First published in Britain at War in August 2016.
Group Captain Lionel Wilmot Brabazon Rees VC OBE MC AFC: boldness
Lionel Wilmot Brabazon Rees was born in Carnarvon, Wales, on 31 July 1884. He was the son of Colonel Charles Rees, a solicitor, and his wife, Leonora, and was educated at Elms Preparatory School in Colwall, Worcestershire, and Eastbourne College, Sussex. After leaving school, he decided to pursue a military career and attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, as a gentleman cadet. On 23 December 1903 and aged nineteen, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Royal Garrison Artillery and he quickly established himself as a superb shot.
Rees, who was promoted to lieutenant in 1906, spent some six years in West Africa from 1908 until the outbreak of the Great War, during which time he showed a great interest in and aptitude for the new ‘sport’ of flying. He received his pilot’s certificate in January 1913 after undertaking private lessons. Shortly after the war began, he voluntarily transferred to the recently-formed Royal Flying Corps on 10 August 1914.
After further training and being promoted to captain, he was transferred to command a flight of No 7 Squadron. In January 1915, he survived a crash landing in his two-seater Vickers aircraft. The following month, he was given command of a flight of No 11 Squadron. By July of that year, the squadron was in France, stationed at Vert Galant, near Amiens, with eight aircraft, later increased to eleven.
During one early mission, Rees became involved in a dogfight with an enemy Fokker machine. Both pilots displayed immense skill and Rees’ Vickers aircraft was hit and badly damaged, before Rees got in a burst of fire that sent the monoplane crashing to the ground behind enemy lines. However, the Fokker aircraft soon began to gain ascendancy in the skies leading to what was known as the ‘Fokker scourge’.
During the summer of 1915, Rees and his gunner, Flight Sergeant Hargreaves, repeatedly showed great courage in various encounters with enemy aircraft. This led to the award of a Military Cross (MC) for Rees and a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his gunner.
After a short stint at the end of 1915 as the commander of the Central Flying School in Upavon, Wiltshire, which saw Rees promoted to major, he was soon back on operational duty. On 12 January 1916, Rees took command of the newly-formed No 32 Squadron. With the Fokker still ruling the skies, the new squadron was equipped with the nimble, single-seater DH2 biplane. By 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, No 32 Squadron was based at Treizennes, France.
At around 4.15pm, after acting as an escort for a bombing mission, Rees was in the air when he sighted a formation which be believed to be British bombers returning from a sortie. He made towards them to offer them protection on their home journey, only to discover that he was approaching around ten two-seater enemy bombers. By the time he realised his error, Rees courageously opted to turn defence into attack and fired on the first aircraft to come into range, hitting it so that it spiralled away out of control.
After turning and approaching the enemy again, he hit another enemy aircraft before coming under attack from up to five enemy aircraft whose fire all missed its target. In continued fighting, Rees hit and damaged a third enemy aircraft before giving chase to yet two more.
However, one of the enemy aircraft closed in on Rees’s machine with its gunner firing all the time, and the British pilot felt a sudden pain shoot through his thigh, meaning he was unable to use the rudder bar. By now, Rees had used all his aircraft’s ammunition and so he drew his revolver and fired that at an enemy aircraft before turning for home. Rees made a successful landing before sitting on the grass and telling the ground crew that he needed to be taken to hospital.
An enemy bullet had narrowly missed a vital artery yet Rees was still annoyed that he had not been able to cause more damage to the enemy, telling medics he ‘…would have brought them all down, one after another if I could have used my leg!’
Rees spent some six months in hospital but, despite walking with a slight limp for the rest of his life, he soon resumed his military service. His VC was announced on 5 August 1916 and on 15 December 1916 Rees received his decoration from George V in an investiture at Buckingham Palace. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 1 May 1917, shortly after heading to America to act as an aviation adviser to the US Army. On 7 March 1918, Rees was appointed to the command of No 1 School of Aerial Fighting in Turnberry, Ayrshire.
As the war drew to a close, he was, on 2 November 1918, awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) for services as a flying instructor, as well as an OBE. The Great War formally ended nine days later but Rees was determined to pursue a career in the recently-formed RAF. This meant he relinquished his Army rank and became a wing commander.
One of his early post-war appointments was as Assistant Commandant of RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire. For thirteen years from 1918, Rees took up a number of senior positions both at home and abroad before retiring in 1931 with the rank of group captain.
Between 1941-2, Rees was briefly recalled for military service during the Second World War. He married Sylvia Williams in the Bahamas in August 1947 and the couple went on to have two sons and a daughter.
Rees died in Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, the Bahamas, on 28 September 1955, aged seventy-one. His devotion to aviation was recognised many years later when someone who could not be kept away from his aircraft engine became known affectionately as a ‘Rees’.
I purchased Rees’ medal group privately in 2013 and I am hugely proud to be the custodian of this heroic airman’s gallantry and service medals.