Roland Robert Stanford-Tuck did not have the most auspicious of starts with the RAF. According to ‘Battle of Britain’ by Len Deighton, when he first began flying, he was such a slow learner that he was almost sent home as a bad bet before taking his first solo flight. Luckily, his instructor persevered. Stanford-Tuck would go on to participate in the famous Battle of Britain, score 10 enemy kills, merit three mentions in Despatches, earn the British Distinguished Flying Cross three times over and the US version once, and even gain a Distinguished Service Order. He survived one air collision, a forced landing and being shot down three times, and always came back fighting. He even escaped from a POW camp. It seems safe to say that he was, both in mentally and physically, a born fighter.
His initially unpromising RAF career actually began before the Second War, in September 1935, when he joined with a short service commission. He trained at Grantham, then joined 65 Squadron at Hornchurch in August 1936. As detailed in ‘Men of the Battle of Britain’ by Kenneth G Wynn, his first accident occurred in 1938, when he experienced an aerial collision with another pilot during a show of aerobics. It was an incident that taught him the importance of staying cool and in control and avoiding unnecessary risks. That same year, he was chosen to be one of the first men trained to fly the very latest in flying-machines… the Spitfire.
War broke out, and on 1st May 1940 the experienced pilot was posted to 92 Squadron in Croydon, now a Flight Commander. Starting off with a bang, by 2nd June he had already claimed 5 enemy kills and another shared over Dunkirk during the Battle of France, and on 11th June he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Level 3 Gallantry Award presented for acts of valour or courage and devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy. It was presented to him by King George VI himself on 28th June.
Continuing to rack up the kills, he was himself shot down on 18th August by return fire from a Ju 88, but managed to bail out with only minor injuries. He had a second lucky escape in a different plane on 25thof the same month, gliding an impressive 15 miles on a dead engine before making a forced landing, which wrote off his aircraft. Unperturbed, he took command of 257 Squadron on 11th September 1940, and once again put in a hard month of shooting down enemy aircraft. By 25th September he had been awarded a Bar for his DFC. Still not content to rest on his laurels, he worked harder than ever to combat the enemy, and on 7th January 1941 he was honoured with the Distinguished Service Order, awarded for meritorious or distinguished service during wartime, and at that time only granted to officers (typically those ranked Major or equivalent). After yet another kill, he gained a second Bar to his Distinguished Flying Order on 11th April 1941. The slow pupil was exceeding expectations.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. As ‘Men of the Battle of Britain’ explains, Stanford-Tuck was lucky to survive being shot down yet again on 21st June. Landing in the Channel, he managed to inflate his dingy and was rescued just two hours later. Then, after gaining a promotion to Squadron Leader first at Duxford, then at Biggin Hill, and being sent on a liaison trip to the USA besides along with other notable British airmen, he was shot down the final time over Boulogne. When it happened, he had been participating in the ‘Rhubarb Raids’. These were risky low-level missions, designed to harass the enemy by taking the fight to their door, while also luring German fighters away from the Russian front. Being so low meant the RAF fighters risked being hit by flak, and this is exactly what happened to Stanford-Tuck.
One way or another, this should have been the end of his war. Although uninjured, he had crashed right beside a group of Germans who had just witnessed him killing several of their comrades in the sky; they might easily have decided to take ‘an eye for an eye’, had they not made the incredible discovery that one of Stanford-Tuck’s last shots had actually entered the barrel of their own cannon, peeling it open like a banana. This comical sight rendered them speechless with laughter, and in their mirth they forgot any thoughts of vengeance. Nonetheless, they of course took him prisoner, and for the next couple of years he was forced to languish at Stalag Luft III, before being sent on to several other POW camps.
Still un-cowed by his experiences, the plucky airman made several attempts to escape the clutches of the Germans, and finally on 1st February 1945 he got his chance. Robert Stanford-Tuck and fellow airman Flight Lieutenant Z Kustrzynski, who had also been taken prisoner in 1942, managed to give their captors the slip while they were being marched away from camp in anticipation of a Russian advance. Two weeks later they met those Russians, and spent the rest of the month fighting alongside them, before striking out for the British Embassy in Russia, and finally catching a ship back to Southampton. He was awarded his final honour after the war had finished, on 14th June 1946, the US DFC. Because of his many honours, narrow escapes and general good fortune, he gave rise to the saying, “Tuck’s Luck”.