Van Praag won the inaugural World Speedway Championship at Wembley
on 10th September 1936. He was placed seventh in the 1937 event
and fourth in the 1938 championship. The 1939 final was cancelled
because of the outbreak of WW2 but Lionel was at the time sharing
third place on points with three other riders. He returned to England
for one more speedway championship season after the war, but retired
from competitive motorcycle riding in 1950.
the 26th January 1942, Sergeant Van Praag was the co-pilot of RAAF
DC-2 A30-8 when it was attacked by a Japanese aircraft and forced
to ditch in the Sumba Strait while on a flight from Surabaya to
Koepang. Although some, including Lionel, were wounded, the entire
crew survived the ditching to endure thirty hours in the ocean while
fending off shark attacks. For their bravery in securing the survival
of their crew, the aircraft captain, Flying Officer Noel Webster
and Sergeant Van Praag were both awarded the George Medal. A full
account of the incident appears in the book "...And Far From
Home" by John Balfe who flew with Lionel and had this to say
of the man:
had known Van more than I had Noel (Webster) and, in flying with
Van, had perceived in his slight, wiry form a man of particular
capacity and directness. He cared nothing for false values in anything
or anyone and did not hide the fact. I found him only a week out
of hospital (after the DC-2 ditching) but already back in a comprehensive
engineering workshop that he had behind his unpretentious home on
Botany Bay's northern shore. He had plant and equipment there to
whet the appetite of any metal engineer. One of the real Australians,
Van had led a hard and dangerous life racing motorcycles from early
manhood and lived to standards that he had not relaxed. He was a
moderate in thought and habit and held in quiet contempt those who
were not. He valued his friendships above human faults, but chose
his friends carefully and for the most part made them for life.
His mind and memory remained sharp and retained an accuracy in detail
that I had first noted flying with him in 1943."
recuperating from the ditching, Lionel returned to flying C-47s
with No 36 Squadron RAAF out of Townsville. In February 1951 he
combined his aviation and speedway interests by contracting with
Empire Speedways to carry the Great Britain and Australian competitors,
along with their bikes and toolboxes, between the various Australian
speedway venues in a Lockheed Lodestar. In 1957 Lionel began flying
aerial top-dressing flights in a Bristol Freighter. This same aircraft
was lost in December 1961 when it crashed at Wollongong after an
engine failure on a freight flight. Lionel and the rest of the crew
escaped injury but the aircraft was written off.
He later flew for an airline in Pakistan for a year before returning
Van Praag, joined Adastra around 1962 as a pilot and later became
Chief Pilot. In a letter dated April 1965,
he had this to say about the Hudson:
has a very good single engine performance but at V2 speed is the
most dangerous aircraft on the register because of its very short
fuselage and a lot of power available asymmetrically in the event
of losing an engine at this speed and full power being applied.
This calls for instantaneous corrective action which requires more
than a little leg power to hold the aircraft straight, but in any
other configuration it is a good aircraft to fly and climbs to 25,000
feet with very little bother, this is the altitude at which most
of our surveying is done."
In 1968 he retired
to his own island, Temple Island, south of Mackay. In 1973 he ferried
Hudson VH-AGJ from Sydney to the Strathallan Museum in Scotland.
Lionel Van Praag was born on 17 December 1908. He passed away in
Royal Brisbane Hospital on 15 May 1987 from emphysema.
On the 21st
July 2000, the Government of the Australian Capital Territory decided
to honour several Australian sportsmen and sportswomen with the
naming of streets in the Division of Gordon, A.C.T. Included amongst
the new street names was Van Praag Place (formerly Van Praag Circuit).
Click on the street sign for images of Lionel's street.
Note: Lionel pronounced his name "Van Pragg" and wrote
it with a capital "V".
(Compiled by Ron Cuskelly)