The fighter pilot who helped take Bader his new legs

Bob Large volunteered for service in the RAF in July 1940 and flew for the first time a month later in a Tiger Moth.

Thursday, 7th April 2016, 2:23 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th April 2016, 2:26 pm
A Wartime photo of Flight Lieutenant Bob Large.
A Wartime photo of Flight Lieutenant Bob Large.

After his initial flying training he was selected for training as a fighter pilot and just nineteen, having completed 75 hours flying and assessed as above average, he converted to the Spitfire and joined No 66 Squadron based in the West Country.

On 20 June 1941, Large and his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant ‘Dizzy’ Allen, were vectored onto a formation of Heinkel He 111 bombers, escorted by Bf 109 fighters.

In the subsequent action both pilots were credited with destroying a Bf 109.

Bob Large (3rd from right) with fellow No 161 Squadron pilots in 1944

A month later Large was posted to No 616 Squadron based at Tangmere’s satellite airfield Westhampnett.

The squadron was part of Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing which had been heavily involved in operations over northern France.

On Monday 9 August, Large was one of 616’s pilots attacked by Bf 109s from Adolph Galland’s JG26 unit.

After Bader failed to return, the squadron, including Large, searched for him in case he had managed to bail out over the sea.

Violette Szabo GC. Bob Large flew Szabo back from France in April 1944.

Bader could not be found and was posted as ‘missing’ until the Germans advised five days later that he was a prisoner-of-war.

Large flew as part of the close escort to British Blenheim bombers that dropped artificial legs to Bader in hospital in St Omer on 19 August.

The middle of September marked the end of 616’s time with the Tangmere Wing and it was withdrawn for a rest to Kirton-in-Lindsay and Large was commissioned as a pilot officer.

On 12 February his Spitfire was one of six that escorted Westland Whirlwind fighter bombers tasked with attacking the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their epic ‘Channel Dash’. Nothing was seen.

Bob Large (3rd from right) with fellow No 161 Squadron pilots in 1944

July 1942 saw the squadron flying an increased number of offensive patrols from West Malling but at the end of the month it was ambushed by Fw 190 fighters and Large was shot down.

He managed to bail out and was rescued from the sea by an Air Sea Rescue launch. Three weeks later he flew on all four of the squadron’s sorties supporting the Dieppe Raid.

On 2 October he assisted with the rescue of his friend Sergeant Mike Cooper by continually orbiting over his dinghy in spite of the attention of enemy Fw 190s.

Cooper, although stranded in a minefield, was eventually rescued by a Walrus seaplane and Large was awarded an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘his gallantry and forethought, which set a praiseworthy example’.

Violette Szabo GC. Bob Large flew Szabo back from France in April 1944.

Large’s long tour with 616 finally came to an end and he was posted as an instructor to a fighter leader’s school. He had flown 188 operations and was credited with two enemy aircraft destroyed.

After a period of staff work he was accepted into No 161 (Special Duties) Squadron to fly Lysander Pick-Up operations in spite of having only 14 hours night flying experience!

Large’s first pick-up was on the night of 9/10 April 1944 when he delivered an agent to a field near Angers by the River Loire.

On 30 April he flew a double Lysander operation with Flying Officer Alcock flying the other aircraft and after dropping off his ‘Joe’ (agent), Large picked up one of the great heroines of the Special Operations Executive, Violette Szabo.

However, he was fired on by light flak on his return to Tangmere and ground-looped on landing – one of the aircraft’s tyres had been shot to pieces.

His final pick-up operation was on 6 August when he dropped a mailbag and snatched another.

After a six hour flight he landed back at Tangmere just as dawn was breaking.

Bob Large was described by one of his fellow ‘Moonlight’ pilots as a fantastic chap. Flight Lieutenant Bob Large DFC, Légion d’honneur died on 29 December 2015, aged 94.

This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s Curator, is the 36th in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the Museum, including opening times and entry prices can be found on our website:

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