Tuck’s hard-won flying skill and a remarkable run of good fortune contributed to victory in the Battle of Britain.
October 24, 1935, No. 3 Flying School, Royal Air Force Station, Grantham, England. An Avro Tutor biplane trainer sits on the end of the grass runway. In the front cockpit is a student pilot officer with 13 hours of dual instruction behind him–obviously a slow learner. If he doesn’t do well on this flight, he will be sent home. His name is Robert Tuck.
Roland Robert Stanford Tuck was born on July 1, 1916, at Catford, London, the second son of Stanley Lewis and Ethel Clara Tuck. Tuck received a formal education at St. Dunstan’s Preparatory School and at St. Dunstan’s College. He left school in 1932 to became a cadet in the British Merchant Marine. During his two years aboard the Lamport and Holt Line’s refrigerator ship Marconi, Tuck liked to shoot sharks swimming near the ship with an old Lee-Enfield .303-caliber rifle, often killing them with a single bullet.
A newspaper ad caught Tuck’s attention in September 1935, while he was on leave at his father’s home in Catford. He decided to heed its call: “Fly with the RAF.”
The Royal Air Force was a small organization in 1935. Many applicants for flight training were interviewed, but only a few were accepted. Tuck took written and medical examinations and was interviewed by a selection board of five RAF officers. Two weeks later, he received a letter from the Air Ministry informing him that he was accepted for flight training with the temporary rank of pilot officer.
Tuck, along with 33 other young men, reported to the RAF station in Uxbridge, England, on September 16, 1935, for two weeks of drills, lectures and aptitude tests. He then was transferred to No. 3 Flying Training School at Grantham and got his first close-up look at an airplane–the Avro Tutor twin-seat biplane trainer.
On October 24, Tuck flew so well for 15 minutes that, after a smooth landing, he was sent up again…alone. He soloed successfully, and his rocky start at flight training was behind him at last. By August 1936, he had earned his pilot wings and was posted to No. 65 Squadron at Hornchurch, flying Gloster Gladiator I biplane fighters. During his two years with 65 Squadron, Tuck led the squadron in aerobatics, radio navigation, formation flying, interception and ground attack. He took little interest in the outside world. “All of his extraordinary energy,” wrote his biographer Larry Forrester, “his spirit of adventure and his masculine pride were directed to a single end–to keeping his place as the squadron’s best pilot.”
Tuck and two other 65 Squadron pilots were practicing formation flying 3,000 feet over Sussex on January 18, 1938, when tragedy struck. Flying Officer Adrian Hope-Boyd was leading, Flight Sgt. Geoffrey Gaskell was second and Tuck was last, flying slightly higher and to the right of Gaskell’s plane to stay out of his slipstream, when suddenly the Gladiators hit turbulence.
Gaskell’s Gladiator bucked, veered left, was caught by Hope-Boyd’s slipstream and was thrown into a steep right bank. Tuck saw Gaskell’s plane rear up in front of him, and he slammed his stick forward to avoid a collision. But his Gladiator struck Gaskell’s, his propeller slicing into the other biplane’s cockpit, killing Gaskell. Tuck’s wings crumpled, and his Gladiator plunged toward the ground.
Tuck unstrapped himself and tried to slide the Gladiator’s cockpit canopy open, but it wouldn’t budge. Then the crushed wings that had hindered his escape broke loose, taking the canopy with them. Tuck struggled from the cockpit, pulled the ripcord on his parachute and floated down. Only then did he notice that his right cheek had been slashed by a razor-sharp piece of wire strutting. He lost much blood from the wound and twisted his ankle on landing.
The young airman was in the hospital for six days and was left with a permanent scar on his face. A court of inquiry absolved him of blame for the accident, and he was flying again nine days later. The incident changed Tuck’s flying style, however. His nerve remained steady, his judgment good and his enthusiasm high–but he no longer took needless risks in flying. “He knew that only luck–not skill, not daring–had saved him,” Forrester wrote, “and he had learned that in military flying there were unpredictable factors that killed the best and the worst pilots with terrible impartiality.”
