Air Chief Marshal Sir David Lee
(Filed: 19/02/2004)
 

Air Chief Marshal Sir David Lee, who has died aged 91, began his 40-year RAF career patrolling the rugged terrain of India's North West Frontier in the 1930s.

Flying Wapitis of No 60 Squadron and Harts of No 39 Squadron, Lee learned to cope with the most arduous and testing conditions. One of his most difficult missions ("providing a glimpse of Everest") was to deliver urgently required bubonic plague serum to Gilgit, the mountain outpost astride the route from the plains of India to Chinese Turkestan.

After the 1935 Quetta earthquake, in which 55 RAF personnel and dependants died, Lee dispensed with his air gunner to bring medical staff from Kohat. In December, his squadron took part in the annual exercise to Singapore, a distance of 4,000 miles which took six days and 10 intermediate stops.

Many years later, Lee recalled that it was the custom for newly arrived junior officers to call on the main service and government residences in married quarters to drop an elegantly engraved visiting card. He discovered that, when making these calls, he could dispense with his regulation sola topi for the more elegant "Bombay bowler". On operational flying duties, he also carried the RAF-issued "goolie chit", a promissory note offering gold to tribesmen who returned intact flyers falling into their hands.

David John Pryer Lee was born on September 11 1912. He was educated at Bedford School and RAF Cranwell before joining No 35 Squadron, flying Fairy Gordon biplanes at Bircham Newton, Norfolk.

After his four years in India, Lee completed a flying instructor's course at the Central Flying School, then became a visiting examiner at the Reserve flying schools. When war began he was posted to No 144, a twin-engine Hampden bomber squadron.

Later he transferred to No 61 Squadron, also flying Hampdens. During the "phoney war" they flew daylight shipping searches over the North Sea and dropped leaflets by night, disparagingly described by aircrew as "bumf bombing". On the night of March 19 1940, the Hampdens bombed the seaplane base at Hornum on the island of Sylt; this first bombing raid on a German land target was retaliation for the German attack on the fleet at Scapa Flow, in which a civilian on land was killed.

After being posted to the Air Ministry, Lee attended the RAF Staff College, then briefly returned to desk duties. In early 1945 he was posted to the Far East to take command of No 904 (Fighter) Wing. After Japan capitulated, Lee was given the vital task of assisting in the rescue and repatriation of PoWs and allied internees in the Dutch East Indies; this involved parachuting intelligence officers into remote PoW camps. The situation was fraught with difficulty, and Lee's Thunderbolt fighter squadrons had to provide support for a landing by 49 Brigade, which fought its way to Surabaya. The Thunderbolts were also called in to provide air strikes against Indonesian positions.

The task of protecting and evacuating the PoWs and civilian internees did not appeal to many of Lee's Burma veterans, who regarded themselves as due for repatriation. But thanks to his leadership, No 904 Wing made an outstanding success of a dangerous assignment.

After a spell on the directing staff of the RAF Staff College, Lee assumed command of RAF Scampton, home of a wing of Canberra bombers. In 1956 he commenced a three-year appointment as secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee at the MoD.

Three years later, Lee moved to Aden as Air Officer Commanding Air Forces at the HQ British Forces Arabian Peninsula, where he distinguished himself by flying a white Canberra bomber on station visits.

When, in 1961, Iraq threatened Kuwait, Lee moved swiftly, ordering two Hunter fighter squadrons and two Shackleton reconnaissance aircraft to Bahrain. To supplement Aden's Beverley and Valetta transports, he commandeered a passing Britannia airliner and chartered a Comet from East African Airways. Troops en route to Kuwait were astonished to be served jet passenger cuisine by attractive stewardesses. Lee's response made a crucial contribution to the peaceful outcome of the crisis.

In 1962 he returned to the RAF Staff College as Commandant before promotion to Air Marshal. After joining the Air Force Board as Air Member for Personnel, he spotted an error in a portrait of Prince Philip in the Royal Academy exhibition; the artist, Norman Hepple, had demoted the Prince from Marshal of the RAF to Air Chief Marshal, until Lee ensured that an extra ring was added to his sleeve. Finally, Lee was UK Military representative on the Nato Military Committee from 1968 to 1971.

After retiring, he was the author of three official histories of the post-war RAF: Flight from the Middle East (1978); Eastward: a History of the RAF in the Far East (1984); and Wings in the Sun: a History of the RAF in the Mediterranean (1989). Lee also wrote an engaging memoir about the North West Frontier, Never Stop the Engine When It is Hot (1983), and an account of Java, And We Thought the War was Over (1990).

He was a vice-president of the RAF Benevolent Fund in 1988, and chairman of the trustees of the Nuffield Trust for the Armed Forces. He was president of the Corps of Commissionaires.

David Lee, who died on February 13, was appointed OBE in 1943; CBE in 1947; CB in 1953; KBE in 1965; and GBE in 1969.

He married Denise Hartoch in 1938; she survives him with their son and daughter.