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Robert Stanford Tuck - debonair, charismatic and a crack shot

With 29 victories, eight enemy aircraft probably destroyed and six damaged, Roland Robert ‘Bob’ Stanford Tuck (the hyphen was added post-war), who died aged 70 on 5 May 1987, was one of the greatest fighter aces of the Second World War - including the Battle of Britain of 1940 - until his career was cut short over France on January 28, 1942.

Such was his reputation with the Luftwaffe that after crash-landing near Boulogne he was given a slap-up dinner by the great German fighter ace Adolf Galland, then a lieutenant colonel. Ground gunners who had helped to shoot Tuck down were astonished that as his Spitfire crash-landed its cannon were still firing, one shell going right up the long slim barrel of a multiple 20 mm flak gun, splitting the barrel like a half-peeled banana. Patting Tuck on the back, they congratulated him repeatedly: "Goot shot, Englander goot shot" . In so doing, the German flak gunners had unwittingly nailed the secret of Stanford-Tuck's success as a fighter pilot. From his schooldays at St Dunstan's preparatory school and college, Reading, he had been a keen and prize-winning rifle and pistol shot, developing an eye which made him one of the best practitioners of the fighter pilot's art of deflection shooting.

Fortunately for the RAF, Tuck's father, a First World War captain in the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, had taught him to shoot and at the age of 12 he was already an "ace" rabbit and pheasant shot. Serving in the Merchant Navy from the age of 16 as a cadet with Lamport & Holt, mostly on the South American meat run, Tuck gained his skipper's admiration for his skills in potting sharks with a Lee Enfield rifle. But in January 1942 it was Tuck's turn to be a victim of sharp shooting before the flak gunners handed him over to Galland who also had good reason to respect the RAF ace's eye.

Based at St Omer, Galland invited Tuck to dinner with his pilots telling him "We have met before. Last time I very nearly killed you but you saw me coming and got out of way in the nick of time."

"So that was you, was it? "Tuck replied. "I got your number two as he passed in front." At dinner Galland presented his guest with a bottle of whisky. They were not to meet again until after the war, when Tuck was briefed to interrogate him as a prisoner. Thereafter a lifelong friendship developed, the pair exchanging annual visits and indulging a mutual love of hunting and shooting. Their friendship was especially evident during the making of the feature film the "Battle if Britain", when they greatly enjoyed their advisory roles on location.

Bob Stanford-Tuck had never given a thought to flying until, on leave from sea, he answered an advertisement calling for RAF pilots. Accepted, he reported as an acting pilot officer on 16th September 1935. After training in Avro Tutors, he graduated to the Hawker Hart and Audax, being rated in his confidential report as "a born fighter pilot" . His shooting war began at the end of May 1940 when home-based RAF fighters, all too few of them, attempted to cover the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Despite great odds against him, Tuck accounted for several Me109s in this area. Tuck's outstanding ability as a fighter pilot already recognised, he was selected for a vital experimental task.

With Wing Commander George Stainforth, a pre-war speed record holder, Tuck was selected to conduct flight trials comparing the Me109 and the Spitfire. In this vital prelude to the Battle of Britain, Tuck and Stainforth put on an amazing display for brasshats and scientists at Farnborough, taking it in turns to fly the 109 and the Spitfire. It was an experience that was to serve Tuck well as the Battle of Britain was fought over south-east England between 10th July and 31st October 1940. It was also of immense value to Fighter Command, because the tests proved conclusively the advantage of the 109's Daimler Benz fuel injection engine against the Spitfire's Rolls-Royce Merlin carburettor, which could not cope with a sudden nose-drop from horizontal to vertical. Perversely, Tuck was posted to command No 257 (Burma) Squadron equipped with the slower if more manoeuvrable Hawker Hurricane as the Battle of Britain reached its climax in September 1940. It took time for him to be accepted as CO even though he had 14 official kills to his credit - 14 Swastikas stencilled on the fuselage under the cockpit of his Hurricane. As with his friend Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, who was also shot down flying a Spitfire, Tuck was a great advocate of the Hurricane as a magnificent gun platform.

Tuck certainly knew. On 21st June 1941, after shooting down two 109s over the sea, his Hurricane IIC, badly shot up, was attacked head-on by a third 109. With no throttle and a faltering engine Tuck managed to drive off the enemy. Then he nursed the Hurricane 100 miles out from Southend to the coast. The starboard aileron dropped away and flames appeared in the cockpit. Tuck baled out - one of four occasions on which he escaped by parachute - inflated his rubber dinghy and was rescued.

By this time Tuck was not only a household name but also a Wing Commander at the age of 25, commanding at first three squadrons then a wing of five squadrons. The award of the DSO and three DFCs within a few months made him such a frequent figure at Buckingham Palace investitures that King George VI always had an especially warm greeting. On the occasion of his second bar to the DFC the King told Tuck that his daughters were always asking about him.

Sadly there came the time when Tuck, brought down by ground gunners, was no longer there. It was not until after the war that the princesses and the fighter ace's admirers throughout the nation learned that he escaped in 1945 and in the last days of the Second World War had joined Russian troops fighting on the Eastern Front.

With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph 1987

In 1956 a biography of Stanford-Tuck was published - 'Fly for your Life' by Larry Forrester and this is still widely available (ISBN numbers vary).

In May 2008 a plaque was unveiled in the church of St Clement, Sandwich, Kent (where his ashes are interred)

Photos and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website

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