RAF Valley Mountain Rescue

RAF Valley Mountain Rescue – Flt Sgt Johnnie Lees GC BEM and Cpl Stanley (Vic) Bray

During the 1950s the RAF Valley Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) covered North Wales, particularly Snowdonia. The team’s prime function was to carry out search and rescue missions looking for missing RAF aircraft from all Commands in this area. The team was lead by FS Johnnie Lees and his number two was Cpl Vic Bray, both highly accomplished in their art of search and rescue spending most of their spare time training with the team in the Welsh mountains and from time to time searching for lost aircraft, missing walkers, and generally helping climbers in distress.

Today mountain rescue teams are assisted by helicopters, often able to strap an injured climber to a stretcher and being whisked into the sky and away to hospital; it was not like that in the 50s. Helicopters did exist but they were still fairly new and not used in the mountains.

If the team was detailed to find a missing person they walked. If they needed a stretcher high up on a hillside, they carried it up and down again with the casualty.

If they had to search for a missing aircraft that might have crashed in the mountains they walked, sometimes for days, equally likely, if it had plunged into the sea, they walked the coastline, not stopping until the search was called off. The team was usually not called until late in the day, often after night had fallen by the time their expertise was needed.

This was the case in December 1957 when the team was called to a young man who was stuck on the near vertical rock face alongside Aber Falls, a very spectacular waterfall in the area, and in full spate at the time. The police and the fire brigade had already tried to rescue him.

Vic Bray was the one who climbed down the wet rock under extremely difficult conditions at night with only the occasional light from a flare. Vic managed to reach the casualty and attached him to his own rope, then, with tremendous physical effort he managed to swing them both away from the waterfall and brought the man down safely to the waiting stretcher.

He was awarded a Bronze Medal for his bravery by the Royal Humane Society.

In January 1958 the team was called again late at night, Major Hugh Robertson had fallen whilst ice climbing in Snowdonia and was delirious with a fractured skull. When the callout came Johnnie Lees took Vic Bray and three others with him as a fast, advance party to assess the situation.

Both Johnnie and Vic knew the particular climb well. It is a 900-foot rugged buttress of rock covered in ice and set in a huge amphitheatre; before they set off they knew that they would need plenty of rope so each of the 5 carried 2 x 120 foot ropes. The rest of the team followed on with other equipment.

The quickest route to the scene was to walk right up and over the mountain to the top of the buttress and climb down until they reached the injured man.

Johnnie’s immediate decision was that the casualty would die before they could get a stretcher to him, so making a rope version of a European device known as a Tragsitz (A harness that allows you to carry another person – the team did not have one of these) he instructed them to strap the casualty to his back, attach ropes to both of them and to lower them from there to the foot of the cliff.

The distance down was a guess of about 200 feet so it would need at least 2 ropes tied together. Lees used his hands and feet on the rock where possible, but his main job was to protect the casualty from further damage against the rock face. Vic Bray was the anchor at the top of the mountain controlling and supporting Johnnies weight, communications were difficult in the cold dark night and anxiety of the knots in the ropes lashed together possibly snagging in the rocks was running high. They got down safely. The rest of the team was waiting with a stretcher and exhausted they carried the casualty for 2 miles over boggy difficult terrain to meet the ambulance. Robertson recovered in hospital and later bought the Team a Tragsitz as a mark of gratitude for saving his life. Johnnie Less was awarded the George Cross for his role in this rescue, demonstrating his mastery in mountain craft and the great faith he placed in the hands of his teammate, Vic Bray. This is the only medal of this highest honour awarded for a mountain rescue. Neither Johnnie Lees nor Vic Bray spoke in length of these events, save only to correct someone if they had the facts wrong. They always saw these rescues as Team efforts.

Johnnie Lees was an RAF Physical Training Instructor; a qualified mountain guide by 1955 and became one of the very few to receive the guiding qualification in winter mountaineering.

He took part in television’s first climbing outside broadcast with the route chosen of the “suicide wall” in Cwm Idwal – then, arguably, the most difficult rock route in North Wales. The leader was Joe Brown, and the Everest climber George Band was intended to second him. In the event, despite wearing rock-shoes, Band had to retreat, and Lees, in boots intended for nothing more technical than mountain-walking, eased his way up the tiny holds of the vertical face, in front of the cameras, with great skill.

Lees left the RAF as a Flight Sergeant in 1961 and was awarded the British Empire Medal. After working for Outward Bound, and mountain-guiding in the Lake District, he became a Warden Service Officer, and later Ranger Training Officer, for the Peak District national park. He retired in 1985.

Vic Bray was an RAF Airframe Engineer having joined up in 1947 and completed a 3-year apprenticeship at RAF Halton. After his time in the RAF including the RAF Valley MRT he went on to become a climbing cameraman involved in climbs such as the Twin Towers of Paine in Patagonia with Don Whillans and Chris Bonington. After his climbing days were over he worked in the aviation industry including as part of a small team building replica aircraft such as a WW1 Fokker Triplane in the famous Red Baron markings. He also built the wood structure of an Issacs 7/10 scale Firy biplane in his garage at home in Weymouth; this airframe was sold and later completed, made airworthy and flew in the UK.

The picture shows Johnnie Lees (left) and  Vic Bray at the RAF Valley MRT Reunion 1993

New volunteer, Sam McMillan, is Vic Bray’s step son and has ordered a stone on the Ribbon of Remembrance to honour both gentlemen.  If you would like to honour someone with a stone please find out more here