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Wng Cdr Lance 'Wildcat' Wade DSO DFC & 2 Bars

Top Scoring American Ace in RAF

Lance Cleo 'Wildcat' Wade was born 1916-11-18 in Broaddus, San Augustine County, Texas, in a small farming community. He was the second son of Bill and Susan Wade, who named him L.C. (only after the RAF required him to present a forename did he call himself Lance Cleo Wade).

Lance Wade CO 145 Sqd

Wade in his Spitfire as CO 145 Sqd

After the family moved to a farm near Reklaw, Texas, in 1922 he worked on the family farm and attended the local school. He was unable to join the US Army Aviation Cadet Program owing to a lack of a college education. Family members recalled that whenever an airplane flew over, Wade would stop whatever he was doing and say, 'Someday I will fly'. In 1934 at age 19, Wade traveled to Tucson, Ariz., to take advantage of a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided jobs for young men. For Wade, however, the CCC work turned out to be much like the farm work he thought he had left behind — driving a team of mules, building roads and planting trees in a national forest.

With war clouds looming, Wade earned a pilot’s license and acquired 80 hours of flying time. Licence in hand, he tried to join the U.S. Army Air Corps, only to be turned down because of his lack of education. Undeterred, he was soon figuring out how to join the RAF.

Owing to heavy losses during the Battle of Britain, the RAF had started recruiting American pilots for its war effort. Fearful that he might be rejected again, Wade submitted a fictitious resumé in which he claimed that he had learned to fly at age 16, when he and three friends had purchased a plane, He claimed a World War I pilot friend of his father’s had taught them to fly. Wade also said that his father had been an ace in World War I. Years later, on hearing that story, Wade’s cousin Henry Johnson laughed and said that the highest Uncle Bill (Wade’s father) had ever been was the top rail of his farm's fences, and that the family was unaware of any Wades ever owning an airplane. Whatever the facts, in December 1940 Wade was accepted by the RAF.

Britain’s recruitment program resulted in 240 American pilots who flew and fought for England. Most of those men served with 71 Sqd, 121 Sqd and 133 Eagle Sqd, which were made up of American volunteers. In the course of their service, members of the Eagles earned 12 DFCs and one DSO. The battle-tested Eagles also provided the USAAF with valuable combat experience after the United States joined the war. Wade, however, did not serve with the Eagle squadrons but with the regular RAF squadrons, and as a result, his awards and victories are not included in the Eagle tally.

He joined the RAF in Canada in December 1940 and trained with 52 OTU (Operational Training Unit). Wade was then sent to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and flew off her deck in a Hawker Hurricane to reinforce the depleted ranks of aircraft on the island of Malta.

Lance Wade Pat Pattle

From Malta he was sent to Egypt as a Hurricane Mk I pilot in September 1941, posted to 33 Sqd under command of the famous South African ace, Sqd Ldr Marmaduke 'Pat' Thomas St John Pattle. (Pattle was killed in an air battle 1941-04-20, age 26, near Piraeus Harbor, off Piraeus.)

(L-R: Pat Pattle, Lance Wade)

The squadron’s mission was to provide close air support for Operation Crusader, the British assault launched on 1941-11-18, against the German Afrika Korps, under command of Erwin Rommel.

Wade's first kills were two Fiat CR.42s on 18 November 1941. He very quickly showed his flying prowess by becoming an ace by November 24 1941. However, on 2 December, his Hurricane was damaged by debris from a bomber that he had just shot down and Wade was forced to land 25 miles behind enemy lines. He managed to evade capture and returned to British lines on foot.

He began flying Hurricane Mk IIs in April 1942, and was awarded the DFC.

Citation for Bar to DFC:

Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this officer has destroyed 7 enemy aircraft thus bringing his total victories to 15. In September 1942, during a reconnaissance patrol his aircraft was attacked by some 8 Italian fighters. Flight Lieutenant Wade, however, fought them off. By his skill and determination, he contributed materially to the success of the reconnaissance and much valuable information was obtained. Flight Lieutenant Wade's courage and devotion to duty has been an inspiration to all.

