Wing Commander Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell served with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Over the course of 5 years with the Royal Air Force, he flew Spitfires and claimed many victories over the enemy.
Born in British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 9th August 1919, he was the son of Henry Stuart Cuthbert Anthony Lovell and Clare Mary Lovell (née O’Neill). The family left from the Port of Rangoon, India and arrived in the United Kingdom on 12th November 1923. Young Tony spent his formative years in Portrush, Co. Antrim. His elder brother was Flight Lieutenant S.J. Lovell, killed over Guipavas Airfield, Brest, France on 29th January 1944 aged 27 years old.
As a young man, Tony Lovell attended Ampleforth Abbey College, North Yorkshire. Expected to train for the priesthood, the Irish man boarded at the Catholic college but on graduation joined the Royal Air Force. Records show he remained a devout Catholic throughout his time in the R.A.F. While other pilots lived lives of excess and debauchery, Lovell was not one to party. His quieter lifestyle may be the reason that little is mentioned in the record books. From 1941 onwards, though, Tony Lovell excelled in the skies.
On 5 operational tours, he claimed 16 solo victories and 6 shared victories. Add to this 2 probable victories, 9 planes damaged, shared damage of 4 more and one grounded plane destroyed, it makes quite a record.
Joining the R.A.F.
After graduating from Ampleforth, Lovell enlisted with the Royal Air Force on a short service commission on 25th October 1937. By 6th January 1938, he had taken to the skies at No. 6 Flying Training School, R.A.F. Netheravon, Wiltshire. He became an Acting Pilot Officer and by 20th August 1938, had joined R.A.F. 41 Squadron at R.A.F. Catterick, North Yorkshire. With the Second World War still a year away, they flew Hawker Fury biplanes.
By 25th October 1938, Tony had his wings and Pilot Officer Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell took to the skies. 1939 saw the continuation of training with a parachute course at R.A.F. Mantson, Kent in March. On 22nd July 1939, Lovell began Operational Duties attached to Station Headquarters at R.A.F. Catterick, North Yorkshire.
The outbreak of war meant a return to the air for Lovell. On 20th November 1939, he rejoined R.A.F. 41 Squadron, moving from the Hawker Fury to the new Supermarine Spitfire. This would be the plane in which Lovell would excel.
The Battle of Britain
On 25th May 1940, he received a promotion to Flying Officer. Three days later, R.A.F. 41 Squadron moved to R.A.F. Hornchurch, Essex. Lovell saw his first action over the English channel and at Dunkirk. On 31st May 1940, Lovell scored his first shared victory. An early morning patrol over Dover, Kent with wingman Flight Lieutenant John T Webster put him up against a Heinkel HE111. Both men claimed half a victory.
The next day, he shared a second victory, downing another Heinkel HE111 over Dunkirk with Pilot Officer Oliver B. Morough-Ryan. As the Battle of Britain escalated, Lovell continued to score victories. He downed a Junkers JU88 south-east of Scarborough, North Yorkshire on 8th July 1940.
On 28th July 1940, Lovell’s Spitfire came under attack from Major Werner Molders of JG51. With a damaged plane, the Irish man made a crash landing at R.A.F. Manston, Kent from where he went to Margate Hospital with a thigh wound.
Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell took to the skies again on a sortie on 4th August 1949. His next victory came on 15th August 1940 as he downed a Messerschmitt ME110.
At the height of the Battle of Britain on 5th September 1940, the Luftwaffe once again shot Lovell down. He baled out unhurt over the Thames Estuary while Spitfire R6885 crashed and burned at Kimberley Road, South Benfleet, Essex. On the same date, he became the temporary commander of B Flight.
The victories continued to rack up with a ME109 downed on 6th September 1940 and two more on 15th September 1940. On 29th September 1940, he became confirmed commander of B Flight. He celebrated the following day by going out and damaging a Dornier DO17.
Lovell received a promotion to Acting Flight Lieutenant with R.A.F. 41 Squadron on 1st October 1940. That day he damaged another Messerschmitt ME109. He destroyed another on 20th October 1940. He damaged another ten days later. He downed yet another on 17th November 1940 and two more ten days later. That brought 1940s tally to 10 confirmed victories.
In the middle of the Battle of Britain, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Gazetted on 26th November 1940, the citation read:
This officer has flown continuously on active operations against the enemy since war began. He has shown a fine fighting spirit and has led his flight and on occasions his squadron with great courage, coolness and determination. He has destroyed seven enemy aircraft.
Move to R.A.F. 145 Squadron
With the Battle of Britain over, the aerial combat lessened a little in 1941. Lovell damaged a Heinkel HE111 on 22nd January 1941. He destroyed a Junkers JU88 on 30th March 1941 and damaged another Heinkel HE111 two days later.
On 23rd May 1941, with his tour expired, he joined No. 58 Operational Training Unit as an instructor at R.A.F. Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland. While there, on 25th May 1941, he earned a promotion to Flight Lieutenant. In June 1941, he returned to R.A.F. Catterick as Operations Room Controller.
October 1941 saw Tony Lovell posted to R.A.F. 145 Squadron as commander at R.A.F. Catterick. He continued to chalk up victories over Europe destroying a JU88 on 16th November 1941 and a JU88 on 19th January 1942. Gazetted on 10th February 1942 was the citation for his second Distinguished Flying Cross. The award came in the form of a bar added to the ribbon of his first D.F.C. medal.
