WWII

Sawn Off Lockie: Our Greatest Ace?

The mystery of missing RAF pilot Eric Lock ...

David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Craig ... men that are revered by society for achieving greatness in their fields. Their names are on the tip of our tongues and we recognise their faces instantly.

But if it were 1940 and this were the midst of the Battle of Britain, the name everybody would be talking about is Eric Lock.

Eric Lock – the Spitfire pilot Britain adored, and Germany feared.

Yet at the height of his well-earned fame, Eric Lock would disappear without a trace of him or the aircraft he was last seen flying leaving not only his family and colleagues with questions unanswered, but an entire nation.

This is the story of Eric “Sawn Off Lockie” Lock.

Battle of Britain 80

The Battle of Britain is an episode of history magnanimous for the brave exploits of the RAF Spitfire Pilots central to it - known as The Few. Perhaps what stands it out from other battles in World War Two is that it happened here, in the skies above 1940 Britain, over our cities, towns and villages.

Young boys looked up in stunned awe at the activities unfolding above them while men – the few – risked their lives, and all too often lost them, heading off wave after wave of the Luftwaffe.

Unlike the battlefield where war was terrible, the fight above England inspired those who could do little more than watch on from the ground. There was something less horrific about men fighting each other in blue skies, rather than freezing grey oceans. And the men seemed different too, with their pilots’ uniform, flying goggles and caps.

For the 1940 school child, uncertain about the future – asking if the Nazi invasion would come – the Spitfire pilots protecting the skies above England were the Avengers of their day. Britain needed these heroes in more ways than one.

Step forward Eric Lock.

Battle of Britain memorial flight
Credit: Defence Imagery

Six years before the war began, Eric Lock’s father surprised the Shrewsbury-born youngster with a 30-minute aeroplane flight for his 14th birthday. Imagine it, in 1933 while flight is still relatively infant the young Eric Lock was getting a taste of adventure most teenagers could only read about in comics. But if his father was hoping to ignite the interest of learning to fly in the mind of his son, the experience failed to do so. Flying would have to be for somebody else ... Eric was not that keen.

So how did this young man become synonymous with WWII Spitfire action?

At the outbreak of war, Eric sensed that he would be required to contribute something, somewhere in the great effort, and so in spite of the fact he had not taken a liking to flying as a fourteen year old boy, he nonetheless signed up to the Royal Air Force. 

In 1940, by then a fully trained pilot ready to take to the skies in combat, Eric was assigned to 41 Squadron at RAF Catterick, North Yorkshire, but when the Battle of Britain got underway, Catterick and the skies over Northern England were a somewhat quieter area of operation compared to the busy theatre of the south. This created a bored frustration within the pilot, something that lasted the entire first month of the battle. The Aces above London and places like the South Downs were getting plenty of action, the air above Yorkshire had remained peaceful. Suddenly on August 18, 1940, that all changed.

Credit: Shutterstock

On August 18, a day also known as the Hardest Day, Eric was scrambled along with the rest of his section to the skies over Yorkshire ready to intercept and engage a detected group of German aircraft approaching from the North Sea.

At 20,000 feet, he spotted a formation of Messerschmitts to the north of his base and was ordered into line-astern formation (a straight line of aircraft one behind the other), taking up position behind his Section Leader.

When the fight began, Eric scored a hit on one of the engines of an enemy plane, and shortly after scored another on its fuel tank. Eric let the pilot be, quite sure his day was over – which it certainly was. One of Eric’s friends reported he had seen the downed aircraft crash into Seaham Harbour a short while later. Before returning to base, Eric engaged another aircraft, this time a Junkers Ju 88, which also went down. The boredom felt by Eric of the northern skies was no more.

41 Squadron had performed excellently on the Hardest Day, however its time in the north would end abruptly.

Eric Lock, a Quadruple Ace, sat in the cockpit of his Spitfire. Credit: Crown

Redeployed for strategic purposes, the squadron was moved to Essex. This brought the men to a central location in the Battle Of Britain - near to London and the English Channel.

