Remembering Ulster’s last RAF fighter pilot who was killed in WWII

With the inconceivable tragedy and horror of WWII undiminished by the passing of three quarters of a century, the 75th anniversary of VJ Day last weekend was a profound combination of remembrance, reflection, commemoration, and celebration.

Thursday, 20th August 2020, 10:46 am
Buckingham Palace. March 1941. Anthony Lovell with mother and sister after receiving his first Distinguished Flying Cross from King George VI.

A note in Roamer’s mailbox from retired Coleraine Chronicle editor, author and journalist, Hugh McGrattan, highlighted another poignant anniversary, just two days after Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.

“Wing Commander Anthony Lovell, a much-decorated war hero, is today almost forgotten in his home town of Portrush,” Hugh’s note began, and continued “yet, when he died 75 years ago, the people of Portrush were stunned for they had already started celebrating the fact that WWII was over.”

Amidst the joy there was inestimable sadness, in Northern Ireland and around the world, over loved ones who wouldn’t be returning, but “in the Lovell home at Ballywillan Road, there must have been a particularly intense sense of grief,” Hugh’s note explained, because “Stuart, the younger son, was already dead, shot down 18 months previously in a low-level raid by his Typhoon squadron on a Nazi airfield in France.”

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Some of RAF Squadron No. 41 at Hornchurch, Essex, 1940. (L to R) Flying Officer John MacKenzie, Flight-Lieutenant A D J Lovell, Squadron Leader Finlay, Flight-Lieutenant N Ryder and Pilot Officer R Ford

It was tragedy on tragedy that elder son Anthony Lovell was the last Ulster airman to die, as peace dawned over WWII, and not in enemy action but in an accidental plane crash in England.

Wing Commander Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell died instantly when his Spitfire crashed, moments after taking off.

He was only 26 and was one of the RAF’s finest pilots, having destroyed 22 enemy planes and received five gallantry awards.

Hugh McGrattan has told this remarkable story in his book - Portrush: The Port on the Promontory - and some of it again on Roamer’s page today.

Wing Commander Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell

Born in Ceylon on August 9, 1919 Anthony came to Portrush at an early age with his widowed mother, who was from Belfast.

He was educated at Ampleforth, the famous Catholic college in the North of England, and from an early age wanted to become a priest or a monk.

But war intervened and he joined the Royal Air Force straight from school.

Almost immediately, in December 1939, Tony, as he was known, went into action for his first time as a 19-year-old Spitfire pilot with 41 Squadron.

Six months later, in May 1940, he destroyed his first enemy aircraft over the beaches of Dunkirk.

Tony Lovell’s superb skill as a pilot was apparent, as his ‘score’ of victories quickly mounted.

Unlike fellow flyers he never referred to his airborne successes as ‘kills’.

If his enemy died, it is said he arranged Requiem Mass for them, or if they survived (on allied territory) he visited them in hospital with gifts of cigarettes and chocolate.

By the time the Battle of Britain ended, in October 1940, Tony Lovell was a Flight Commander.

Further promotions followed and he subsequently commanded fighter squadrons in Egypt, Malta, Italy and Corsica.

During five years of almost continuous combat flying, he was awarded two each of the Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well as an American DFC.

The DSO citation declared that his courage and flying skills were “an inspiration to all who have flown with him” and were of “a quality seldom, if ever, equalled”.

At the close of 1944, his combat career ended and he was posted as Chief Instructor to an operational training unit in Egypt before returning to the UK.

His first posting home in three years was as an instructor at the School of Air Support in Wiltshire.

And it was there that Tony Lovell died, around 11.30am on August 17, 1945, in an accident that is still shrouded in some mystery.

Crossing himself, as he always did before flying, he took off in his Mark 12 Spitfire.

Almost immediately after the wheels left the ground the aircraft rolled slowly to the right, a hazardous manoeuvre he had apparently perfected over the years. As the aircraft rolled a second time it lost height. A wingtip clipped a hen house just beyond the end of the runway, the Spitfire cartwheeled through telegraph wires, slammed into a hillside, and disintegrated.

Two farm workers who rushed to the scene found the pilot already dead.

Tony Lovell had celebrated his 26th birthday only a week previously and had over 1,500 flying hours to his credit, 1,200 of them on Spitfires. He died needlessly, and colleagues were shocked and astounded on learning he had been killed in such circumstances.

There was talk that the control wires to the ailerons in the aircraft’s wings had been accidentally reversed before the final flight, although no evidence of this ever came to light.

Others believed that the strain of six years’ flying, fighting and killing had finally taken their toll.

But the Court of Inquiry found that in all probability an error of judgement on Wing Commander Lovell’s part had led to his untimely death.

It was a typical summing-up of countless wartime accidents - ‘Pilot Error’.

Tony Lovell’s body was brought home for burial, the funeral arrangements being carried out by the Royal Air Force Air Sea Rescue Unit then based at Portrush Harbour.

He was laid to rest, with ceremony appropriate to a hero, in the family grave at Ballywillan Cemetery, officially the last Ulster airman to die in WWII.