On 30 May 1949, John Oliver 'Jo' Lancaster DFC made aviation history by becoming the first pilot to eject from an aircraft in an emergency situation using a Martin-Baker ejection seat - since then, Martin-Baker ejection seats have saved over 7,420 aircrew lives worldwide.
To mark this momentous occasion Sir James Martin, founder of Martin-Baker Aircraft Co Ltd, presented Jo Lancaster with a gold Rolex watch, engraved with his name and date. This was the start of an intriguing story spanning over six decades and covering thousands of miles.
Sadly, the watch was stolen in 1975, unbeknown to Martin-Baker. Discovered in New York last year, the watch was purchased again by the Martin family.
Over the years Martin-Baker and Jo Lancaster had lost contact, but following a chance email from a group of air cadets, it was discovered that Jo was alive and well, giving talks to the cadets about his experiences during the war, particularly his ‘ops’ with Bomber Command and his famous ejection in 1949.
As far as the Martins were concerned it was clear that the watch had to be returned to its rightful owner and for the second time, the watch was presented to Jo, this time by Sir James Martin’s twin sons and Joint Managing Directors, John and James - 64 years after it was presented for the first time.
As a former Bomber Command pilot, Jo Lancaster’s wish is for the watch to be used to raise money towards the upkeep of the RAF Benevolent Fund’s Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London. So, on Jo's behalf, Martin-Baker has purchased the watch for the third time.
"This is such a exceptional story, involving a truly remarkable man", said Andrew Martin, grandson of Sir James Martin. "When Jo asked us to use the watch to raise funds for the memorial upkeep, we instantly decided to 'buy' it for the third time and donate the sum of £5,000 to the RAF Benevolent Fund on his behalf," he said.
Jo Lancaster, who is 94 and lives in Hassocks, said: "I was absolutely gobsmacked when I was presented with the watch for the second time. However having survived without it since it was sadly stolen in 1975, I thought it could be used to help the RAF Benevolent Fund preserve the memory of those in Bomber Command that weren’t as lucky as we were. It's nice to know that the watch is back where the story began and will be remembered for years to come."
Today the watch is displayed proudly in the Martin-Baker museum, together with the original letter from Sir James Martin to Jo Lancaster.
On receiving the cheque from Andrew Martin, Paul Hewson, Regional Director at the RAF Benevolent Fund said: "Since taking over the guardianship of the Memorial last year the RAF Benevolent Fund has heard some incredible stories about the heroic veterans of Bomber Command and is extremely grateful for the generous donations it has received towards the upkeep of the Memorial.
"It is absolutely delighted that Jo has decided to donate the elusive Rolex towards that cause, honouring the brave young men of Bomber Command who lost their lives during the Second World War.
"It is also fitting that the new owners of the watch should be Martin-Baker who initiated the remarkable story of the watch in 1949. Its place in their museum will allow visitors to both enjoy the story and celebrate the wonderful generosity of both Jo and Martin-Baker Aircraft Co Ltd – sincere thanks to them both."
As the guardian of the Bomber Command Memorial, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is committed to preserving the Memorial for future generations, so that the noble sacrifice of the young men who lost their lives while serving in Bomber Command will always be remembered.
The Memorial, unveiled last June by Her Majesty The Queen, commemorates the 55,573 young men who lost their lives while serving in Bomber Command during the Second World War.
The presentation took place at Princess Marina House, the RAF Benevolent Fund's Welfare break home on the seafront in Rustington, West Sussex. Jo was joined by some Bomber Command 'boys'.