Wartime pi­lot won an Olympic row­ing medal and be­came a mis­sion­ary in Africa

The Press - - Obituaries -

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

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