The Second World War pilot who became a Silver Surfer in his 90s
4 MIN READ
We are living longer. A recent study shows that more than half the babies born in wealthier countries since 2000 may reach their 100th birthdays. With this in mind, the theme for this year’s Positive Ageing Week is ‘celebrating the 100-year life’.
The Second World War pilot who became a Silver Surfer
Gordon Lawson was born in Regent’s Park nursing home, in London, in February, 1919.
His family moved from England to Canada when he was two years old ‘but then, unfortunately,’ Gordon says, ‘I don’t know exactly what happened, but my mother and father separated. My mother came back to England with me, in 1925, when I was about 6. We went to live with my grandfather and one of my mother’s sisters in Bath.’
A boy clerk in the police on £1 a week
‘When I was 18,’ Gordon says, ‘I joined the police service in Exeter as a boy clerk on £1 a week doing office work. That was a fortune back then! I eventually qualified to work in the Chief Clerk’s office and dealt with ‘aliens’.
In the late 1930s, ‘aliens’, or immigrants to Britain, steadily grew in numbers as refugees fled Nazi Germany and the British authorities had to decide who could be admitted.
Training RAF pilots in Africa
Gordon stayed in Exeter until he joined the Royal Air Force as air crew during the Second World War. ‘We were only allowed to apply for flying duties,’ Gordon says. ‘After a few months touring around England, waiting to be posted abroad I went to southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and became first a pilot then a flying instructor.’
Although war was raging across the world, Gordon says he enjoyed training air crew for the RAF stationed just outside Bulawayo. ‘The forces had everything laid on for us – food and accommodation. Fortunately, his father’s sister lived there. ‘She was married with two boys my age so we had a good time together getting around.’
‘I flew four different types of aircraft’
Gordon flew two-man de Havilland Tiger Moths biplanes – where the instructor sat behind the pilot – as well as single-engine Harvards which had the advantage of a covered cockpit. He also flew the larger, twin-engined Airspeed Oxford and Avro Ansons. He taught men who had never flown before to pilot the planes as well as navigate them, to operate the guns and to use the wireless.
‘I was training pilots to go off up north across Africa to the Mediterranean area but I never went into battle myself,’ Gordon explains. ‘The last group I was teaching to fly were all policemen, every one of them, they had been called up to serve in the RAF.’
Flying the first British jets
When the war ended, Gordon went back to the police service but, in the late 1950s, he learned he could rejoin the Air Force and he signed on for 30 years’ service. Military technology had moved on in the intervening years so as well as instructing servicemen to fly propeller planes he got to fly jets.
‘I learned to fly Meteors, 2-seater training aircraft,’ Gordon says. Gloster Meteors were the first British jet aircraft and the only jet-propelled aircraft to see combat in the Second World War. Gordon was then seconded onto de Havilland Vampire jet fighters which were powered by a single jet engine.
Gordon got married, in 1956, to the woman he describes as ”a Yorkshire lass called Marjorie’. She was a nurse from Wakefield I met in Moreton-in-the-Marsh. She was staying with a friend in a pub in the town and I met her there in the pub.’
A conscientious objector
Then, in 1959, Gordon started studying the bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. ‘I became a Jehovah’s Witness after 9 or 10 months of study and my wife did as well.’
His new religion changed how Gordon lived his life. One of the first things he decided was that he had to leave the Air Force. ‘I became a conscientious objector because war is condemned in the bible,’ he explains. ‘I couldn’t stay. Being a Witness was more important to me.’
It took some time for Gordon to get released after signing on to do his 30 years’ service. The Air Force were reluctant to let him leave. ‘They said, I was trained during war time and it cost them so much they weren’t about to let me go,’ he says. Eventually, he says, ‘I was released in 1960 when I was 40 years old and even given a bounty of £600!’
The ‘black rains’ of Barnsley
Gordon and his wife Marjorie and their 16-year-old daughter Gillian then decided to move to Barnsley. ‘My wife, Marjorie, came from Wakefield so it was closer to home for her and her parents weren’t getting any younger.’
‘At first,’ Gordon says, ‘Gillian, my daughter, hated Barnsley. It rained black rain! She used to come home and complain that her umbrella was black with it. It was a still a coal mining town, back then, and the air was dirty but it slowly got cleaner as the mines closed. She settled to it and got to love it eventually.’
Moving to Ireland
Gillian moved over to Ireland in 1980 after marrying Michael Lynch. ‘A Midleton man, born and bred,’ Gordon says, ‘and an electrician for 40 years.’
‘My wife didn’t travel very well,’ he explains, ‘so after we had made two or three visits over to County Cork we decided to move over too.’
‘My wife died of cancer, in 2012, and my daughter Gillian died last year so it’s just down to Mick and myself now but we get on well and have a fine time together. We both live in the same block of apartments in Carrigtwohill.’
Learning to use technology
As I chat to Gordon, he has his iPad lying in front of him on a side table. He was recognised for his use of technology with a Silver Surfer award, in 2017, after learning how to use the internet to send emails to friends, do his banking online, and write up the minutes of meetings as secretary at the local congregation.
‘I learned a lot about the technology,’ explains Gordon. ‘Unfortunately, I’m losing some it now because of my memory and a few physical difficulties.’
Why he won’t be celebrating his 100th birthday
As a Jehovah’s Witness, Gordon doesn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays. ‘I’m going to have a problem in February when I’m 100 years old,’ Gordon laughs.
Taking to the skies again after 57 years
Gordon’s experience as a pilot and flying instructor has never left him. Last year, 57 years after his last flight as a pilot, he and his friend Christian went for a 30-minute helicopter ride. ‘It was very exciting,’ Gordon says. ‘Never been in a helicopter, before.’ He tells me he is hoping to get a flight in a hot air balloon next year.
Find out more
The theme for this year’s Positive Ageing Week is ‘celebrating the 100-year life’. Life expectancies have been rising by up to three months a year since 1840, and there is no sign of that changing. For further information about Age Action’s Positive Ageing Week with Bank of Ireland contact: firstname.lastname@example.org You can also register your event on a dedicated website www.ageaction.ie