Squadron Leader “Hawkeye” Lee, who has died aged 92, was a Hurricane pilot sent to France on the day the Germans invaded France in May 1940; during the month that followed, as his squadron fought against much superior odds, he shot down five enemy aircraft before being forced to bale out of his own.
Lee’s squadron, No 501 (County of Gloucester), was on standby to reinforce Norway when it was rushed to an airfield near Rheims on May 10, the day the Germans started their Blitzkrieg.
In the first three days Lee accounted for three enemy bombers as the German army advance continued. The squadron flew three or four patrols a day but was forced to retreat to Le Mans, where it gave cover as the British and French forces were evacuated from Dunkirk. During this period Lee shot down two more bombers as they attacked the “little ships”.
On June 10 he attacked a formation of Heinkels, but exhausted his ammunition without any apparent effect. As he turned away, his Hurricane blew up and he baled out, hitting the tailplane of his aircraft. He was injured in the hand and leg, and 10 days later was put on a boat for England from St Malo. He was mentioned in dispatches.
Kenneth Norman Thomas Lee was born on June 23 1915 in Birmingham and educated at the city’s King Edward VI High School. He became a trainee technician in a paint factory and was one of the first to join the new RAF Volunteer Reserve in January 1937.At weekends and during summer camps he trained as a pilot, and was called up to the RAF in January 1939, when he was commissioned. He joined No 501 at the outbreak of war.
Lee was a debonair, flamboyant character, and a slightly drooping eyelid gave him something of the appearance of a hawk. Often he would be the first to spot the enemy, and his comrades gave him the nickname “Hawkeye”, which remained with him for the rest of his life. (One of his fellow pilots claimed that the real origin for the nickname was Lee’s ability to detect the presence of “an attractive female before she came into sight”.)
Lee returned to flying in July 1940 in the opening phase of the Battle of Britain. During a major engagement over Dover harbour he damaged a Stuka dive-bomber, and on August 12 he shot one down. Six days later his formation was surprised by a force of Messerschmitt Bf 109s, whose leader, the German ace Oberleutnant Gerhard Schopfel, shot down the three trailing Hurricanes. He then turned on Lee, who was wounded in the leg and forced to bale out of his burning aircraft.
He was “captured” by an armed elderly civilian who refused to believe that Lee was British; some soldiers retrieved the situation, taking him to the local golf course for a brandy while they waited for an ambulance. Heavily bloodstained, Lee stood at the bar, where he overheard a man complaining: “The machine-gunning made me miss my putt. And who’s that chap at the bar? Bad show, all that blood – I don’t believe he’s even a member.”
Having been awarded a DFC for his “great dash and determination”, Lee was sent to a fighter training unit as an instructor. In late 1941 he was posted to Africa, and for six months ferried fighters from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to Egypt before joining No 260 Squadron as a flight commander flying Kittyhawks.
He undertook many bomber escort sorties and attacked enemy transports and supply dumps in the period leading up to the Battle of El Alamein.
On one occasion he was flying down a defile at very low level when he spotted a German soldier with a rifle aimed at his aircraft. As he flew past Lee stuck up two fingers and muttered to himself: “Some chance.” Two minutes later his engine seized and he was forced to crash land.
After shooting down an Italian fighter, Lee took command of No 123 Squadron, based in Teheran, and returned to the desert in May 1943. His squadron was based in Libya, and at first there was little action.
His group commander, Max Aitken, suggested that his squadrons should “stir up the Germans in Crete”. More than 100 Hurricanes were to take part, and at the briefing, on July 23 1943, Lee enquired who would be leading the raid. “You are,” Aitken replied; it was the first Lee knew about it.
During a low-level attack over the island his Hurricane was hit by ground fire and the engine failed. He managed to crash land, but was soon captured.
Lee was taken to Germany and arrived in a cattle wagon at Stalag Luft III. Learning of the tunnels being dug prior to the Great Escape, he joined the men dispersing the excavated sand from bags suspended inside their trouser legs.
On the night of January 28 1945 the prison camp was evacuated. In deep snow and freezing temperatures, the “Long March” westwards was a great ordeal; many men died of exhaustion before reaching overcrowded camps in the west. Lee eventually arrived back in England in early May.
Lee decided to leave the RAF, and took a job as a branch manager with the United Africa Company in Tanganyika.
Ten years later he travelled to Dublin to attend a wedding and was persuaded to stay on. He established a wholesale plumbing business, which was very successful – one colleague remarked: “He sold more lavatory seats than there were backsides in Ireland.”
In 1977 Lee retired to Spain, where he played bridge every day while continuing with consultancy work. He went to live near his daughter in Sheffield in 1995.
Lee was a straight-talking man with a no-nonsense approach to life. He was a keen supporter of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and regularly attended the annual Memorial Day at the National Memorial to The Few at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent.
Hawkeye Lee died on January 15. He married, in 1950, Mary Moller, who died in 2005. Their two daughters survive him.