W.E. "Bill" Lucas, D.F.C. 1917-2018
Born: 16 January 1917.
Joined: 6 February 1936.
Died: 22 March 2018.
3 miles – 14:11.6 (1950)
5,000m – 14:56.8 (1950)
6 miles – 30:33.8 (1952)
Great Britain & Northern Ireland 2 (1948, 1950)
England 3 (1948, 1950)
Major championship record:
XIV Olympic Games 5,000m 7th heat 2 (1948)
AAA Champs. 3 miles – 7th (1946), 3rd (1947), 3rd (1948), 4th (1950)
When a son, William Ernest Lucas (to be known throughout his life as ‘Bill’), was born to William John Lucas and his wife Mabel Sophia on 16 January 1917 they could never have suspected the spark of determination that existed within the breast of that boy, destined to be their only child. Fate and that determination ordained that Bill was to become a notable pilot in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, reaching the rank of Squadron-Leader. He survived no fewer than 81 missions, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and was ‘mentioned in despatches’. If that wasn’t enough, at the age of 31 when his best athletic years were surely behind him, lost during war service, he represented Great Britain by becoming an Olympic athlete at the 5,000 metres. Alongside this he carved out a successful career in the insurance world and gave of his spare time freely, working in prominent roles in the administration of athletics.
Bill was controversially passed over when an application was made for him to be awarded an O.B.E., in 2015. He only stepped back from the Committee of Belgrave Harriers in his mid-nineties, but he remained prominent in Royal Air Force and Aircrew Associations until his death at the age of 101 on 22 March 2018.
Above: Bill joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1940, adamant that he wanted to fly.
Below: Flight Sergeant Bill Lucas (standing, left of picture) with his aircrew.
In 1917 the Lucas family lived in Tooting Bec Road in south London. William senior hailed from the countryside around Dorking, Surrey. Born to a labouring family in Leatherhead, he had grown up in Mickleham where, by the age of 24, he was working at a blacksmith’s forge; but, probably lured by better prospects in the metropolis, William turned his hand to bricklaying. With the outbreak of the Great War he left home to serve with the Northamptonshire Regiment and was awarded the Military Medal. In time, back in the building trade, he worked on improvements to the Houses of Parliament and became the Clerk of Works. He had married Mabel at Clapham in 1916. Mabel was from Brixton, the daughter of a postman.
Young Bill attended Hillbrook Road primary school in Tooting, about a mile from home, a distance he walked four times each school day so that he could have lunch at home. He went on to Bec Grammar School and qualified for Christ’s Hospital, but his parents were unable to afford the costs involved in getting him there. Sport played a large part of his school life, with cricket and rugby both receiving his attention, and when it came to sports day he found himself drafted into ‘the mile’, the event for all those who weren’t sure what else to do. It suited him well; he wasn’t the best at first but as he started taking it seriously he soon had the beating of the other lads.
Leaving school at the age of 15, a job in a trading company in the City of London first beckoned. Here Bill found himself packing parcels, a job with which he was not enamoured, and he shortly moved on to clerical work with a publishing company in Kingswood before returning to the City where the London & Lancashire Insurance Company employed him as an Assessor.
The London & Lancashire had a very active sports club and were ambitious for sporting success. Being a tall, skinny type, Bill was spotted as a potential runner, and when it was found out that he’d already done a bit at school, he was dragged off for training. Success came early and before long he was being regarded as the outstanding athlete of the London & Lancashire team. At the age of 19, in February 1936, Bill became a member of Belgrave Harriers – an involvement which flourished for over eighty years.
Bill’s earliest club races were at cross country – he placed 32nd in the “Southern” Junior Championship – and on the road in the Ilford Road Relay, but when the summer came around it was on the track at 1 mile that he shone brightest, showing up well in a 1 mile handicap event. As a twenty-year-old in 1937 he regularly led home the Belgrave trio in inter-club 1 mile team races, but was just beaten in the club’s championship over that distance by Les Cohen. A year later and wins over the four-lap event became the norm, along with second places to the champion Aubrey Reeve and a berth in the final of the A.A.A. Championship. The club championship mile proved a more difficult nut to crack: after leading for virtually the whole race he was beaten in the last few strides by Len Herbert – a scenario that was re-enacted the following year.