Eleven months later, in December 1938, Tuck was chosen from 65 Squadron to be trained in the new Supermarine Spitfire Mark I monoplane fighter. He reported to Duxford RAF Station, where he was checked out in the new fighter by Supermarine’s chief test pilot, Jeffery Quill. Soon, Tuck became a Spitfire enthusiast. He remained at Duxford for a week, then returned to 65 Squadron at Hornchurch on January 9, 1939, as one of the RAF’s first qualified Spitfire pilots.
Tuck remained with 65 Squadron during the first months of World War II. On May 1, 1940, he was transferred to 92 Squadron, based at Croyden and commanded by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. The new Spitfire convert saw no action until May 23, when 92 Squadron joined three other Spitfire squadrons at Hornchurch–Nos. 54, 65 and 74–to fly patrols over Dunkirk in northern France, where Allied troops were being evacuated. Tuck’s squadron took off at 10:30 that morning and began patrolling off Dunkirk, flying in a tight V-on-V formation, which Tuck didn’t like. The formation was so tight that Tuck could see the pilots in two Spitfires flying near him giving a V-for-Victory salute.
Seconds later, 92 Squadron was attacked from above and behind by Messerschmitt Me-109E fighters. The squadron broke formation, and Tuck latched on to a lone Me-109. He opened fire at 500 yards with his eight .303-caliber Browning machine guns, striking the enemy airplane’s right wing. The German fighter stalled, rolled to its left and spiraled down. Tuck followed it down through the clouds and watched it slam into a field near St. Omer, France. Feeling “quietly satisfied” with his first kill, Tuck climbed back into the clouds and returned to Hornchurch.
The Squadron took off again that afternoon for another patrol near Dunkirk, where the British fighters attacked 30 twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110C fighters. Tuck shot down one of them and then went after a second that had nearly collided with him. A chase ensued at low altitude for several minutes, pursuer and pursued skimming over roofs and treetops. At one point, Tuck chased the Me-110 beneath some electrical wires. He pulled up to avoid the wires, exposing his Spitfire’s belly to the 110’s tail gunner, who fired a few rounds from his machine gun into the Spitfire. Tuck dropped his nose, caught up with the Me-110 and riddled its gunner. The Me-110 pilot crash-landed in an empty field before Tuck could fire again.
Tuck circled the wrecked Me-110 as the German pilot climbed out of the cockpit. The British pilot slid open his canopy and waved at the downed flier. The German fired a pistol at Tuck, narrowly missing his head. Angered, Tuck swung his Spitfire around and killed the German pilot with a last burst from his eight Brownings, then headed for home.
It was a victorious first day of combat–Robert Tuck had shot down three enemy fighters. His squadron claimed 20 German aircraft shot down, with the loss of five pilots, including Squadron Leader Bushell. Tuck, as the next senior officer, was given temporary command of 92 Squadron.
The next day, Tuck led 92 Squadron on patrol near Dunkirk. Instead of bunching his Spitfires in tight formation, he opened up the formation until the planes were 200 feet apart. “I decided…that our rigid flying tactics with formations and that sort of thing were almost useless in mixed combat with the more experienced Messerschmitt 109 pilots,” Tuck later recalled. When 92 Squadron reached Dunkirk, Tuck spotted 20 Dornier Do-17 bombers, escorted by Me-110 fighters. A Hurricane squadron took on the 110s, and Tuck’s squadron attacked the bombers. Tuck opened fire on one Dornier at a range of 400 yards, striking its port wing and fuselage. The Dornier dropped out of formation and Tuck went after it, but he was hit in the right thigh before he could fire. Ignoring his wound, Tuck closed on the stricken bomber and set it on fire with another burst from his .303s. He watched two of the Dornier’s four-man crew bail out, then rejoined 92 Squadron’s attack on the remaining bombers. He downed a second Dornier over the beach, bringing his score to five in less than 24 hours.
By then Tuck was low on fuel and ammunition, so he headed back to Hornchurch. After he landed, his wound was treated by the medical officer, who removed a small duralumin nut that had been knocked off his Spitfire by a German machine-gun bullet. Tuck kept the nut, along with a bent penny, for good luck.
May 25 found 92 Squadron, again led by Tuck, over Dunkirk. He shared a half credit for a Dornier Do-17 with his flight commander, Brian Kingcome. The squadron returned to Duxford that night for rest and maintenance, ending its part in the Battle of Dunkirk. On June 2, however, Tuck led his squadron against eight Heinkel He-111s, downing one of them as well as one of their Me-109 escorts.