Soon, everybody from the King to the common man in the street would know the name Eric Lock.

Scrambled from his Hornchurch base on September 5, 1940, Eric got into a fight with the Luftwaffe, shooting down two Heinkel He 11s over the Thames Estuary. But when he followed the second one down to ensure it was truly out of the battle, Lock was attacked by a Messerschmitt resulting in an injury to his leg.  

Here lies a significant matter in the tale about Eric Lock.

German Heinkel 111 bomber over London By Everett Historical/shutterstock
A German Heinkel 111 bomber over London. German photo taken Sept. 7, 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Credit: Shutterstock

After shaking off the enemy Messerschmitt from his tail and finally managing to shoot it out of the sky itself, and with a wound to his leg from the gun fire, Lock flew back to the site of the downed enemy craft in an attempt to attract a near-by fishing boat to rescue the German pilot who was in danger of drowning. The fishing crews got to him and the officer duly surrendered. 

The following morning, despite the injury to his leg, Lock took to the skies and was involved in more dog fights. On this occasion, he put an enemy plane into the English Channel at Dover, his seventh victory of the battle.

After two days off, he returned to the skies on September 9 and caused the Luftwaffe yet more misery scoring a further two to his tally. All in all, he had claimed nine enemy aircraft, eight of which in less than seven days. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

The citation for Eric Lock’s DFC gazetted on October 1, 1940, in The Times newspaper read:

Air Ministry, 1st October, 1940.

ROYAL AIR FORCE.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the undermentioned appointment and awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy:

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Pilot Officer Eric Stanley LOCK .(81642), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

This officer has destroyed nine enemy aircraft, eight of these within a period of one week. He has displayed great vigour and determination in pressing home his attacks.

Before this citation even appeared in the newspaper on October 1, Eric had been awarded further honours for his continued knack for heroism behind the controls of the Spitfire he had been fighting his way through the Battle of Britain in.

By September 20, Lock had been responsible for 15 victories in 16 days and was duly awarded a Medal Bar to his already achieved DFC. The medals were stacking up quicker than they could pin them to his chest.

The citation for his Medal Bar appeared in The Times on October 22, 1940. It read:

Air Ministry, 22nd October, 1940.

ROYAL AIR FORCE.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following appointment and awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy:

Awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Pilot Officer Eric Stanley LOCK, D.F.C. (81642), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In September, 1940, whilst engaged on a patrol over the Dover area, Pilot Officer Lock engaged three Heinkel 113's one of which he shot down into the sea. Immediately afterwards he engaged a Henschel Hs 126 and destroyed it. He has displayed great courage in the face of heavy odds, and his skill and coolness in combat have enabled him to destroy fifteen enemy aircraft within a period of nineteen days.

Eric Lock was stationed at RAF Hornchurch for the majority of the Battle of Britain with 41 Squadron. Credit: Jumpstory

There followed four weeks rest for Lock and the men of his section having taken part in some of the most daring air battles ever seen in Europe. He spent this time with his new wife, Peggy Meyers, who prior to meeting Eric was a Miss Shrewsbury winner.

Pilot Officer Eric Lock was back in the cockpit of his Spitfire in early October and almost immediately continued his air superiority over Luftwaffe pilots … they were simply no match for Sawn Off Lockie.

Fellow of the Royal History Society and Battle of Britain expert Dilip Sarkar discussed the tenacity of Lock, and the few pilots like him, in an interview with BFBS. Describing the skill of Eric Lock, he said:

“The thing that sets Lock and men like him apart is they are exceptional shots. Fighter combat moves quickly, and it centres around deflection shooting, shooting ahead of where the target will be. It is such a skill … you have a nano second to work these equations out – it’s a gift.”