Still a relative youngster in 1939 and having raced to his best time to date in the heats of the A.A.A. 1 mile, Bill was regarded as “one for the future”. Among those who knew him, and certainly in his own mind, he was a “possibility” for a place in the British team for the XII Olympic Games to be held in Helsinki, Finland, in 1940, but, of course, the international situation put paid to all that when war was declared in September.
When it came to war service Bill joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1940. He was adamant that he wanted to fly but was initially considered unsuitable as he had an enlarged heart with an uneven beat. However, he managed to convince the medical officer that this was due to his training as a distance runner, but it may in fact have been an hereditary trait as his father had been diagnosed with a heart problem when on army service in the First World War – and he had gone on to serve with distinction.
Initially spending three months helping to guard a newly built airfield in Wiltshire, RAF Wroughton, he spent his days assembling and dis-assembling a Lewis gun, until his official training commenced at RAF Burnaston where his first solo flight was in a Miles Magister aircraft. Advanced flight training followed until he received his fighter pilot's wings; but by this time, the Battle of Britain had been successfully concluded and the emphasis was now on producing bomber pilots. As a result, Bill was posted to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland where he trained on Vickers Wellingtons.
As a sergeant, in August 1941, Bill was assigned to No. 9 Squadron at RAF Honington. After three bombing missions over Germany his commanding officers had enough confidence in Bill to assign him his own crew and a further 14 missions were completed. A conversion course was undertaken to enable him to fly the larger four-engine Short Stirling bombers and Bill found that his next tour of duty took him to No. 15 Squadron RAF Wyton. After a further 26 missions over Europe, and by now a Flight Sergeant, Bill was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and he took part in the Allies’ first 1000-bomber raid over Cologne on 30 May 1942.
In November 1942, Bill Lucas was promoted to Flying Officer and on completing another tour of duty was again posted to Scotland. As a Flight Lieutenant he served as an instructor with No. 19 Operational Training Unit at RAF Kinloss before being selected for the Pathfinder Force in October 1944. Here he flew Mosquitos and was responsible for identifying and marking targets with flares.
At the conclusion of the war, Bill was still with the Pathfinder Force, having earned a mention in despatches in January 1945 and receiving the D.F.C. in July. As a Squadron-Leader he was offered a two-year extended service commission, but there was no guarantee that his R.A.F. service would continue beyond that. So, after weighing things up, it was back to civilian life in 1946. He had married in 1944 and now had a young child to think of as well. He returned to the London & Lancashire insurance company for a couple of years, and then decided to become an insurance broker.
With much of Europe in ruins and many of its peoples still suffering severe deprivation, there was some doubt as to whether the 1948 Olympics would take place, but London took up the challenge and began to plan for the XIV Olympiad. They eventually turned out to be a great success. Known as the “Austerity Games”, the United Kingdom’s responsibility was reduced when very few new facilities were erected, and it was agreed that participants would bring their own food, with any surplus being donated to British hospitals.
Back in the Belgrave fold, athletics training began again for Bill, and although feeling that he had missed his chance to become as successful as he would have wished, the London Olympics were a huge incentive. The mile and 1,500 metres were no longer to be his targets, however. An extraordinary 1 mile talent had emerged in the Belgrave ranks: 17-year-old Derek Burfitt whose 4:26.2 was three seconds faster than Sydney Wooderson’s schoolboy record and compared well with the Americans Cunningham, MacMitchell, Dodds and Zamperini. No, for an older and tougher Bill Lucas it was the road and 3 miles/5,000 metres on the track that was now the draw, but even from within the club he faced opposition from his old rival Len Herbert who placed 4th in the A.A.A. 3 miles behind the winner Gaston Reiff of Belgium. Herbert was also winner of the Surrey County and Inter-County events and 2nd in the ‘Southern’. In the Club Championship it was 1, Herbert; 2, Lucas.
It was really the winter of ‘46/’47 that saw the beginnings of Bill’s push. The South of the Thames ‘Junior’ race saw Bill run away from the field, leaving Len ten seconds in arrears in 2nd. Over the longer distances of the Club’s 7 miles Championship Herbert still held sway but both were selected for the Inter-Counties where the Surrey team was captained by Tom Carter. Herbert magnificently won the Southern CC Championship. April 19 saw the team race that brought the broadest of smiles to Belgrave supporters when the claret and gold clad squad contesting the “News of the World” London to Brighton Relay took a lead on stage one thanks to Vic Blowfield, relinquished it briefly on stage eight, but, with finishers Herbert and Lucas, secured a victory over Blackheath Harriers by over two minutes.