This officer is a fearless and skillful fighter pilot. His keenness to engage the enemy, combined with fine leadership, both in the air and on the ground, have set an inspiring example. In November 1941, Squadron Leader Lovell shot down a Junkers 88 some 35 miles off the Yorkshire coast. In January 1942, in the same area and in difficult weather conditions, he intercepted another Junkers 88 and shot it down into the sea. This officer has personally destroyed at least 11 hostile aircraft and has damaged others.
February 1942 saw R.A.F. 145 Squadron to the Middle East and they arrived in Helwan, Egypt in April that year. Frustrated by the lack of planes available to his squadron, he soon resigned command. He transferred to Middle East Headquarters in May 1942. There, he joined 252 Wing, promoted to Temporary Squadron Leader on 1st June 1942.
Middle East and Malta
On 21st July 1942, Squadron Leader Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell joined R.A.F. 603 Squadron in Malta. The following week saw him return to form in the Spitfire. He damaged two JU88s on 23rd July 1942, damaged a ME109 and a Macchi MC202 on 26th July 1942, and shared the downing of a JU88 on 28th July 1942.
R.A.F. 603 Squadron disbanded on 2nd August 1942 with the pilots joining 1435 Flight. This became R.A.F. 1435 Squadron and Squadron Leader Lovell took command. Showing no signs of slowing down, he claimed more victories over the coming months:
- 13th August 1942. Destroyed JU87. Destroyed SM84.
- 14th August 1942. Shared JU87.
- 1st October 1942. Damaged RE2001.
- 11th October 1942. Damaged ME109.
- 12th October 1942. Destroyed JU88.
- 17th October 1942. Damaged JU88.
- 26th October 1942. Damaged ME109.
He received a Distinguished Service Order on 3rd November 1942.
His courage and tactical knowledge had been an inspiration to all who had flown with him and were of a quality seldom if ever equalled.
The year ended with a JU88 destroyed on 7th December 1942 and a Savoia-Marchetti SM79 destroyed on the ground ten days later.
With another tour complete, Lovell rested again in early 1943. He took on controller duties at 8 Sector Operations Room, Malta. By 31st March 1943, he received a promotion to Acting Wing Commander in charge of the Malta Spitfire Wing. Further promotion to Temporary Squadron Leader came on 9th April 1943.
Between Spring 1943 and December 1943, Lovell came off operations and took on staff jobs. In December 1943 he became Wing Leader of 322 Wing, taking them to Corsica in March 1944.
The victories continued to mount:
- 3rd May 1944. Destroyed FW190. Damaged FW190.
- 15th May 1944. Destroyed ME109.
- 15th June 1944. Destroyed Fiat G55.
Italy and Egypt
On Corsica, there was a posting to No. 1 Mobile Operations Room on 14th August 1944. By November that year, Lovell was Wing Commander of 244 Wing in Italy.
On the 14th November 1944, he received a United States Distinguished Flying Cross.
This officer is an outstanding squadron commander who has played a considerable part in the defence of Malta. One day in October, 1942, he led his squadron in an attack against six Junkers 88’s escorted by a number of fighters. In the combat, Squadron Leader Lovell shot down a Junkers 88, bringing his total victories to nine. On many occasions, his skilful leadership has enabled his squadron to intercept enemy air formations bent on attacking Malta. This officer’s gallantry and determination have set an example worthy of the highest praise.
The following month, he left Italy to go to No. 71 Operational Training Unit Ismailia, Egypt as Chief Flying Instructor.
On 23rd February 1945, he received a second Distinguished Service Order. Again, this was a bar added to the ribbon of the first D.S.O.
Since the award of the Distinguished Service Order this officer has taken part in many more operational sorties and has destroyed at least a further three enemy aircraft, bringing his total victories to 19 enemy aircraft destroyed. He has led his wing on many low level attacks against road targets in the face of intense enemy fire. His enthusiasm and fine leadership have been reflected in the successes achieved by the wing since April, 1944, which has destroyed 30 enemy aircraft and over 1,000 enemy vehicles, besides damaging 50 enemy locomotives. Both in the air and on the ground, Wing Cdr. Lovell has set an inspiring example of courage, skill and devotion to duty.
Remembering Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell
June 1945 marked Wing Commander Tony Lovell’s return to the United Kingdom. That July, he took a role as a flying instructor at the School of Air Support at R.A.F. Old Sarum, Wiltshire.
This would prove to be the location of Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell’s accidental and untimely death. He was only 26 years old when he took off in silver Supermarine Spitfire Mk XII EN234 at 1130hrs on 17th August 1945.
The experienced fighter ace performed some low-level aerobatics. After raising the undercarriage, he built up speed before performing a slow roll to the right at a height of around 100 feet. He gained a little more height and went to repeat the move. The Spitfire lost height, crashing through power cables at a height of around 20 feet. The right wing tip connected with the ground bringing down Lovell’s plane.
Witnesses from a nearby farm rushed to the scene around 1,000 yards from the airfield boundary. There was no fire but Lovell was dead in the cockpit. A shoulder strap of his safety harness had snapped in the impact. Helpers removed his body from the wreckage and laid out 15 feet from the plane. This led to rumours that the pilot was not strapped in during the flight. The R.A.F. declared the plane struck off on 28th September 1945.
Wing Commander Anthony Desmond Joseph Lovell’s grave is in Plot F, Grave 1153 of Ballywillan Cemetery, Portrush, Co. Antrim. The Royal Air Force Air Sea Rescue Unit took part in his funeral.
After a distinguished career in the Royal Air Force, Lovell’s death came only 3 days after the surrender of Japan in the Pacific. He was one of the longest-serving R.A.F. pilots with over 1,500 hours in 5 years of almost continuous combat flying. His story features in ‘Portrush: The Port on the Promontory’ by Hugh McGrattan.