Honoured by France. Talk of a lost love-of-his-life
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Tributes to former RAF crewman Des Lush, who risked his life in the skies over Germany to defeat Nazi tyranny
The neat handwriting chronicles the reality of war and the perils facing those risking their skins to fight Nazism. Men like the late Des Lush – then in his early 20s. His RAF logbook tells the story.
On May 1, 1945, for instance, he was part of the crew of a Lancaster that took off at 11.45am for a bombing raid on Germany. The plane was in the air for more than six and a half hours – a long time to be exposed, without the cover of darkness.
There was little time to rest. The next day they took off at 7.10am, this time flying for five hours and 20 minutes. On the fifth, they were up for more than 10 hours.
In the middle of the month Des’s crew targeted a benzol (fuel) storage depot near Dortmund. And on the last day of March it was submarine workshops at Hamburg.
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Did the crew weigh the odds of making it back to England whenever they took off on an operation? Did they dare to dream of Victory in Europe? It came on May 8, so wasn’t far off.
All in all, young Des put his life on the line 31 times, in bombing raids designed to halt Hitler’s dreadful and amoral war machine. Happily, he survived – and years later saw out his days in his adopted Suffolk, a county he cherished.
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“I’ve had a good time here,” he told reporter Andrew Hirst a couple of years ago. “The people in Suffolk are all very friendly.”
More than 70 years after the war ended, Des received France’s highest honour for military and civil service – in his case, for helping to save the nation.
“I will remember him as a man who was reserved, quiet, unassuming, courteous – a quintessentially English gentleman and, above all else, a friend. But very impatient with frustration at his failing memory,” says Eddy Alcock, chairman of Debenham’s Royal British Legion branch.
“As he became older and increasingly frail, I made a point of seeing him more often and spent many happy hours in his company, where we chatted about a great many subjects, but often about those wartime days and his exploits as an RAF ‘Bomber Command’ crew member.
“I heard about his early RAF days learning to fly in a Tiger Moth in Scotland and he was then sent to Canada, where I understand many of our pilots went for training, uninterrupted presumably by enemy aircraft, at the Royal Canadian Air Force Staging Post at Fingal in Ontario.”
A cosmopolitan bunch
Gordon Desmond Lush was born in London in February, 1923. He joined the cadet force as a schoolboy. At 17 he left school and enlisted in the Home Guard.
Then, having long had an interest in flying, he chose to join the Royal Air Force in 1941. “I’d always been a military man,” he said in 2017.
Following aptitude tests he was selected for flying training and sent to Perth in Scotland, before moving on to Ontario for an “interesting” 18 months.
He didn’t make the cut as a pilot, but trained as a bomb aimer and navigator in Canada.
Back on the other side of the Atlantic, Des was posted to RAF Hixon in Staffordshire, where he gained knowledge on Wellingtons, too.
In November, 1944, he joined 625 Squadron, based at Kelstern in Lincolnshire and later moving to Scampton, in the same county. He flew his first operation that month, targeting an oil refinery.
Being a bomb aimer meant lying flat and peering through the front turret as the gunner sat immediately above. It was noisy, cramped and sometimes very uncomfortable.
Raids were generally at night and targeted most of the major cities and towns in Germany, including Hamburg, Hanover, Bonn, Munich, Dortmund, Essen and Cologne. Military sites and installations key to the Nazi war effort were attacked.
Although Des was the official bomb aimer on the Lancaster, he was also ready to stand in as assistant pilot, navigator, engineer or gunner if colleagues were injured. Luckily, he never had to be called upon.
Of his 31 missions, two had to be abandoned because of engine fires. The plane returned to base. “We had to dump the bombs into the North Sea,” he said a couple of years ago.
“Luckily, I didn’t hit anybody, though I did kill a few fish, I would expect. The bombs made a huge splash and will still be there today, rusting away under the North Sea.”