Tuck was sent to Farnborough in southcentral England in June 1940, along with Wing Commander George Stainforth, to take part in comparative trials of a captured Me-109E and a Spitfire Mark II. The tests began with Stainforth flying the Me-109 and Tuck flying the Spitfire in level flight, dives and turns, and at various speeds at different altitudes.
Halfway through the trials the pilots switched planes. Tuck reported that the Me-109 was “without a doubt a most delightful little airplane–not as maneuverable as the Spit…but certainly it was slightly faster, and altogether it had a wonderful performance.” The one thing Tuck got out of the Farnborough trials was the ability to put himself inside the enemy’s cockpit. By learning how his opponents’ hands were working on the controls, he knew how to beat the Messerschmitt.
At a ceremony at Hornchurch on June 28, 1940, Tuck was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) by King George VI for his “initiative” and “personal example” over Dunkirk.
The newly minted ace flew patrols from Pembrey in South Wales over the Bristol Channel looking for German bombers through July and into August. His squadron was then ordered to join Fighter Command’s 11th Group in southeast England. Tuck soon was caught in the middle of the Battle of Britain, shooting down a Junkers Ju-88A bomber on August 13 and two more on August 14.
Tuck was visiting friends at Northolt airfield northeast of London on August 18 when the Luftwaffe launched a major attack on RAF airfields in southeastern England. Refusing to take shelter, Tuck took off and soon encountered two Ju-88s heading back to France at sea level. He chased them out to sea before shooting one down. He then attacked the second bomber head-on. Tuck narrowly avoided a collision, but his Spitfire was hit in the oil and glycol coolant tanks, and half its propeller was shot away.
He managed to nurse his ailing Spitfire back over the coast before its damaged Merlin engine seized up and caught fire, forcing him to bail out. “I just grabbed one side with both hands,” Tuck recalled, “hauled myself up and over, and pitched out, head first….As soon as I knew my feet were clear I pulled the ripcord….It seemed to open almost immediately.” He was barely 500 feet above the ground when he bailed out, and his parachute had just opened when he landed, wrenching his leg. It turned out he had landed on the estate of Lord Cornwallis at Hornsmonden, Kent. His lordship invited Tuck to have tea with his family before he returned to his squadron.
On August 25, Tuck was on patrol with two other pilots when ground control alerted them about a ship under attack in the Bristol Channel. When Tuck and his wingmen approached the area, Tuck spotted a Do-215 bomber and attacked, but before he could fire, the Dornier’s rear gunner raked his Spitfire. Tuck broke off his attack and headed for shore with his Merlin engine shut down. He glided 15 miles before crash landing and ending up against a stone wall.
That was Tuck’s last mission with 92 Squadron. On September 11, he was given command of No. 257 Squadron, stationed at Martlesham, flying Hawker Mark I Hurricane fighters. When Tuck arrived at his new command, he found 257 Squadron’s personnel demoralized, having suffered heavy casualties in July and August 1940 with few air victories to compensate for its losses.
Tuck, who had flown more than 1,000 hours in Spitfires, took his first flight in a Hurricane early the next morning. “My first impression wasn’t very good,” he recalled. “After the Spit, it [the Hurricane] was like a flying brick–a great, lumbering farmyard stallion compared with a dainty and gentle thoroughbred….It nearly broke my heart, because things seemed tough enough without having to take on 109s in a heavy great kite like this.”
The new squadron commander soon realized, however, that the Hurricane had its virtues: “It was a remarkably good gun platform; very steady when you opened fire….It was very easy to fly; had no vices, and would take a great deal of punishment and bring you back home…. So it was a very fine aircraft for fighter vs. bomber work.”
Tuck intensively drilled 257 Squadron’s pilots for three days, from September 12 to 14, trying to bring the squadron to battle readiness. He first taught them to fly in loose pairs. Then he sent up pairs of Hurricanes on mock patrols, diving on them from out of the sun. He had the squadron engage in mock dogfights. In the evenings, using German aircraft models, Tuck lectured his pilots about the blind spots on German planes and demonstrated attacks.
Tuck thought that it would take him a week to 10 days to get 257 Squadron ready for combat. By the second day, though, due to his leadership, he found the pilots “clicking into position quickly, keeping better lookout and–best of all–generally displaying a bit of dash and initiative in the mock dogfights.” By September 14, Tuck could inform 11th Group headquarters that 257 would be ready for action in three or four more days.