Dilip continued:

“Lock grew up in a farm with a shot gun, as did other exceptional pilots such as Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson and Sailor Malan, a South African born Spitfire pilot.

"They all grew up on farms and handled shotguns all their childhoods.

"They all share that commonality. They all grew up with shotguns in their hand.”

On October 20, 1940, Lock succeeded in securing his 20th air victory and thus became a quadruple Ace. Five days later his tally increased to 21 meaning that when the Battle of Britain concluded with victory for the Allied fighters on October 31, Eric Lock was the most successful Ace of the campaign.

Asked to explain why Lock was so successful in air battles, Dilip Sakar said that the skills required to perform at such a consistent level are in part due to natural ability. He said:

“It’s deflection shooting, it’s an ability and a gift.

“You have obviously got to be a good pilot, but on the other hand there’s a lot of evidence that during the Battle of Britain some pilots’ flying was just a little too precise … the ones who survived the longest tended to be the pilots that flew and skidded around the skies.

“So for Lock, it is a standard of flying – a gift – and like that of a great painter, you have got to have the gift of the talent.”

Two RAF Hawker Hurricane MK1 fighters from RAF 79 Squadron taking off from RAF Hawkinge, Kent during the Battle of Britain 200740 CREDIT PA.jpg
Two RAF Hawker Hurricane MK1 fighters from RAF 79 Squadron taking off from RAF Hawkinge, Kent during the Battle of Britain. Credit: PA

With the Battle of Britain behind them, Eric Lock and the men of 41 Squadron returned to routine patrol duties and wartime air operations. But for Eric, some difficulties would lay ahead.

His first skirmish with death came on November 8, 1940, when Lock had to crash land his Spitfire on a farmer’s field near Beachy Head. Thankfully, Eric was able to walk away unscathed. 

But just nine days later, while engaged in a fierce air fight with a formation of Messerschmitts over London, he would not be so lucky.

Lock, pushed to the limit, successfully downed two planes before being struck himself by cannon shells.

Eric's life was suddenly hanging in the balance. 

The shells that hit Lock’s plane had caused a mechanical malfunction in the form of forcing open the throttle, immediately accelerating his aircraft to 400 mph. Dreadfully, the shells had also hit his right arm and both of his legs.

Eric’s options were few, if any. He could not escape the aircraft and parachute to the ground as he was too injured. He could not fly the aircraft to an airfield and attempt a safe landing as the plane was too damaged.

Grappling with the controls, amazingly Lock managed to glide his plane down with the engine off to a remote field in Suffolk, some distance from London. It would be a further couple of hours before his rescue by two patrolling soldiers.

By the time his rescuers had carried him the three kilometres to the nearest hospital, Eric Lock had lost a lot of blood and was unconscious. But Eric was a fighter.

Eric was transferred to a hospital at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire where his long recovery began.

While starting that painful road to getting back on his feet, and perhaps even back in the air, the pilot learned that he was to be awarded yet more medals. This time a Distinguished Service Order for his considerable efforts in the skies above Britain.

The citation appeared in The Times on December 17, 1940:

Air Ministry, 17th December, 1940.

ROYAL AIR FORCE.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following appointment and awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy:

Appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Pilot Officer Eric Stanley Lock, D.F.C. (81642). Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 41 Squadron.

This officer has shown exceptional keenness and courage in his attacks against the enemy. In November, 1940, whilst engaged with his squadron in attacking a superior number of enemy forces, he destroyed two Messerschmitt 109's, thus bringing his total to at least twenty-two. His magnificent fighting spirit and personal example have been in the highest traditions of the service.

In 2010 Eric Lock was commemorated on a British Indian Ocean Territory postage stamp. Credit: British Indian Ocean Territory

It is considerable to say that this high honour, his third, had been awarded to him before the preceding two medals had yet been invested upon him formally. However, while recovering from his terrible injuries – a process that required 15 operations – he left hospital for the first and only time during his long rehabilitation to receive the hard-earned honours in person from King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the several months of his recovery, it is reported that Eric gave his medical carers a good run for their money in terms of his hard-faced approach to both his injuries and welfare.

