Wartime pilot won an Olympic rowing medal and became a missionary in Africa
Michael Lapage, who has died aged 94, served in World War II as a Fleet Air Arm pilot, won a silver medal as a rower in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and went on to become a Christian missionary in Kenya.
Michael Clement Lapage was the son of a vicar from Dorset, southwest England. He won a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, to read geography but his ambition of making the university boat team was put on hold by the war. After training, he joined 807 Naval Air Squadron in 1944, flying the Seafire, a navalised version of the Spitfire. Its undercarriage was too weak for deck landings, and on six occasions he suffered damage or bounced into, over or through the flight deck barrier.
He flew reconnaissance and air-to-ground strafing missions during the Allied landings in southern France, and on one occasion was flying as wingman when his flight was told to investigate a ship off Marseille: they came under heavy fire and his No 1 was shot down.
He was more successful flying the Grumman Hellcat, an American fighter specially designed for shipborne operations. Deployed to the Far East, in July 1945 he narrowly avoided being shot down during a patrol off the coast of Malaya.
By the time he got to Selwyn College in
1946, he had missed the first term, and was thus ineligible for that year’s Boat Race crew. He was somewhat put out to discover that, unlike most university freshers, he was too old to qualify for the special provision in a time of rationing of bananas, which were available only from the college bursar’s office for ‘‘gentlemen under the age of 18’’.
It took him two years to establish himself in the Cambridge rowing crew. He rowed at seven in the team that won the 1948 Boat Race and which would form the main part of the Olympic team later the same year.
On Wednesday July 29, Lapage and his colleagues attended the ceremony at Wembley Stadium at which George VI declared the Games open. ‘‘It was over in two hours flat and during which we sung the Hallelujah Chorus,’’ he recalled. ‘‘There was no dancing or anything. They released all the pigeons and we put our hats on in case we got hit.’’ Apart from a free pair of underpants and malt drinks in the evenings, British athletes enjoyed little in the way of special treatment.
The rowing events were held on the Thames at Henley and the British eight, which had got together as a crew only a month or two earlier, had no great hopes of success. Yet they beat the Canadians in the semifinal, reached the final, against Norway and the United States, and led for the first 500 metres before the Americans pulled away.
Lapage always wondered if rationing, which continued in Britain until 1953-54, might have had something to do with the British team’s failure to win gold. Although crew members’ butter ration was increased from two to four ounces a week, the big problem was lack of meat.
‘‘We had about eight ounces,’’ he recalled. ‘‘I was about 13 stone and 6ft but height and weight can be a handicap if it is not used correctly. The Americans had more meat. It was imported every day from the States, which was vital because it is muscle-building. With rationing we just accepted it. We ate the best food that was available, and we managed with other things.’’
But he recalled the Games as ‘‘very amateur and pleasant’’, and he enjoyed camaraderie and the riotous champagne and sherry-fuelled celebrations afterwards with the other crews. After the Olympics, Lapage resumed his studies at Cambridge then took up a teaching post at Winchester College, where he helped run the Scout troop and coached the school’s first eight to victory in the Schools’ Head of the River Race and in the Princess Elizabeth Cup at Henley.
In 1950 Lapage’s Great Britain rowing team travelled to Australia and New Zealand for the Empire Games, the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games. ‘‘Our boat got lost,’’ he recalled. ‘‘We had to borrow one and we won a bronze, which was a good effort.’’ Even better, there was meat for every meal they had: ‘‘For breakfast, we had steak with an egg on the top.’’
Lapage’s evangelical upbringing, and the experience of nearly being shot down in 1945, eventually convinced him that he had been ‘‘saved to serve’’, and in the late 1950s he went out to Kenya, where he served as a schools inspector during the Mau Mau uprising. He was ordained in Kenya in 1961.
In 2012 he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the 2012 Games, in St Austell, Cornwall. The same year he joined the crew of 18 former Olympic oarsmen who rowed the barge Gloriana when it stole the show at the Henley Regatta.
In 1953 he married Margaret Butcher, the daughter of a missionary. She died in 1995 and he is survived by two daughters and a son. – Telegraph Group
‘‘The Americans had more meat. With rationing, we just accepted it.’’
Michael Lapage on finishing second in the 1948 Olympics