Citation for 2nd Bar to DFC

.... the leader of a squadron which has achieved much success in recent operations. During March, 1943, the squadron destroyed 21 enemy aircraft, 4 of which were shot down by Squadron Leader Wade. By his great skill and daring, this officer has contributed materially to the high standard of operational efficiency of the squadron he commands. Squadron Leader Wade has destroyed 19 enemy aircraft.

Remarkably, he already had 13 victories by September 1942.

Lance Wade inspects damage to his Spitfire North Africa

Wade inspecting damage to his Spitfire in North Africa (courtesy IWM)

After completing his first tour, he spent the next several months back in the US on various RAF projects including evaluating American fighters at Wright Field. He also sold war bonds, which he disliked. Upon his return to operational duty in the Middle East, Wade reportedly said that this duty was more exhausting than air combat!

He returned to combat as a flight commander in 145 Sqd with a Bar to his DFC, flying Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vs. Promoted to Squadron Leader, he had a busy 60 days, as by the end of April his score was 21. By then he was flying the magnificent Spitfire Mk IX.

His squadron moved to Italy, and as a Spitfire VIII pilot he claimed two Focke-Wulf Fw 190s of Schlachtgeschwader 4 which was under the command of Major Georg Dörffel, on 1943-10-02. (Georg Dörffel, age 29, was killed in action on 1944-05-26 north-west of Rome, Italy. Dörffel was forced to bail out of his Focke-Wulf Fw 190 F-8 following an attack on a four-engined bomber formation. He probably struck his head on the tailplane; his parachute failed to open. He was buried in Pomezia, Italy. See Kracker Luftwaffe Archive on this site.)

Pomezia German War Cemetery, Italy

German War Cemetery, Pomezia, Italy

In September 1943, 145 Sqd provided support for the invasion of Italy.

Leading a group of eight Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIIIs, Wade was not expecting to encounter enemy aircraft as he neared the Italian coast near Termoli on October 3, 1943. Suddenly Focke Wulf Fw-190As were sighted at 12,000 feet. Wade led his fighters from 6,000 feet in a classic climbing turn in hopes of approaching the enemy planes from their blind spot in the rear and below. After gaining this position and approaching unseen to within 200 yards, Wade destroyed the rearmost Fw-190 with a burst of cannon fire, moved behind the next fighter, and with another burst sent this one down too.

The remaining German pilots broke in all directions, trying to escape. Diving after a fleeing Fw-190, Wade heavily damaged it, but he did not see it crash. German records subsequently revealed that III Gruppe of Schlachtgeschwader (battle wing) 4, or III/SG.4, had lost at least one of its Fw-190 fighter-bombers in that fight, and the pilot, Sergeant 1st Class Peter Pellander, had been killed.

It was during the Italian campaign that Wade took part in what may have been his most notable aerial combat. That battle occurred on November 3, 1943, while he and a wingman were patrolling the front lines and encountered a large flight of Fw-190s of II/SG.4 attacking a target. Wade radioed for help but did not receive a response. Nevertheless, he and his wingman decided to attack the enemy formation. In the dogfight that followed, an Fw-190 crossed in Wade’s front, offering him a brief opening, and with the instantaneous reactions which made him such a powerful adversary in the air combined with great marksmanship, a burst of cannon-fire Wade shredded the German plane.

As the engagement continued, Wade damaged two more Fw-190s before making a low-level escape. Both he and his wingman survived the fight. Wade had been too hard-pressed to really determine what became of the enemy planes he hit, so they were credited to him as three damaged, but II/SG.4 subsequently reported that Sergeant Georg Walz had been killed by Spitfires near Termoli.

His last claims were three Fw 190s (again of SG-4) damaged on 3 November.

Wade ended his second combat tour. His score had risen to 25, making him the leading Allied fighter ace of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations at that point.


Lance Wade Norman Brown Italy 1943

During the Italian campaign in the fall of 1943, Wade (right) was photographed with
145 Squadron adjutant Flight Lieutenant Norman Brown.

As his second tour drew to a close, a ceremony was held in his honour. Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, air commander for the RAF’s Mediterranean theatre and himself a veteran Hurricane ace from the Battle of Britain, reviewed 145 Squadron on that occasion. In his remarks, Broadhurst pointed out that Squadron Leader Wade was the most successful commander of 145 Squadron from either World War I or World War II. Wade was subsequently promoted to wing commander, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and posted to Broadhurst’s staff.

