shot when he was introduced, with other veterans, to HRH the Earl of Wessex at the IBCC (All this for our DVD “The Steepest Climb - the story of the IBCC”)
Les’s wartime escapes are the stuff of legends. The most famous are his escape on a door from the beach near Dunkirk in 1940, while serving as an Army dispatch rider, and then, as an airman in 1943, he somehow wriggled free from the falling wreckage of his crashing Lancaster. His half-on parachute opened just in time. No wonder Les would say: ”I had a guardian angel watching over me.”
In this modest tribute, I would like to recall some of the more social stories that he told me when we recorded at his home. I had been led to believe by one source that Bomber Command bases, where crews suffered a high rate of death and injury, were gloomy places.
“Oh no,“ said Les, “it wasn’t gloomy at all. We had lots of fun in the mess - when we were off ops of course. (Laughs). it was a bit mad really. We would very often end up with battles - two sides, tankards and all sorts of things being thrown.
“The bar stewards used to complain that they had to spend the next day knocking the dents out of the tankards. It really was mad. We used to play darts from one side to the other – things like that you know. It was who could invent the daftest game.
“One night we went to Saxilby to the Anglers Arms. We had a few drinks. As usual I was on piano. I played piano for a singsong. I wasn’t a pianist by any means, but I could play well enough for a singsong.
“The landlady called time. We kept on playing for a while because we still had beer – and she came down and shut the piano lid down on my hands while I was playing. She said ‘its time you were out.’
“My pilot who was a great imitator said I was allowed finish my beer regardless of the time. She said ‘no no you’ve got to be out.’ He said ‘I’m a lawyer and I can tell you what the law is. ‘
“In the meantime I drank the beer and we got off. There were six of us and we all climbed into his little MG two-seater and flew back holding on to our hats singing Deutchland Deutchland Uber Alles.
“When we got back, we chased the wireless operator into the mess and debagged him. One of the WAAF attendants came in, took one look and fled.
“And then the pilot tried to get his MG into the mess. It was too wide for the doors…. he couldn’t do that so he went off and got a motorbike. He came back in on a motorbike, roared round the mess and went out again. As I said, looking back it was childish even…we were mad, absolutely mad.
“It was accepted, as long as no great damage was done, and everything was all right.”
And then there was the pilot who was a big fan of the Andrews Sisters, whose crooning vocal style has remained popular in the decades since.
This chap, recalled Les, had a superstition: he could not go on ops without hearing his favourite track “The Shrine of St. Cecilia”. This was normally quite feasible – but one day the old shellac disk got broken.
A hunt was launched across Lincolnshire to find a new copy. The track must have been popular because it wasn’t easy to find another. Eventually, RAF Skellingthorpe sent a vehicle to Grimsby to collect the precious disk and bring it back for a hearing before take-off.
There were more yarns in Les’s memory… this one more serious. “While I was doing my operational training, there was a prominent VC (whom Les did not name) and he and another chap climbed on to the roof during an officers mess party and dropped a couple of Very cartons down the chimney.
“They exploded and covered the room with smoke, coloured smoke….and whatnot. He got demoted for that.”
God bless Les. We will truly never see his like again. His story in his own words can be heard on-line in audio recordings in the IBCC Digital Archive. And his book is in the IBCC shop. I add my condolences to the many that his wife Coral and the family will receive.
Andrew Blow, December 7th 2019