Lionel Rees 1884 – 1955

Alister Williams recently messaged me with this fascinating information. He told me, “I am the author of REES, VC – the first of the original ‘Few’, being the biography of Group Captain Lionel Wilmot Brabazon Rees, VC, OBE. MC, AFC (1884–1955). Rees is the world’s first official fighter pilot, serving with the first official fighter squadron, No 11 Squadron, RFC, in 1915. He was later the Assistant Commandant of the newly established RAF College at Cranwell and a pioneer solo Transatlantic yachtsman.”

Rees was the nephew of Mrs Catherine Moore of Greenhall, Blantyre (wife of John Wardrop Moore II, she was the sister of Lionel’s mother). When Rees was severely wounded in his VC action on 1 July 1916, it was to Greenhall House in High Blantyre that he came back to after being discharged from hospital.

During the last week in June 2019, the RAF named a BAe 147 aircraft ‘Group Captain Lionel Rees, VC’ in his honour. This aircraft belongs to No 32 The Royal Squadron (which Rees formed in 1916 and was the first CO) and is used to transport members of the Royal Family, government ministers and senior military officers.

Mr Rees was originally in the Garrison Artillery before transferring to the R.F.C. His award was indicated like this ” “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst on flying duties Major Rees sighted what he thought to be a bombing party of our own machines returning home. He went up to escort them but on getting nearer discovered they were a party of enemy machines, about ten in all. Major Rees was immediately attacked by one of the machines, and after a short encounter it disappeared behind the enemy lines, damaged. Five others attacked him at long range, but these he dispersed on coming to close quarters, after seriously damaging two of the machines. Seeing two others going westwards, he gave chase to them, but on coming nearer he was wounded in the thigh, cause him to lose temporary control of his machine. He soon righted it, and immediately closed with the enemy, firing at close contact range of only a few yards, until all his ammunition was used up. He then returned home, landing his machine safely in our lines.”

It was holidays at Greenhall that inspired Lionel Rees to take up sailing again (something he had not done since childhood in Caenarfon) and in the early 1930s he bought a Loch Fyne ketch on the Clyde, learned to sail her and then became the first person to embark on a successful east-west solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by the long route from Britain to the Bahamas. For this ‘outstanding sailing achievement of the year he was awarded the Blue Water Medal by the Cruising Club of America.

Temporary Major Rees is pictured standing outside the front door at Greenhall House in 1917 around 33 years old. He’s in his RFC uniform. His left leg shows to be heavily bandaged, making it twice the width of his right leg. He had been seriously wounded by a bullet in his left thigh/knee which caused him to walk with a limp and have difficulty bending his knee for the remainder of his life.

Photo Courtesy: W. Alister Williams collection.

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