Wade’s future looked bright at that point, given his new rank and assignment. His private life was also improving, as he had become engaged to marry a young British woman. Sadly, the bright future for this magnificent man was about to come to a tragic and premature end at the age of just 27.

On 1944-01-12, Wade decided to pay his old squadron mates a visit. He jumped into a light observation Auster from the theatre headquarters and flew to 145 Sqd’s base at Foggia, Italy. At the end of his visit, Wade climbed back into the Auster and took off again. As his plane climbed from the runway, it suddenly went into a spin and crashed and Wade was killed instantly. After the war, one of Wade’s friends visiting his family expressed his belief that Wade’s plane had been sabotaged, but by whom and why was not specified. We are unlikely to ever know the cause.


American Ace In RAF Is Killed
Commander Wade Crashes to His Death in Italy

Allied Headquarters, Algiers, Jan. 19, 1944 -AP- Wing Commander Lance C. Wade, American ace of the RAF, who had the highest score of any fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theater — 25 enemy planes destroyed — crashed to his death Jan. 12 in Italy, it was announced today.

The 27-year-old, veteran of three years of combat flying, a native of Reklaw, Tex., and who lived in Tucson, Ariz., met death when a small communications plane he was flying spun to the ground many miles behind the front. The cause of the accident was not known.

He was regarded by many as this war's greatest fighter pilot.

Wade had been decorated with the British Distinguished Flying Cross and two bars. He fought with the RAF all through the Middle East campaign and had many an adventure in the desert. Once he was rescued after a 27-mile walk after his plane had been shot down in combat.


He narrowly escaped death many times. Perhaps his closest call occurred last Nov. 4 1943 in Italy. With a fellow Spitfire pilot, Basil Thornton of London, Wade was patrolling forward positions for the Eighth army. They sighted an enemy formation and discovered themselves pitted against 20 Focke-Wulfe 190s and Messerschmitt 109s. Wade damaged three and Thornton destroyed one.

Suddenly Wade found himself being chased by seven foes. He dropped into a valley and streaked along for miles before the enemy planes gave up the chase, presumably because they had run out of ammunition.


Wing Commander Wade is usually listed with 25 victories but official RAF records show that he had 22 solo victories and half each of two more for a total of 23, not counting one probable. Whichever you specify, 25 or 23 victories, he is still the leading American fighter ace to serve exclusively in any foreign air force. A number of Wade's encounters were over the desert and often when alone, and therefore were not substantiated by one or more eye-witnesses, and the fact is his own logbook shows 40 victories.

Wade 2nd right 145 pilots triolo italy 1943

Wade (second from right) with 145 Squadron pilots at Triolo Airfield, Italy.

Lance Wade 2nd from right 145 Sqd Triolo Italy

In glorious company in Italy 1943 (L to R) Stan Turner (417 Sqd RCAF), S/L Humphreys (92 Sqd.),
Wilfred Duncan Smith (W/Ldr. 244 Wing), Brian Kingcombe (C/O 244 Wing), S/L Lance Wade (145 Sqd)
Malcom Osler (SAAF). (from 'Spitfire Into Battle' by Wilfred Duncan Smith)

Since he never transferred to the USAAF, or any other American air service, Wade was never exposed to the efficient US military Public Relations system like other American aces and is more obscure than his peers in consequence. Indeed, after his first tour, Wade was offered higher rank and more pay to transfer to the USAAF, but he declined, saying, 'Thanks, that’s mighty fine, but I’d rather keep stringing along with the guys I have been with so long now'. As The New York Times wrote, he strung along with them to the end — the end of his life.

On 2005-11-12, he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in Galveston, TX.

Lance Cleo ‘Wildcat’ Wade was originally buried in a British cemetery in Italy with full military honours and was later repatriated to lie now in McKnight Cemetery, Cushing, Nacogdoches County, Texas, USA.

mcknight cemetery cushing texas


Allied Losses & Incidents Database

Sources: Wikipedia, Michael Montgomery at history.net, ww2gravestone.com, private correspondence, 145 Sqd ORB

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