But the Battle of Britain was reaching its climax, and Fighter Command needed every squadron it had–without delay. The early dawn of September 15, 1940, found Tuck leading 257 Squadron from Martlesham to the RAF station at Debden, north of London. There they joined two other Hurricane squadrons, Nos. 17 and 73, in a wing under Tuck’s command.
The wing flew three patrols that morning without sighting a single German plane. Then, early in the afternoon, 257, 17 and 73 squadrons were scrambled from Debden to intercept bombers approaching London. Tuck soon sighted the raiding force above–50 Heinkel He-111 and Ju-88 bombers plus two squadrons of Me-109 and Me-110 fighters. With no time to gain altitude or to get the sun behind them, Tuck’s fighters had no choice but to attack the huge formation from below, even though they were vulnerable to attack from above by the escorting Messerschmitts.
Tuck did not hesitate. He led 257 Squadron in a climb toward the bombers, followed by 17 and 73 squadron’s Hurricanes. Tuck and seven other Hurricanes pulled away from the others, not waiting for the stragglers. Escorting Me-109s dived through the close-packed bomber formation and went after the Hurricanes, firing away. Tuck’s flight ignored the attacking Me-109s, however, not even firing back at them as they flashed by. They were saving their ammunition for the bombers. Tuck lined up a Ju-88 in his sights, but had to break off as an Me-109 fired at him. Evading the fighter, he then saw a pack of Me-110 fighters turning on the rest of his wing, which was closing on the bombers. Tuck picked out one Me-110 and shot it down, forcing the rest to break formation.
Tuck swung back toward the bombers and attacked an He-111 that had broken away from the other bombers. Before he could fire, an Me-109 dived on him. Tuck sent his wingman after the 109 and attacked another that followed the first, damaging it with a burst from his machine guns.
A bar was added to Tuck’s DFC on October 25, 1940, which gave him the equivalent of a second DFC. He was surprised by the honor, saying, “I’ve just been bloody lucky, that’s all.”
Tuck’s daring, luck and willingness to fight the Germans at any odds made him famous in the RAF. “In the face of constant death,” the London Times wrote, “he preserved a lightness of heart which was not simply bravura, but was allied to precise and ruthlessly applied technical skill.”
Tuck downed a Dornier Do-17P reconnaissance bomber off Great Yarmouth, in southern England, on December 29. On January 28, 1941, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), a decoration second only to the Victoria Cross. The award was for leading 257 Squadron with “great success….His outstanding leadership, courage and skill have been reflected in its high morale and efficiency.”
Shortly afterward, 257 Squadron converted from the Hurricane Mark I, armed with eight .303-caliber Browning machine guns, to the Hurricane Mark IIC, armed with four 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannons. Tuck had carried out trials in a Hurricane armed with the four cannons in 1940, and he said that he “immediately realized the hard-hitting power its cannon had in comparison with the .303s.”
German fighters such as the Me-109 were fitted with 20mm cannons from the start of the war. A few cannon-armed Spitfires and Hurricanes had flown in the Battle of Britain, with mixed results. The RAF’s reluctance to fit its fighters with cannons was partially because of faulty mountings of the early 20mms, but also because of opposition to cannons by a few ranking officers who believed the RAF should stick with the .303-caliber machine guns.
Tuck believed that 20mm cannons would enable RAF fighter pilots to knock down more enemy planes and attack German ground targets with greater effect. “There was quite a lot of argument before we got the OK to fit them as a matter of routine,” Tuck recalled. “But, once decided, then it was forced ahead as quickly as the 20mm cannons could be turned out and fitted.” Tuck’s squadron was among the first to be re-equipped with the new cannon-armed Hurricanes.
In mid-March 1941, 257 Squadron began patrolling day and night to protect RAF training fields in Lincolnshire from German night bomber attacks. Tuck and his pilots operated alone, guided by radar, searching for German intruders until 2 or 3 a.m., in addition to the normal day’s operations.
A second bar was added to Tuck’s DFC on March 30, 1941, for his “conspicuous gallantry and initiative in searching for and attacking enemy raiders, often in adverse weather conditions.” He was the second RAF pilot to earn such an honor.