On the track in 1947 it was a familiar story in the Club’s 3 miles event, with Bill leading for most of the way before a last lap burst from Len Herbert gave him the victory. It was the same finishing order a month later in the mile.
Olympic year dawned. Belgrave tipsters considered that Belgravians Herbert and Lucas both had potential to make the British team at 5,000 metres – but the Lucas mentioned was George F. Lucas, now making a name for himself (he had placed 3rd in the 1947 A.A.A. 3 miles). W.E. Lucas, no relation, didn’t seem to get a mention – he was after all now in his 32nd year. British Amateur Athletics Secretary Jack Crump – Mr. Athletics – gave a similar prediction but additionally included Belgrave’s Charlie Smart, back from Germany where he had run some spectacular times.
The cross country season followed a similar pattern to before with Herbert running well to the fore and Bill a little further back – but, unusually, he did turn out for the Club’s ten miles championship. It was an indication that Bill was training hard, and that training paid dividends, limited though it was to just a twelve to eighteen-month period of preparation for his targeted place in the Olympic team. The London to Brighton Relay saw another Belgrave win with Bill entrusted with the last leg into town, finishing the race alongside the famous Aquarium. Solid track performances came throughout the summer, including yet another second place to Herbert in the Club 1 mile. Then, at the A.A.A. Championship, the trials, many of the favourites came “unstuck” while Bill placed 3rd in 14:21. His berth in the 5,000 metres was secured.
The opening ceremony at Wembley was a bit of an ordeal. For the London and home counties members of the team there was no team accommodation, so it meant taking public transport to and from the stadium. In Bill’s case this involved catching a bus to East Croydon, then a train to Victoria and two Underground trains before the walk to Wembley Park.
Many of the teams were dressed smartly in outfits designed for the Games and towards the end of the parade the United States team was reckoned to be the smartest, the men in navy blazers, white trousers and trilby hats. Less sartorially outstanding were the British team, for whom clothes rationing was in force. Some of the men wore their military uniforms or demob suits, while others sported ill-fitting black blazers with black berets. It hadn’t been possible to source metal badges for the berets, so the Women’s Institute had been commissioned to produce embroidered ones. The British team were last in the parade of nations and Bill said that they had four hours of marching about, standing up, sitting down then standing up again before they finally marched into the stadium. It was an extremely hot day and several athletes passed out.
The same travel routine was repeated by Bill two days later, on Saturday 31st July, the day of the 5,000 metres heats. On arriving at the track, he sought out the team manager, was given a number and informed that he was drawn in heat two. In his own words, “I didn’t run my best race. None of the British boys did.” If he had been able to reproduce the form shown in the trials he would have qualified. While Ahldén (Sweden), Zátopek (Czechoslovakia), Mäkelä (Finland) and Stokken (Norway) celebrated qualifying for the final, Bill, who had placed 7th, made his way back home. He was a little disappointed, but the war had toughened him up. Surviving 81 missions when so many colleagues failed to return puts a different perspective on falling short of making an Olympic final.
Bill continued to run at a high level and with a little more background training to build upon had probably his best year on the track in 1950 when his fastest 3 miles time of 14:11.6 was achieved when placing 4th in the A.A.A. Championships on 15 July. He ran a 14:56.8 5,000 metres when representing England & Wales v Ireland v Scotland on 7 August, placing 2nd, and was 3rd in an international 3 miles at the White City – Great Britain and N. Ireland v. Benelux v. U.S.A on 12 August.
Bill ran on until 1955, playing many a role in Belgrave teams, notably closing in the winning team for a third consecutive occasion in the London to Brighton Relay in 1949, but he never quite managed to pull off a Club Championship win.
With retirement from competition Bill switched his attention to the administration of athletics. For many years he was the Club’s Road Running and Cross Country Team Manager and was the Surrey County Team Manager when an outstanding team won the Inter-Counties Cross Country Championship. He became a top-level track judge and referee, and at the White City his familiar voice echoed around the stadium as announcer at championship and international meetings. Surrey County, Southern Counties Cross Country, Southern Counties A.A.A., the South of the Thames Cross Country Association: he became President of all those organisations and Chairman of some of them. He served as President of Belgrave Harriers on two separate occasions: 1963-1964, when he led a Belgrave party on an athletic tour to Germany, and 1986-1988, a period covering the Club’s Centenary.