Eric Lock needed to be back in the cockpit of his Spitfire.

And in a marvellous case of overcoming adversity and beating the odds, in June 1941 Eric was able to climb back into his seat behind the controls of a Spitfire.

By then, and with a couple of promotions under his belt, Flight Lieutenant Lock was posted to No. 611 Squadron as the commander of B Flight.

Within days yet more victories were added to Eric Lock's significant tally over the Luftwaffe.

On August 3, 1941, a year on from his first operations in the skies over Yorkshire, Lock was flying back to England following a patrol over Northern France.

At the Pas-de-Calais, he signalled his intention to attack a column of troops and vehicles spotted by him below. The pilot pulled out of formation to line up for his attack … and was never seen again.

A mystery? Well, for more than 50 years it very much was.

The fellow pilots of his patrol failed to see any action by Lock or enemy aircraft, and no crash site was ever found. In fact, for decades after the war, efforts were made repeatedly to locate the crash site of Eric’s Spitfire by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but to no avail.

It was as if Eric had pulled away from his section that day and simply vanished. Just like that.

Eric Lock went missing in action while flying in the vicinity of the Pas-de-Calais on August 3, 1940. Credit: Jumpstory

Almost 60 years later, in 1999, there was a breakthrough in the case of Eric Lock following extensive research conducted by historian Dilip Sakar.

Dilip's research led to what he described as a conclusive outcome in the mystery of the missing pilot.

The findings are outlined in an article on Dilip's Battle of Britain website, OurFinestHour.com. In it, he said:

Even as late as 1983, the MOD was unable to furnish the Lock family with any further information.

In 1999, however, I cross-referenced Fighter Command losses against German combat claims. Only one Spitfire was lost on the day in question: W3245, flown by Flight Lieutenant Lock. Only one enemy fighter was claimed destroyed by the Luftwaffe that day: a Spitfire destroyed over the French coast by Oberleutnant Johann Schmid of JG 26’s Geschwaderstab (Group Staff Flight).

It can reasonably be accepted, then, that Schmid shot down Eric Lock, who crashed into the Channel, never to be seen again.

Dilip Sakar MBE is a historian who specialises in the Battle of Britain. Credit: Dilip Sakar

Speaking to BFBS ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Dilip underlined his findings from 20 years ago, and described the impact his research had on Eric Lock's family. Dilip said:

“In 1999, when I did that research, his sister was still alive and they were delighted to have confirmation about what had happened. There’s no closure with a missing in action status, so, the discovery was able to give Joan, Eric’s sister, closure at last.

“Lock is the only RAF Spitfire brought down that day and on the other side, the Germans only made one claim too. So, it is that conclusive. You don’t often get it that conclusive either, I can only recall one other time my research has led me to say something so conclusively.

“There’s no doubt. No question. There is no doubt about it.”

The 55,573 people who died while serving in Bomber Command during the Second World War are commemorated in a memorial at Green Park, London. Credit: Shutterstock

Eric Lock is remembered for being one of the very best Aces of the Second World War, and were it not for his disappearance and presumed death on August 3, 1941, ten months on from the end of the Battle of Britain, he may have been officially named as our greatest ever pilot. Perhaps he is?

Today, Eric Lock has a street named after him in Bayston Hill, Shropshire. His name appears on panel 29 on the Runnymede Memorial – alongside those of the more than 20,000 Allied pilots classed as missing whose bodies were never found.

In total, he was credited with 26 victories, with a further eight classed as probable.

It is impossible to deny that when viewed through the lens of 2020, accounting for what society considers significant in terms of celebrity today ... Eric Lock was nothing short of a superstar. 

 

Dilip Sakar MBE FRHistS latest is book, Letters from the Few: Unique Memories from the Battle of Britain is available now. 

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