Tuck worked and flew with 257 Squadron without letup. On April 9, 1941, he added to his score by shooting down a night intruder Ju-88 in East Anglia. He downed another Ju-88 a month later, on the night of May 11.
His squadron joined in offensive sweeps over northern France, Belgium and Holland starting in June. Tuck relaxed radio discipline during those attacks, according to Forrester, “because he knew that by shouting they egged each other on and created a wonderful spirit of gay, reckless devilment–which was exactly what the job needed.” Risk was ever present. Tuck was flying alone on patrol off England’s east coast on June 21, 1941, when he was jumped by three yellow-nosed Me-109s. One shot up the Hurricane on the first pass, ending up in front of him. Tuck shoved the stick forward, put his gunsight on the Me-109’s canopy and opened fire. The Messerschmitt fell into the sea.
Tuck banked sharply and sighted another Me-109. He let it pass beneath him, slammed the stick over and went after it, twisting and turning down to 60 feet above the water. He caught up with the 109 and fired a quick burst from his 20mm cannons. The 109 crashed, sending up a plume of spray through which Tuck flew.
As Tuck pulled up, he was hit from the left by the third Me-109. His throttle was shot out of his hand, along with the Hurricane’s gunsight and canopy. His engine was also damaged. Tuck saw the Messerschmitt swing around in a wide circle and come at him, cannon and machine guns blazing, and he fired back, damaging the German’s engine. The Me-109 scurried away. Tuck nursed his damaged Hurricane to within sight of England’s southeastern coast before it caught fire.
Tuck quickly undid his safety harness, dipped his left wing and dropped sideways out of the cockpit. He landed safely in the water and drifted for two hours in his life raft until he was picked up by an old coal barge out of Gravesend. Tuck was treated for minor wounds to his left arm, plus rope burns he had suffered while bailing out. While his wounds healed, Tuck was transferred to the Merchant Marine for a brief tour as liaison officer before returning to 257 Squadron.
It was mid-July 1941 when Tuck, now a wing commander, was relieved of command of 257 Squadron, which he had led for 10 months. Tuck had earned the respect of not only the pilots but also of the squadron’s ground crews. “Tuck always took a real interest in his ground crews and never had that ‘toffee nose’ attitude that some pilots displayed towards us,” Leading Aircraftsman John Ryder, a member of Tuck’s ground crew, recalled. “He gave us all consideration and confidence.”
Tuck took command of the Duxford Wing and found himself leading three fighter squadrons–601 Squadron, flying Bell P-39 Airacobras; 56 Squadron, with Hawker Mark IA Typhoon fighter-bombers; and 12 Squadron, flying Spitfire Mark Vs. Starting in July, Tuck led the Duxford Wing in fighter sweeps, or “Balbos” (so called after the famous Italian aviator Italo Balbo), into France against the Luftwaffe.
The aircraft diversity proved troublesome because of the planes’ different speeds, rates of climb and other characteristics. Tuck flew a few hours in both the Typhoon and Airacobra. He especially liked the Typhoon, but flew the new Spitfire Mk.V, with its improved Rolls Royce Merlin 45 engine, two 20mm cannons and four .303-caliber machine guns, when the wing operated over German-held territory. “The Spitfire was faster, would fly higher, and was very responsive to the controls, and was a slightly higher performance airplane,” Tuck said.
The Duxford Wing was led by Tuck over France until October 1941, when he was taken off operations. Along with fellow ace Adolf “Sailor” Malan, Group Capt. Harry Broadhurst, leader of the Hornchurch Wing, and three highly decorated Bomber Command pilots, Tuck was sent to the United States to share his expertise with Britain’s allies.
Tuck returned to England in December 1941 and took command of the Biggin Hill Wing. It consisted of RAF fighter squadrons Nos. 72, 91, 124, and No. 401 Royal Canadian Air Force–which all flew Spitfires–and 264 Squadron, a Boulton Paul Defiant Mk.II-equipped night-fighter unit.
Biggin Hill was shrouded with mist and drizzle when Tuck and Canadian Flying Officer Bob Harley took off on a mission on January 28, 1942. After crossing the English Channel at low altitude to avoid radar detection, they reached the French coast near Le Tourquet. They continued 21 miles inland to their target, an alcohol distillery at Hesdin.