An Interview with Bill Lucas - local war hero and Olympic athlete". Cowfold Parish Council. March 2015.
Belgravian, The, 1936-1955.
Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK. Also 1891 and 1901.
British Army Service Records 1914-1920, WO 363 & WO 364, The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
Electoral Registers. London, England: London Metropolitan Archives.
General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office.
Hampton, Janie, The Austerity Olympics, Arum Press Limited (2008).
Sheridan, Michael, Who’s Who of British International Athletes (men and women) 1945-1960 (2010).
Above: Heat two of the 1948 Olympic 5,000 metres. Emil Zátopek leads with Bill in 7th, the place he would occupy at the finish line.
Below: Representing Great Britain and N. Ireland v. Benelux v. U.S.A at the White City in 1950. Horace Ashenfelter of the U.S.A. leads.
Above: Bill brings home the baton to take Belgrave to another win in the London to Brighton Relay of 1949.
Below: Len Herbert and Bill Lucas race it out yet again at Wimbledon Stadium in the early 1950s.
Above: Compiling the result of the Club's 5¾ miles Road Race in the early 1960s.
Below: President of Belgrave Harriers for a second time during the Club's Centenary year 1987.
Some of Bill's reminisces ...
When asked in 1967 about his outstanding memories of the sport, Bill came up with the following:
The first was during the period immediately following the Second World War, when I was struggling badly to regain some 1939 form. It occurred in the A.A.A. 3 miles championship at the White City on July 20th, 1946, when Sydney Wooderson, already established as one of the greatest milers of all time, tackled the longer distance and became the first Englishman to beat 14 minutes in a new British record of 13 minutes 53.2 seconds. This in itself may not seem to be of any great importance, but it sticks in my mind because I was also running in that event and although finishing 7th I was all but lapped – there is in fact a photograph in existence which shows me passing the tape a yard or so ahead of the winner. The White City crowd, rather larger in those days in the absence of television, had realised well before the second mile had been completed that they were to witness the breaking of another “barrier”, and Sidney, being the idol of the British crowds at that time, was given a reception second to none. Such was the cheering that for the second half of the race it was impossible to hear either the sound of the runners’ feet on the track or even one’s own breathing – it was literally one long continuous roar, and I’m sure that this must have spurred on Wooderson to his great achievement.
The second occasion was during the 1948 Olympic Games in London where I was privileged to be a participant, although not a particularly successful one. The event was the final of the 5,000 metres in which I might have been a runner if my over enthusiasm in my heat had lasted a little longer and had not deserted me and left me like a pricked balloon. The great Emil Zátopek who had in a small way contributed to my own downfall by running, in my humble opinion, far faster than was necessary in our heat, was matched against, among others, Gaston Reiff from Belgium. Zátopek was of course the favourite but for some reason best known to himself he had let Gaston go, and to all intents and purposes, with one lap to run, Reiff was an easy winner. To the amazement of the crowd Zátopek, with something like 100 yards to make up, decided on entering the back straight to “have a go”, and with one long determined effort he sprinted for the line and only failed by the proverbial inch to secure first place. The crowd went wild with excitement as they saw this dramatic come-back unfold, and no-one will ever know whether the cheers at the finish, which went on for some considerable time, were for Reiff the winner, or Zátopek in his unsuccessful bid for victory. It was in my mind the greatest grandstand finish of all time.
The third occasion was again at the White City on a never to be forgotten evening in 1957 when Derek Ibbotson brought back to Great Britain the World 1 mile record with a fantastic 3 minutes 57.2 seconds. I was privileged to be the announcer at this meeting and never shall I forget firstly the cheers when Ibbotson won, for everyone knew that the time was a good one, secondly the hush of expectancy in the stadium as I began my announcement, and then the eruption when I came to the time. I doubt whether anyone kept their seats – everyone was on their feet demanding to see Derek who obliged with a lap of honour and was then cajoled into coming to my microphone to say a few words. The microphone was sited at the time in the centre of the arena near the finishing post. Even Ibbotson, who was not renowned for his lack of words, found difficulty on that occasion to put into words his great excitement in annexing the “blue riband” World record. My recollection is that the meeting was considerably delayed but no-one worried for the evening had been made for the crowd and the officials and everyone went home happy with the knowledge that a little history had been made – Ibbotson’s finest hour!