As his cannon and machine gun rounds crackled and twinkled when they slammed along the top and sides of the stationary train just outside Boulogne station, Wing Commander Bob Stanford Tuck’s Spitfire was hit by a jarring thump.
Anti-aircraft gunners on the ground had found their mark, hitting the Merlin engine and stopping it dead. Too low to take to his parachute, the only option was to belly-land in an open field.
Gliding in for an engine-less approach, Stanford Tuck suddenly spotted an anti-aircraft gun on the back of a truck. It was dead ahead of him. With an impetuosity characteristic of his RAF service thus far, he thumbed the gun button for one last time.
With only a few rounds left, he wanted to make them count. As it turned out, he did. And then he was down. As his Spitfire bumped and slithered on its belly across a meadow, the anti-aircraft gunners came running to capture the bloodied and shaken pilot.
Easing himself from his cockpit, Stanford Tuck reflected that perhaps shooting up the people who were about to capture him might not have been the best of ideas.
The impressive tally of 29 swastikas (one for each enemy aircraft he had downed) painted boldly on the Spitfire’s fuselage might not exactly help the situation either.
Yet instead of the expected hostile reception, and to Stanford Tuck’s complete astonishment, the German soldiers were instead keen to show him the anti-aircraft gun he had just shot at.
Incredibly, one of his rounds had gone straight down a gun barrel, peeling it open like a banana. It had certainly been a lucky shot.
For Stanford Tuck, his shooting down on January 28, 1942, as the RAF had gone on the offensive with missions over France (it hadn’t gone well, losing more men to death, injury and capture than during the Battle of Britain, and for little purpose), was this same kind of luck which had been with him for most of his RAF service.
And it was luck, he said, which helped him to rack up such an impressive score of victories and to have survived. On the other hand, his tally of claims for enemy aircraft destroyed is often disputed by RAF historians and researchers.
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Until now, too, the primary source of biographical detail on one of the RAF’s greatest fighter aces of all time has been Larry Forrester’s 1956 biography, Fly For Your Life.
Filled with an almost breathless narrative, and telling a ripping yarn which was a veritable Boys’ Own adventure story, Forrester relates the tale of Stanford Tuck following extensive interviews he had conducted with a man billed on the dust jacket of the book’s first edition as “The Immortal Tuck”.
Without doubt, books of this genre published during the 1950s – perhaps the most famous of all being Paul Brickhill’s Douglas Bader biography, Reach for the Sky – were hero makers. The stuff that established legends.
The trouble was that much of it was just that, a legend. Much of their content contained dubious historical detail, rather more fiction than fact.
Woe betides anyone, though, who might challenge the detail and risk being seen as knocking an RAF hero off his pedestal. In telling his tales to Forrester, Stanford Tuck undoubtedly embellished most of them for dramatic effect.
In the RAF of the day, such storytelling was called “shooting a line” – and it wasn’t uncommon. The first embellishment of Forrester’s story was having Tuck growing up in a comfortable lifestyle in a rambling old house set in three acres of ground. In reality, it turns out it was a very modest semi-detached house in Catford, south-east London.
But if Stanford Tuck was master of that arcane art, then Forrester was certainly master of the art of polishing and spinning those tales for artistic and literary effect and exaggerating them even further into the bargain.
The result was a work on a par with Captain W H Johns and his exciting Biggles adventure books for air-minded boys.
What is true is that Stanford Tuck’s initial period of training with the RAF in the 1930s was not entirely stellar. However, Bob Tuck finally passed out as a pilot and was graded “Above the average”, but with a cautionary rider added by the Chief Flying Instructor: “Apt to be overconfident.”
Certainly, Bob Tuck (he only added the Stanford part to his name in 1940 to avoid confusion with another Tuck and, possibly, as an affectation) was a flamboyant character brimming with self-confidence, his early service life marred, though, by disciplinary action which included involvement in a drink-driving road accident and reprimand for unauthorised low-flying.
Life on an operational squadron, when it finally came, would also have its moments. Flying Gloster Gladiators with 65 Squadron from RAF Hornchurch in January 1938, Tuck was on formation practice with a fellow pilot Sergeant Gaskell flying another Gladiator.
Over Uckfield in East Sussex, Gaskell’s aircraft careered into Tuck’s path, the brutal collision killing the sergeant instantly.