They set the distillery’s four alcohol vats on fire, then followed a road farther inland. The pair strafed a German truck and shot at high-tension electrical wires. Then Tuck saw they had entered a wide valley crammed with railroad tracks; ahead was the town of Boulogne, with its heavy anti-aircraft defenses.
The British planes turned. Tuck did not want to run a gantlet of heavy flak, and he intended to find his way back to base over a quieter section of the coast. Then he saw a train engine stationary on the tracks. He couldn’t resist the temptation. “I thought ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,'” Tuck recalled. He and Harley attacked the train engine. “We dived on that engine together….I think we both scored hits, and the whole issue disappeared in a tremendous cloud of steam.”
Tuck lost sight of Harley and banked to avoid a collision. When he came out of the steam cloud he was hit by German 20mm and 37mm flak. “I think everything in the Boulogne area opened up on me,” Tuck said. “I was caught in their cross-fire, and at this low altitude with a forty-five degree bank on, they just couldn’t miss.”
Tuck’s Spitfire was hit in the engine. It belched black smoke, covering his windscreen with oil. Too low to bail out, he shoved his canopy back and began looking for a field in which to crash-land. Peering through the smoke, Tuck sighted an open field, banked his Spitfire around and began gliding in. Suddenly, he saw tracers flash over his head. He saw a truck-mounted, multiple-barreled 20mm flak gun firing at him.
Angered, Tuck shoved the stick forward and fired a single burst at the 20mm before hitting the field a few yards beyond. At first, he expected to be lynched for shooting up the flak gun. Instead, to his surprise, the Germans complimented Tuck for his marksmanship–one of his 20mm shells had gone up the flak gun’s barrel, splitting it open like a banana.
Tuck was soon invited by Oberst (Colonel) Adolf Galland, former commander of Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 26 until his promotion on December 5 to General der Jagdflieger, to have dinner with him and his pilots at St. Omer. Tuck had encountered Galland during a Duxford Wing fighter sweep in 1941, when two Me-109s bounced the wing from above. Tuck’s wingman was shot down; then Tuck had downed Galland’s wingman.
“So that was you?” Tuck said. “I got your number two as he passed in front.”
“And I got yours,” Galland replied, “which makes us–how do you say it–even stevens?”
During dinner, Tuck talked with Galland and his pilots about drinking, the weather and British aces like Sailor Malan and Brendan “Paddy” Finucane as if “they were old chums temporarily absent.”
“I am very glad that you are not badly hurt,” Galland said to Tuck at the end of the evening, “and that you will not have to risk your life anymore.”
The next day, January 29, 1942, Tuck was transferred under guard to the Dulag Luft transit camp near Leipzig, Germany. Shortly afterward, he was sent to Stalag Luft III prison camp at Sagan, south of Berlin. There he met his old squadron leader Roger Bushell and other fliers who had been captured.
Tuck was not a very cooperative prisoner. He made numerous escape attempts, once trying to sneak out of the camp inside a garbage wagon. In late 1943, Tuck was slated to be one of 200 RAF prisoners of war who would try to escape through a 400-foot-long tunnel, called “Harry.” Then one morning during roll call, Tuck and 18 other prisoners were suddenly transferred to a camp called Belaria, six miles from Sagan.
Not long after Tuck and the others were moved, 76 POWs escaped through Harry on March 24, 1944. All but three of the escapees were recaptured. Fifty, including Roger Bushell, were murdered by the Gestapo. By missing what came to be called the “Great Escape,” Tuck had surely escaped death once again.
Tuck remained at Belaria until January 1945, when he and the other prisoners were herded west by the Germans to keep them away from the advancing Russians. When they reached the village of Bransdorf in Upper Silesia, they were locked inside several barns by their captors. Tuck, along with a Polish RAF pilot named Zbishek Kustrzynski, buried himself under a pile of straw, and the two remained there while the other POWs moved on. Then they left the barn and headed east.
The escapees finally made contact with the Russians on February 22, 1945. They eventually were sent to Odessa, on the Black Sea, where they boarded the liner Dutchess of Richmond on March 26, 1945. The war ended soon thereafter.
Tuck remained in the RAF, serving in posts in England and overseas until he retired on May 13, 1949. He became a mushroom farmer in Kent, married and had two sons. He died on May 5, 1987, at age 70.
