Becoming a pilot was Richard Lambert’s sole ambition for as far back as he can remember - but age and circumstance seemed to make achieving that goal near impossible at times.
He was educated at Godalming Central School in Surrey, England but had to leave school at 14 to help his mother after his father walked out.
Despite this setback he joined the Air Training Corps as soon as he could and then counted down the days until he turned 17 and one quarter – the required age for joining the Air Force – in 1942.
“Eventually I was called up when I was 18 and I went to report at Lords Cricket Ground.”
He was sent up to St Andrews in Scotland to begin six weeks of training, which was followed by a gradings call flying Tiger Moths at Chester.
“I made the grade. But then I was made redundant. After D-Day they didn’t have the casualties they expected and we weren’t needed,” he says. “However I decided to stay in the RAF and I was sent to St Athans in South Wales to work as a flight engineer.”
Richard worked on Lancasters and Halifaxes as both a flight engineer and ground engineer before being posted to Lossiemouth in Scotland.
By then the war was over but Richard’s flying ambition was far from dulled and a key decision he made became a crossroads moment in his life which took him much closer to realising that goal.
“One week I was overpaid by ten pounds, which was enough to get me a return ticket to visit my mother or a new bike. I decided it was better to return it to the accounts department.
“That led to a chance meeting with the Group Captain and despite my being a scruffy sergeant in a thick pullover and Wellington boots we got chatting and discovered we had a few common interests.
“He asked me if there was anything he could do for me and I said ‘yes, I want to go back to flying’ and within a short space of time I was on my way back to St Athans doing air crew training on the Lancasters!”
Richard joined the 97 Squadron at RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire where the work was typically characterised by flying over the east coast of England ‘dropping bombs in The Wash with monotonous regularity’!
However, on returning from leave in 1954 he found that four Lancasters had been delivered to Hemswell.
“I was given the job of flying one of the Lancasters taking part in the film Dam Busters,” he says, referring to the daring raid dubbed Operation Chastise where 617 Squadron dropped bouncing bombs to blow up the dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley.
“We used the same routes around Lincolnshire, the same airfields and they talked and spoke and did everything like it was in 1943. It was an extremely accurate film which could have been used as a documentary.”
Richard was assigned the plane which depicted Lancaster bomber AJ-P, affectionately known as ‘Popsie’, which was flown in the raid by Australian Flight Lieutenant Harold Brownlow Morgan ‘Mickey’ Martin on the starboard side of wing commander Guy Gibson in the raid’s first formation.
In the real raid Mickey was hit by anti-aircraft fire during the attack whereas for the film, the ‘damage’ to the plane was riveted onto the bomber for the scene.
A major highlight was the chance to do some low flying – much lower than would normally be allowed, and a testament to the great skill involved.
While the bombing run on the German dams occurred at 18 metres above water, during filming that distance appeared much higher from the camera’s perspective so the pilots were asked to fly lower, says Richard.
“On one occasion we were flying up Lake Windermere and there was spray coming off the propellers!”
Another highlight for all the men involved in the filming was the food.
“Rationing was still on in England but they had a caravan on site for the film crew and they cooked us tons of t-bone steaks!” he laughs.
The remainder of his 18 years in the RAF included being sent out to do bombing exercises in the Suez Canal area of Egypt and later Malaya but inevitably, he says, ‘peace time flying was too tame for me.’
Richard continued to fly after leaving the RAF including one job for Air Links which involved flying an Argonaut carrying eight tons of gold bullion from Gatwick Airport to Tripoli in Libya.
“We were met with soldiers with guns and tanks for security. It was government gold for Gaddafi to keep the economy going.”
In 1975, aged 50, Richard moved to New Zealand with his family where he worked for Air New Zealand as a flight instructor and remained there until retirement.
While Richard now reflects on the effects of war at Anzac and Remembrance services, he says the risk and danger of going to war couldn’t have been further from his thoughts as an eager trainee, desperate to get up in the air.
“I was a kid and was too young to be frightened. The enthusiasm for the job overtook the worry of flying with a war on.
“It was only after the war finished that I realised how dangerous everything was.”