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Somehow, Bob Tuck managed to extricate himself from the intermingled and tangled wreckage of the aircraft and escaped by parachute.
As he did so, a flailing piece of wire gashed open his right cheek to leave a permanent scar. The vivid scar, and his pencil-thin moustache in the style of Clark Gable or David Niven, helped give him distinctive film star looks.
It all played into his developing and suave persona within the RAF. Meanwhile, his lucky escape from the stricken Gladiator gave rise to the birth of the legend of “Tuck’s Luck”.
Tuck would become one of the RAF’s first Spitfire pilots in action over the beaches of Dunkirk, and it was here that he claimed his first enemy aircraft with three Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters destroyed and one Messerschmitt Bf 109 “unconfirmed” on May 23, 1940.
The next day, he added two Dornier 17 bombers to his tally, and so it went on, exponentially, throughout May and June. By the time of the Battle of Britain, he was already an ace and continued to add to his score but had now been decorated by the King with a Distinguished Flying Cross.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and on the hardest day of the Battle of Britain – August 19, 1940 – he ‘borrowed’ a Spitfire on a day off and shot down a Junkers 88 off Beachy Head.
Hit by return fire, he limped back to the coast before eventually baling out. Later, cottages were built close to the site of his parachute landing and named Tuck’s Cottages in his honour.
A bar (second award) to the DFC followed, before a Distinguished Service Order helped confirm his status as national hero at just 23 years of age.
Then, as promotion followed promotion, he was elevated to the rank of squadron leader and posted to command and lick into shape 257 Squadron, a Hurricane unit that had been poorly led and was suffering low morale.
Although successful in his allotted task, he again cheated death after engaging two German fighters over the North Sea and being forced to abandon his aircraft. Fortunately, he was quickly rescued by a passing barge.
Fast forward to that fateful day over France in January 1942 and his shooting down and, even then, elements of his well-established luck still came into play.
Indeed, his time as a prisoner of war again saw adventure, luck, challenges, and escapes and escapades in almost equal measure.
Surviving the war, and after a brief dalliance in the world of civil aviation, Tuck settled down with his wife and family to become a mushroom farmer in Kent.
His was now a somewhat ordinary existence after all the excitement and high drama of wartime flying, but his name was now firmly in the public spotlight.
And what if his original story had had a gilding of the lily? Or if his total score of enemy aircraft destroyed is difficult for historians to fully reconcile with German losses? He was a hero, nonetheless.
Larry Forrester’s book firmly established Stanford Tuck’s story in the public eye. Had he not done so, it is entirely possible the new biography of him by Dr Helen Doe would not have seen the light of day.
In writing the ‘alternative’ and historically accurate biography, Doe faced considerable challenges – not least of all the challenge of presenting Stanford Tuck in an honest light and not offending those who might otherwise dismiss any fact-checking of the widely accepted story as simply being revisionist for the sake of it.
Doe’s work is nothing of the sort. Instead, she presents an honest and engaging account of a truly remarkable man. In these endeavours, it’s significant that she was assisted by Robert Stanford Tuck’s two sons, Michael and Simon, who were anxious to get the true story of their late hero father into the public domain.
In her understanding of Stanford Tuck’s fighter pilot experience, Doe doubtless drew on knowledge gleaned from her own late father, the former Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander Bob Doe, who’s biography she also wrote.
What she presents in Stanford Tuck: Hero of the Battle of Britain isn’t a re-work of the rollicking and often unbelievable read that was Forrester’s book.
Instead, we have a balanced and well researched account which properly presents Stanford Tuck in a better and more honest light. And one that removes the many myths and distortions his tale has accumulated.
As for the tale of his shooting up the anti-aircraft gun and his incredible reception by its crew, did it really happen? Doe’s research neither confirms nor refutes it.
On balance, it seems an unlikely tale but maybe it was a ‘line-shoot’ we should allow the “immortal” Tuck.The book that came out in the 1950s needed excitement in those drab post-war years.
Inconvenient facts should not be allowed to get in the way of a good story. Today the story is equally good. And factually correct.
Importantly, Robert Stanford Tuck, who died aged 70 in 1987, comes out of this work as the national hero he certainly was. He was a flawed character, yes.
But a character for whom one can only have boundless admiration.
- Stanford Tuck: Hero of the Battle Of Britain by Helen Doe (Grub Street, £25) is out now. For free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832
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