The Extraordinary Story of Ralph Henry Lucky
In this blog Paul Hudson-Knight talks to Martin Morgans about the stories he’s discovering for Extraordinary Editions’ RAF Anthology
Currently I am busily delving through the archives at the RAF Museum and the Air Historical Branch preparing the RAF Centenary Anthology to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in 2018.
I know that I am going to find stories of valour, of courage and of heroism under fire. I know also that I will find stories of mavericks, oddballs and contrarians, but I never anticipated finding the extraordinary story of Flight Lieutenant Ralph Henry Lucky – a P.O.W (Prisoner of War) who was anything but, which I discovered in the archives of the Air Historical Branch.
Ralph Henry Lucky was born in 1896, he lived in Northampton and in peacetime England he was an agricultural inspector – an ordinary man living an ordinary life – until the war came and the RAF took in men from a huge variety of occupations and gave them new ones. The agricultural inspector became an Intelligence Officer and Interpreter.
On the 14 February 1941 Lucky was part of a group that parachuted in to Calitri in Italy in order to blow up a viaduct. Unfortunately, at this point, Ralph’s luck ran out and he and his party were captured. A few weeks short of his 45th birthday and having done his bit you could have forgiven the Flight Lieutenant if he had sat out the war, but no, Ralph Henry Lucky was made of sterner stuff.
Lucky by name but not by nature, Ralph was not just a serial escapee, it turns out he was the surreal master of the unlikely plan, the most brazen opportunist and an eternal optimist. But I’ll let him tell you the story in his own words.
‘On approximately 9 January 1942 at Campo 27 I sprinkled mustard powder inside my underwear which I wore for three days and nights. I then had my back scrubbed until the flesh was raw. On approx. 13 January I reported sick and the Italian doctor diagnosed scabies. He sent me under escort to Florence for treatment.
I was dressed in an Italian-made RAF uniform which was easily convertible to look like that of an Italian Air Force officer. I also wore a beard.
On the journey to Florence I persuaded my escort to take me round to see the sights before we went to the hospital. On arrival I got him to carry my suitcase, which was very heavy. We walked around the city until dusk, and in a crowded main street I spoke to a woman while my escort was momentarily separated from me. I asked this woman to get a taxi and meet me outside a nearby barber’s shop. She mistook me for an Italian Air Force officer.
A few moments later I escaped from my escort and went to the barber’s shop where I had my beard removed. I had only a 500 lire note and the barber had no change. I then said the lady waiting in the taxi would have change and the barber sent his son to her. The woman came to the door of the shop, which was left open, and my escort, who had raised the alarm, happened to pass at that moment and saw me. I was then recaptured.
I was taken to the hospital where I was brought before the Colonel and accused of an attempt to escape. I denied this and stated that as I had been a P/W for two years I only wished to have the company of a woman. The Colonel sympathised with me and said he would send me to another hospital where there were Red Cross nurses.
There I made a rope of my sheets and fastened it to my bed placed across the window. I tested the rope before attempting to lower myself from the window, but the sheets broke as the fabric was rotted with bleaching chemicals. I was not punished for damaging the sheets but a guard was placed in the room until my discharge and return to Campo 27 on approximately 17 January.’
Was the redoubtable Flight Lieutenant disappointed? We shall never know for sure, but was he down hearted? Most assuredly not and he continued to use both his unusual knowledge of everyday chemicals and his mastery of Italian in his efforts to escape.
‘At the end of Jan 42 I investigated the possibilities of escaping from Campo 27 by attending the Roman Catholic Church services in the monastery adjacent to the camp. I reported my discovery to Cmdr. Brown, R.N. the S.B.O. Cmdr. Brown took charge of preparation of a hole through the wall from the camp into the monastery.
A few days later Cmdr. Brown and Lt. Deane-Drummond began making a hole. They made some noise and an alarm was raised, but they were not discovered at work. In the subsequent investigation I was suspected of being the instigator of the attempt and was sentenced to thirty days in solitary.’
Foiled once again, but the Flight Lieutenant didn’t let it get him down and I suspect spent his thirty days in solitary concocting his next, somewhat unfortunate, plan.
‘In August 1942 at Campo 5 I rubbed blue ointment on my face for about a week and then reported sick, stating that I had a sinus. I was taken to the hospital at Alessandria. I was x-rayed and the film of mercury appeared on the plate in such a way that sinus was diagnosed. An operation which was later performed spoiled my chance of escaping from the hospital – and I now have a sinus.’
Undeterred, but now breathing better than ever, it was a while before the Flight Lieutenant was able to make another attempt. You will note that he was now being moved through the camp system; most likely he was gaining a reputation as a serial escapee. By late 1953 he was in Austria.
‘On 19 September 43 at Stalag XVII I obtained a French forage cap. At approximately 1200 hrs. that day I walked through the gate of the camp wearing the cap, battledress trousers, a dark blue pullover and a dark blue raincoat, and I had a false French P/W working pass.’
Ralph spent the next two weeks walking and working his way across Austria, tending cows, digging potatoes and eventually cleaning railway carriage windows in Villach. On 3 October he snuck abroad a train bound for Italy, but again his luck didn’t last.
‘Some time later the train stopped and filled with German soldiers and civilians. My presence was discovered and the alarm given. Two S.S. guards appeared and I was kicked on the head. I then stated that I was an RAF officer whereupon the guard stood to attention and my treatment afterwards was fair. On 5 Oct I was escorted to Stalag XVIII.’
The Flight Lieutenant’s patience finally wore out. He had spent nearly three years in captivity and had been indefatigable in his attempts to escape. By now he had been moved to Germany and this time he left nothing to chance.
‘At the beginning of Nov 43 at Stalag Luft I I decided to put myself in a condition to pass the repatriation medical board. I did not acquaint anyone of my intention.
On approximately 23 Nov I began to smoke cigarettes containing crushed aspirin. A few weeks later I was taken into the camp sick quarters suffering from palpitations and a murmur of the heart. During the time I was in sick-quarters I stole a small quantity of Benzedrine tablets and two caffeine capsules, which I kept for use prior to the electro-cardiogram test, which I heard to be the basis of the heart trouble diagnosis.
In Jan 44 I was taken by ambulance to hospital for the test. Several hours before the test ensued I consumed six half-grain Benzedrine tablets, and in a few minutes before the test I crushed one of the caffeine capsules in my handkerchief and swallowed the contents. The electro-cardiogram test showed that I suffered from myocarditis.’
Flight Lieutenant Ralph Henry Lucky was repatriated on September 13 1944 and on arrival he was examined by a heart specialist – who found no sign of heart trouble.
The RAF Centenary Anthology will chronicle the 100 year history of the RAF from its inception to the present day, taking the very best material from the archives and presenting it full size and in full colour, to tell the story of the RAF as it has never been seen before.
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