Tuck was recognized by his fellow RAF pilots–and former foes like Galland–as one of the great fighter pilots of WWII. His final tally was 29 victories and eight probables, making him the eighth-ranked RAF ace. The young man who had almost failed at flight school had certainly learned his craft well and, with a little luck, had lived to tell about it.
Robert Stanford Tuck, along with his great courage and flying skill, also had another trait working for him. That was luck–incredible luck–which enabled him to escape from many life-threatening situations unharmed. “Tuck’s luck” became a legend in the Royal Air Force.
Tuck was practicing aerobatic flying in a Gloster Gladiator biplane fighter in 1938, along with fellow pilot Leslie Bicknall, when a trio of Gladiators came out of a cloud directly ahead of them. Bicknall banked sharply to avoid colliding with the Gladiators’ “Vic” formation. As Tuck followed, his lower port wing struck Bicknall’s Gladiator, breaking off its tail and badly damaging his own plane’s wing.
Bicknall parachuted to safety, but Tuck’s problems were only beginning. “His smashed wing was flapping most alarmingly,” wrote Larry Forrester, Tuck’s biographer. “And there was no way of telling whether his under-carriage was damaged–or even if it was still there.” Tuck knew landing the Gladiator would be risky. The lower wing might break off as he made his approach. He carefully flew the damaged Gladiator back to his home field at Hornchurch and managed to land safely. Only as the ground crew dragged the Gladiator away did the broken lower wing fall off.
Another example of Tuck’s luck occurred when he was flying Spitfires with 92 Squadron on missions over Dunkirk in May 1940. Tuck had already flown one mission over Dunkirk on May 23, and he was waiting at the home base at Croyden when five bulletproof windshields arrived. The ground crew immediately refitted three of 92 Squadron’s Spitfire Mark Is with the bulletproof screens before the squadron took off on another mission over Dunkirk the same day–Tuck’s Spitfire was one of them. An hour later, over France, the squadron tangled with 40 twin-engine Messerchmitt Me-110s. Tuck downed one, then encountered another head-on. The Me-110 barely missed Tuck’s Spitfire. In his relief at having survived, Tuck noticed on the “top left and bottom right corners of his windscreen there were ugly, opaque blotches, staring in at him like big blind eyes.”
Two shells from the Me-110’s 20mm cannon had struck Tuck’s Spitfire squarely on the windscreen. “If the fitters hadn’t installed the new type screen just over an hour before, these hits would have come through and taken off his head,” wrote Forrester. Tuck went after the Me-110 and shot it down.
While commanding the Duxford Wing in 1941, Tuck assisted in correcting the teething troubles the RAF was having with their Hawker 1A Typhoon fighter-bombers. Part of the problem involved carbon monoxide fumes from the fighters’ exhausts that came back into the cockpit, sometimes in sufficient quantities to nauseate the pilots. Hawker Aircraft fitted a box in one Typhoon’s cockpit that was supposed to reduce the amount of carbon monoxide inside the cockpit.
Tuck flew a number of test flights in the modified Typhoon. One day, near the end of the test flights, he was walking out to the test Typhoon when the station commander, a Group Capt. MacDonald, called him on the telephone. Tuck told another pilot, an Argentinian named Dack, to take the Typhoon up. He talked for 10 minutes with the station commander, then “went out and sat in a cane chair, smoking and looking out over the field.” Tuck watched as the Typhoon he had intended to fly crashed and exploded near the airfield.
Tests later showed that the box that was supposed to trap the carbon monoxide fumes had malfunctioned, pumping enough fumes into the Typhoon’s cockpit to cause its pilot to pass out. That was one phone call Tuck would not soon forget. He later called MacDonald and said, “Sir, I want you to know you can ring me just any time.”
These are only a few examples of the fantastic luck that made people shake their heads and say, “Tuck’s luck–some have it, some don’t.
William B. Allmon is a frequent contributor to Cowles History Group magazines. For further reading, try: Fly for Your Life: The Story of R.R. Stanford Tuck, DSO, DFC and Two Bars, by Larry Forrester; The Battle of Britain, by Richard T. Bickers; and The Ace Factor: Air Combat and the Role of Situational Awareness, by Mike Spick.
This feature originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!