David Lord

Text by Divan Muller
Most pilots who have become famous over the years have been fighter pilots, test pilots or aviation pioneers. David Lord was different, in that he flew C-47 Dakota transport aircraft.
David Samuel Anthony ‘Lummy’ Lord was born on 18 October 1913, in Cork, a city in the south of Ireland. He grew up in British India, as that is where his father, a warrant officer in the British Army, had been posted. When young David Lord’s father retired from the military, the family moved to Wales. There, he completed high school, before attending a college in Valladolid, Spain, to study theology. During the mid-1930s, Lord decided that he no longer wanted to pursue a career as a Roman Catholic priest, so he returned to his family’s new hometown, Wrexham, in northern Wales, to work as a freelance writer. Finally, in 1936, he volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

After completing flight training, Lord served as an RAF transport pilot in the North-West Frontier, which is now part of Pakistan, as well as the Middle East and Burma. By then, World War II had begun and Lord had become a combat experienced Douglas DC-2 transport pilot. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1943, for “acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.” These acts of valour included the evacuation of wounded soldiers, as well as civilian women and children in Burma, whilst under attack by enemy forces. Many of his missions, such as those in which he dropped supplies to troops, were flown deep into enemy territory, without any fighter escort.

After receiving his DFC, Lord was sent to England to receive operational training in dropping supplies and paratroopers, as well as towing transport gliders with No. 271 Squadron, which had recently been equipped with Douglas C-47 Dakotas. In June 1944, Lord and other pilots of No. 271 Squadron participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, in northern France. The squadron was tasked with towing Airspeed Horsa troop-carrying gliders and with dropping paratroopers behind enemy frontlines.
In September 1944, Allied forces initiated Operation Market Garden. At the time, it involved the largest airborne operation in the world, in which thousands of troops and their equipment were delivered in the Netherlands with parachutes and transport gliders. During the operation, a major battle took place at Arnhem, in the east of the Netherlands. The battle was made famous by the book and subsequent movie by the same title, ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ As the battle commenced, besieged British forces began to run out of supplies. By the third day of the battle, the shortage of supplies had become critical, so the RAF responded by sending more than 160 transport aircraft to drop more than 350 tonnes of supplies to British forces. German forces expected a resupply mission and had prepared additional flak batteries in the area. When the RAF’s C-47s arrived, they came under intense fire, making it incredibly difficult to deliver their much needed cargo. In the end, only a comparatively small portion of the supplies could be recovered by the British, as most of the area was controlled by German troops. Still, this resupply mission, along with subsequent ones, allowed the British to continue fighting in the Battle for several more days.
A World War II era C-47 at a recent airshow in Florida.
One of the C-47s that participated in the resupply mission on the third day of the battle, 19 September, was David Lord. Understanding the importance of the resupply mission, he was determined to drop the cargo containers within reach of friendly troops. He flew into intense anti-aircraft fire and his aircraft was shot down. All the crew members, except navigator Harold King, died in the crash. King was captured and taken as a prisoner of war. When he was liberated in 1945, King reported on the circumstances of the death of Lord and his crew members. King’s description of Lord’s actions had a tremendous impact on high ranking RAF officials. In November 1945, David Lord was posthumously awarded Britain’s highest award for gallantry and self-sacrifice, arguably the most difficult medal in the world to obtain, the Victoria Cross (VC).

Lord’s VC citation described the events of 19 September 1944 as follows, “Our airborne troops had been surrounded and were being pressed into a small area, defended by a large number of anti-aircraft guns. Air crews were warned that intense opposition would be met over the dropping zone. To ensure accuracy they were ordered to fly at 900 feet when dropping their containers. Whilst flying at 1 500 feet near Arnhem, the starboard wing of Flight Lieutenant Lord's aircraft was twice hit by anti-aircraft fire. The starboard engine was set on fire. He would have been justified in leaving the main stream of supply aircraft and continuing at the same height or even abandoning his aircraft. But on learning that his crew were uninjured and that the dropping zone would be reached in three minutes, he said he would complete his mission, as the troops were in dire need of supplies. By now, the starboard engine was burning furiously. Flight Lieutenant Lord came down to 900 feet, where he was singled out for the concentrated fire of all the anti-aircraft guns. On reaching the dropping zone he kept the aircraft on a straight and level course whilst supplies were dropped. At the end of the run, he was told that two containers remained. Although he must have known that the collapse of the starboard wing could not be long delayed, Flight Lieutenant Lord circled, rejoined the stream of aircraft and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies. These manoeuvres took eight minutes in all, the aircraft being continuously under heavy anti-aircraft fire. His task completed, Flight Lieutenant Lord ordered his crew to abandon the Dakota, making no attempt himself to leave the aircraft, which was down to 500 feet. A few seconds later, the starboard wing collapsed and the aircraft fell in flames. There was only one survivor, who was flung out, whilst assisting other members of the crew to put on their parachutes. By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning aircraft, descending to drop the supplies accurately, returning to the dropping zone a second time and finally, remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flight Lieutenant Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice.”

Chief of Air Staff Charles Portal wrote to Lord’s parents, saying, “I have read of many great deeds for which the Victoria Cross have been awarded but I do not remember one which surpassed in gallantry the action of your son. The whole of the Royal Air Force will share my admiration and will be deeply sensible of the honour your son has brought to the service. His gallantry and sacrifice will have an illustrious place in the annals of the Royal Air Force.”

David Lord was the only Transport Command pilot to be awarded a VC.