The Westland Lysander (or ‘Lizzie’ as it was affectionately known) entered service in 1938 in the army cooperation role. When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, four squadrons were despatched to France with the British Expeditionary Force to operate as artillery spotters and light bombers. Two months later, a Lysander shot down the first Heinkel 111 to be destroyed over BEF territory but they made easy targets for the Luftwaffe and, by June 1940, more than two thirds of the fleet had been lost. Back in England, fourteen squadrons were then employed in air-sea rescue work dropping dinghies to downed aircrew.
The Lysander’s close association with RAF Tangmere began in 1942 when the newly- formed No 161 Squadron joined the already existing No 138 Squadron as a second special duties unit to support clandestine operations into occupied France and the Low Countries. Whilst parachute drops of supply and personnel could be left to other aircraft types, principally the Halifax, a flight of ‘Lizzies’ was consolidated on 161 Squadron to transport Allied agents into and out of France by night. Radius of action was a prime consideration and, for this reason, the aircraft and crews deployed from their main base of RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire to Tangmere for operations during each moon period (seven days before until seven days after the full moon). Painted black and fitted with a fixed ladder on the port fuselage and a 150-gallon long-range fuel tank, the ‘Lizzie’ would be flown by moonlight without navigational equipment other than map and compass to land in a field illuminated by nothing more than three hand-held torches. The normal aircraft load comprised either one or two passengers (or “joes” as the agents were known) but three could be picked up in extremis. Whilst the majority of missions utilised a single aircraft, two and sometimes even three machines would be flown into and out of the same field. The Lysander proved to be outstanding in this clandestine role which continued until the liberation of France in 1944. In total, the ‘Lizzie’ pick-up pilots delivered 293 and recovered 410 agents to and from France.
Several Lysanders are preserved in museums in the UK and Canada with an excellent example on display in No 138 Squadron colours at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC. The last airworthy example, restored in No 161 Squadron livery, is owned and operated by the Shuttleworth Collection, Old Warden.