“Air Chief Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges, who died on January 4 2007 aged 88, was one of the RAF’s most highly decorated pilots; after an audacious escape from occupied France and an outstanding record flying clandestine operations in Europe and the Far East he went on to have a distinguished peacetime career.
Flying moonlit operations for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) Hodges landed his single-engine Lysander or the larger Hudson aircraft in remote French fields to deliver and pick up agents. He picked up two future Presidents of the Republic (Auriol and Mitterrand), bringing them to England for meetings with General de Gaulle.
Unaware (for security reasons) of his passengers’ identities at the time, Hodges was astonished when, in 1948, President Auriol appointed him a Companion of the Légion d’honneur; 40 years later President Mitterrand promoted him to be a Grand Officier of the Order.Neither of these two sorties, nor the rest of his wartime operational career as a pilot and squadron commander, would have been possible had he not escaped from captivity after crash-landing his bomber in northern France in September 1940 and returned to his squadron the following June.
On the night of September 4 he was returning from a raid on Stettin in his Hampden bomber of No 49 Squadron when he was forced to land in a field in Brittany. Together with his air gunner, who had not heard his order to bail out, he burned the aircraft before setting off to the south-east on foot.
Moving from farm to farm, the two men obtained civilian clothes to wear over their uniforms and eventually made their way to Marseilles in Vichy France, where they were arrested and imprisoned. Hodges escaped and stowed away on a French cargo ship, but was picked up in Oran and returned to Marseilles; he was then sent to the Vichy-controlled camp for British prisoners at St Hippolyte du Fort, near Nîmes, pending trial.
He escaped from the fort with a pass he had forged, using a potato to create the official-looking stamps. He took a train to Perpignan, then a taxi to the Spanish border before crossing the Pyrenees. In Spain, however, he was arrested by customs officials and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Miranda del Ebro. Five weeks later a British Embassy official secured his release.
On June 13 1941 Hodges was repatriated from Gibraltar and returned to his squadron. When asked what he had missed most whilst on the run for eight months, he responded without hesitation “my pyjamas”. From that moment, he always wore them under his uniform when flying on operations.
He resumed night attacks over Germany until the following April, when he was awarded the DFC.
Lewis Macdonald Hodges (always known as Bob) was born on March 1 1918 at Richmond, Surrey, and educated at St Paul’s School. On hearing that he had been selected for the RAF College at Cranwell, the High Master commented: “They seem to be taking anyone these days.” On graduating in 1938 as a pilot officer Hodges joined No 78, a Wellesley bomber squadron, at Finningley, in Yorkshire, before moving to No 49 in 1940.
He was talent-spotted for special duties by Wing Commander Charles Pickard, familiar as the Wellington pilot in the film Target for Tonight and later killed on the daring low-level raid against the Amiens jail. Pickard had just taken over No 161, one of two squadrons supporting SOE operations from Tempsford, Bedfordshire, and he selected Hodges as one of his two flight commanders piloting Halifax bombers used for dropping supplies and agents to resistance groups in Europe.
By May 1943 Hodges had been awarded a Bar to his DFC for “his extremely efficient and gallant conduct”. He had also assumed command of No 161, which had been re-equipped with the Lysander and Hudson, both aircraft small and manoeuvrable enough to land in fields and pick up passengers and vital packages. It was a lonely and exacting role, using moonlit rivers and lakes as navigation aids to find small fields lit by three or four hand-torches; and there was the ever-present risk of an enemy reception committee on the ground. By their very nature such operations were conducted in the deepest secrecy, and few in the RAF were aware of the squadron’s activities.
Hodges made a point of having a few words with the “Joes”, as the agents were known, before they took off, many never to return. His calming influence, consideration and care for these gallant people were typical of him, and characteristics that he exhibited throughout his life. He flew his last SOE operation to France in February 1944, and shortly afterwards was awarded the DSO.
Following a rest on the Bomber Command operations staff, in November 1944 Hodges was briefed to accompany Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the newly-appointed Air Commander-in-Chief, South-East Asia, as his personal staff officer. The posting was, however, cancelled at short notice, since Hodges wished to return to operational flying following the death in action in Burma of his younger brother; he was appointed to command No 357, a special duties squadron supporting SOE’s Force 136 in south-east Asia. Meanwhile, Leigh-Mallory’s transport aircraft crashed in France en route to India, and there were no survivors.
Equipped at Jessore, in India, with four-engine Liberators, twin-engine Dakotas and the small Lysander, No 357 supported Force 136 parties organising resistance among Shan, Karen and Kachin hillmen in Burma. Ranging further east, Hodges and his long-range Liberator crews flew sorties of up to 20 hours in dangerous monsoon conditions to assist the Force 136 teams and resistance groups in Thailand and Malaya. For his work in support of SOE, Hodges was awarded a Bar to the DSO.
Shortly after VJ Day in August 1945 he joined the directing staff at the staff college at Haifa, returning home in October 1946. He then attended the RAF Flying College and flew a Canberra PR7 in the London to New Zealand air race. Hodges was in the lead — having established a point-to-point record from London to Colombo — when his aircraft developed a fault and he was overtaken.
Following a series of staff appointments at the Air Ministry and Bomber Command, in March 1956 he took command of RAF Marham, where Valiant nuclear deterrent V-bombers were replacing the Canberra. As the year moved on Hodges was perplexed by an order to employ the remaining Canberras for stockpiling conventional 1,000lb bombs on Malta. All became clear in October, when he took a force of his Valiants to the island. As he later recalled: “It was only at the 11th hour that we discovered we were going to bomb the Egyptians.”
Following an interlude as Assistant Commandant at the RAF College, Cranwell, Hodges became the Air Officer Administration of Air Forces in Aden. In 1964, after attending the Imperial Defence College, he was appointed a nuclear deputy at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (Shape), returning the next year as Assistant Chief of Air Staff in the Ministry of Defence.
After serving as Commander-in-Chief of Air Support Command, Hodges served on the Air Board as Air Member for Personnel until 1973, when he was appointed Deputy C-in-C Allied Forces Central Europe and Air ADC to the Queen.
Hodges retired from the RAF in 1976, when he became a director of Pilkington Bros (optical division). He was a governor of Bupa medical foundation from 1987, and from 1979 to 1986 served as chairman of governors of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s Duke of Kent School. He was President of the RAF Association from 1981 to 1984 and served for many years on the council of the Friends’ organisation of St Clement Danes, the RAF central church in London.
Hodges will long be remembered for his work directing the refurbishment and modernisation of the RAF Club in Piccadilly, which had become outdated and slow to adapt to the expectations of the modern-day officer, few of whom used what they perceived to be an old-fashioned establishment. Some of his measures were not popular at the time — every serving officer had to contribute a half-day’s pay — but the transformation was remarkable, and the club’s fortunes were dramatically improved. Hodges’s portrait hangs in a prominent place in the club.
His experiences as an evader, and his contacts with the SOE and the French Resistance during his wartime service, left Hodges with a deep respect for those who risked so much and for the many who gave their lives. He was President of the RAF Escaping Society, a charity that provides assistance to former escape line “helpers” and their children.
Until the end of his life he maintained close links, and was in constant touch, with his wartime friends in France, Belgium and Holland.
Hodges was a man of great kindness and generosity.
He was appointed CBE in 1958, CB in 1963 and KCB in 1968.
Bob Hodges married, in 1950, Elisabeth Blackett, who survives him with their two sons.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges, born March 1 1918, died January 4 2007″ (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)