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Flying Officer Peter Lee

Born in London November 1st 1923 Died: May 6th 2014. Age 90.

Peter Lee spent his wartime years aloft in the African skies and his post-war career buried away in the vaults of the Bank of England.

In 1944 he was the navigator in a Sunderland Mark III flying-boat which ran into trouble en route to a base in a mangrove swamp in Sierra Leone. 

When the engine failed the pilot was forced to land on the sea, forcing the crew to endure a perilous three days adrift off the coast of North Africa and a seven-week journey back to their squadron.

A little over a decade later Lee was countering a rise in fake banknotes as the Bank of England’s first counter-forgery scientist. 

He joined a small team of technicians at the Bank of England Printing Works in Debden, Essex, which worked alongside the artist Harry Ecclestone (the Bank’s first full-time designer). 

Their aim was to produce banknotes that celebrated great British figures while confounding attempts at forgery; while Ecclestone focused on the composition, Lee manipulated the materials.

Counterfeit banknotes have been the bane of the Bank ever since it first issued paper money in 1694. 

When photographic and printing technologies developed apace after the Second World War, the problem was only exacerbated. 

Small-scale printers opened up in backstreets and industrial premises and, simultaneously, there were developments in black-and-white copying and colour reproduction (incorporating techniques such as four-colour printing using half-tone screens). 

Such technologies threatened the security of banknotes and the Bank of England needed to take action.

Lee played a pivotal part in the development of the Bank’s Series C notes (which featured the Queen in an oval frame) and later, through the Seventies, the well-known Series D — featuring representations of Isaac Newton (£1), the Duke of Wellington (£5), Florence Nightingale (£10), William Shakespeare (£20) and Christopher Wren (£50). 

Working in conjunction with the Bank’s paper suppliers (Portals), Lee masterminded the use of special colours and lines — including the Non Uniformed Security Thread (a wide thread with a wavy edge) and the Windowed Thread (a woven-through yet visible silvery line) — to flummox forgers.

Peter Denis Lee was born on November 1 1923 in Finsbury Park, London, and educated at Dame Alice Owen’s School in Islington. 

At the outbreak of war he was evacuated to Bedford. 

He joined the RAF in August 1941 as an airman and later trained as a navigator in Canada before joining Coastal Command.

During a night navigation training flight on May 12 1944 his Catalina flying boat crashed in the Western Isles and three of the 10-man crew were killed. 

After a period recovering in hospital, Lee joined No 490 (NZ) Squadron, equipped with the Sunderland flying boats.

In July that year, he was the navigator on a flight from Oban in Scotland to Jui, 15 miles upriver from Freetown in Sierra Leone. “It was a delightful summer evening as we taxied up the Sound of Kerrara,” he recalled. 

After refuelling in Gibraltar, the aircraft headed down the coasts of French and Spanish Morocco. 

Seven hours into the flight an engine failed and the pilot landed on the sea to allow repairs, which involved clearing out the oil filter. 

Shortly after taking off, the other three engines were similarly affected and the pilot was forced to alight again. 

It was thought that the aircraft might have been sabotaged in Gibraltar.

One engine became unusable, preventing the aircraft from taking off. 

Throughout the night the aircraft was taxied towards the coast and at dawn they were informed that a second Sunderland had suffered the same fate and had been forced to alight on the sea some 30 miles away. 

The two aircraft rendezvoused and at dusk a Free French gunboat intercepted the drifting Sunderlands. 

A tow was established but the rope broke and the aircrews were forced to spend a second night on the sea.

A larger American gunboat re-established a tow but, after 150 miles, with the sea becoming increasingly rough, one of the floats on Lee’s aircraft was damaged. 

Despite a valiant attempt by the flight engineer to make repairs whilst balanced precariously on the wing tip, the situation worsened – he was awarded the BEM for gallantry. 

The flying boat was in danger of sinking and the crew had to take to the dinghy and were picked up by the French boat, which then sank the Sunderland by gunfire. “After some confusion and several misses the Sunderland was finally hit, caught fire and gracefully sank beneath the waves,” recalled Lee.

Lee’s crew spent another night at sea before reaching Agadir from where they continued to Gibraltar. 

They finally reached Jui, after a seven-week journey, where they rejoined No 490 Squadron to carry out anti-U-boat patrols off the West African coast. 

After completing his flying tour, Lee remained on the staff of Air HQ West Africa.

He left the RAF with the rank of flying officer in November 1946. 

He subsequently studied Physics at Imperial College London and on graduating joined Gestetner, the company which developed duplicating machines.

He joined the Bank of England in 1956. 

Although some of his team’s ideas turned out to be incompatible with banknote use and production, Lee’s post-war career at the forefront of banknote security, developing the C, D and E series, helped bring about many innovations that continue in some form today. 

In the process, Lee represented the Bank as an expert witness in forger trials and became well known at central banks across Europe, Australia and America — he claimed that the US dollar was the easiest banknote in the world to forge.

He retired from the Bank of England in 1983, having been co-credited as inventor on patents for the Bank’s security devices. 

He then worked for some years as a private consultant; he also wrote a technical journal, Paper Currency in Circulation. 

He was a member of the Printers and Stationers Guild and made a Freeman of the City of London in 1986. 

He was also a proud member of the Goldfish Club, the international association for people who have jumped by parachute into the water or whose aircraft crashed in the water.

Peter Lee married Morfydd Howells in 1952. 

The couple separated and in later life Lee lived with his longtime companion Penny (who predeceased him). He is survived by his wife and four children.


Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.

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 • Last Modified: 31 July 2014, 16:01