The seven-strong crew was a tight-knit and “cosmopolitan bunch” that included an Australian, Canadian and Welshman. The Aussie was the pilot, Flying Officer Bailey, who named their aircraft Wee Wally Wallaby. The group got on well and the comradeship was outstanding, said Des.
Their Lancaster was hit only once – in the front turret, by anti-aircraft fire. Nobody was badly hurt, though Des was struck in the chest by a piece of Perspex.
At subsequent reunions “we all drank too much beer”.
When Suffolk became home
At the end of the war Des was posted to Romania. Back in Civvy Street in April, 1947 (he’d left the RAF as a flight lieutenant with five medals) he worked in insurance and joined the Guardian Assurance Company. Des also became a special constable in the City of London – serving for 25 years and rising to the rank of sergeant.
Guardian Assurance merged with Royal Exchange Assurance in 1968 to form Guardian Royal Exchange, or GRE. (In 1999 it became AXA.)
“Guardian came to Ipswich in the ’70s – Des, and his parents also, to his new home in Kenton (near Debenham). There he soon became involved in the local community, where he was much loved. He was warden at the church and for 20 years drove the village community bus.”
After retiring, Des joined the Debenham & District branch of the Royal British Legion and was chairman at one point.
“He was also an active member of the RAF Association. He enjoyed classical music – attending concerts until late in life – and exploring the world from cruise ships,” says Eddy.
Des’s sister died last year at the age of 100 and his brother Brandon is 99. He has a niece and nephew.
“I never asked Des about his private life or about his status as a bachelor, so have only very recently found out a bit more in that direction,” says Eddy.
“After the war he was posted to Romania on liaison duties and it was there he met a lady, Josephine, who might indeed have been the love of his life.
“Post-war refugee movement restrictions ended their relationship, though, but he retained her photo as a treasured possession until the end of his life, so he never married.”
It was early in 2017 that Des became the latest British veteran to receive The Order of Légion d’Honneur – the highest French order of merit for military and civil service. It dates back to 1802 and founder Napoleon Bonaparte.
The “knight’s star” was presented at his home in Kenton. “It was unexpected, but very welcome,” said Des, one of the few remaining Second World War heroes. “Something different for my old age.”
It was presented by Clare, Countess of Euston and Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, on behalf of the Queen. The monarch, she told Des, “is delighted and she sends you her very best wishes and gratitude”.
The ceremony was witnessed by members of the Royal British Legion’s Debenham branch, to which Des belonged.
Branch chairman Eddy Alcock outlined Des’s military service and said: “On behalf of all of us, we want to say how proud of you we all are.”
Eddy tells us now: “The ever-modest Des said to me, having been awarded the Legion d’Honneur, ‘Do you really think I deserve this medal?’ I told him there was no doubt whatsoever!”
Nearly a TV star…
“A couple of years ago, we had an approach from a TV company that produced a series about ‘Women at War’,” says Eddy, “and one episode was to interview women who manned radar equipment that communicated with aircraft on their way to deliver their bombs and helped them navigate their way to their targets.
“They discovered that the final part of the operation involved handing navigation over to the bomb aimer for the final and most accurate part of the approach, just prior to the bomb drop. They were having difficulty finding any surviving bomb aimers and discovered Des.
“So I tried to turn him into a TV star, as his memory was as clear as ever could be – of the missions he flew – and he was keen to take part. But in the end we reluctantly had to abort, as his dementia could just possibly panic him once he was amongst lights, cameras and the bustle of film crews all around him.”
‘He did his duty’
Des’s funeral is at 11.30am on Friday, March 8. It’s at the place where he was a warden: All Saints’ Church, Kenton.
Eddy is due to be there, as will his RBL standard bearer. The RAF Association will also be represented, and its flag will be draped over the coffin.
The music at the end of the celebration of Des’s life will be The Dambusters March.
“I believe he did his duty in the war as most young men did at that time: as service to the country he loved and a place he was prepared to defend, even if it cost him his life so doing,” says Eddy.
“He represented the words spoken at every November 11th Remembrance Service throughout the UK: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say – for your tomorrow, we gave our today’.”