Hero was rear gunner on Lancaster bomber

Hero was rear gunner on Lancaster bomber

Leonard Leadbitter

Kathleen Parker and Alan Wilson

First published in News Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Education Reporter

Leonard Leadbitter's names is one of 44 added to Southampton War Memorial in time for today's Remembrance Service but when his mother Mary received the news her son was missing in action in March 1943, she thought she had good reason not to believe it.

As far as she knew her 26-year-old boy had trained as a ground staff radio operator and so was not exactly in the thick of the action.

What she did not realise was that Leonard – known by his middle name, Arthur – had applied for a transfer to retrain as a gunner in the Royal Air Force, but had not told her for fear she would worry.

History would in fact show that he had been flying on one of the most iconic aircraft of the time, on missions that helped shape the destiny of our country, and served alongside one of the heroes of the war effort.

While his mother thought he was transmitting signals, Leonard was on board a Lancaster bomber as a rear gunner, with crew that were to become known as the dambusters flying with the likes of John Nettleton, who won the Victoria Cross under the direction of Guy Gibson, who was decorated with the same honour for his leadership during the raids on the German dams.

It was Wing Commander Gibson who ultimately wrote to Leonard’s mother in 1943 to tell her of her son’s death.

In his letter he said: “He was a very fine rear gunner, carrying out his duties always with courage, and I knowhis pilot had the greatest confidence in him. I am most sorry to have lost him.”

A generation on and his niece Kathleen Parker and great-nephew Alan Wilson have been researching Leonard’s fateful last sortie that was the first of the infamous Battle of the Ruhr Valley in Germany.

Leafing through the now yellowing pages of the sergeants’ flying log book, the last entry was on the night of March 5, 1943, when the seven-strong crew took off on their night time raid bound for Essen.

In fact their aircraft never made it to the target and crashed some way short, shot down near Bönninghardt.

Tragically the Lancaster, fully laden with bombs, crashlanded on a farm, wiping out an entire family, except for a six-month-old baby. A memorial to them lies where the family was all but destroyed.

Leonard was buried at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in Germany.

The last entry in his log book reads: “Failed to return. Death presumed.”

Despite this remarkable record Leonard was one of a number of Southampton servicemen from the Second World War whose name never made it on to an official memorial in his home city.

But now that has been put right with the addition of his name, and those of more than 30 others who perished in the Second World War, to the war memorial walls at Southampton’s cenotaph.

Mr Wilson, 65, from Southampton, said he was glad to see his great-uncle properly recognised.

“We have no idea why his name wasn’t recorded at the time. But I will be very proud to see his name there now.

“I see him as a hero, I have spent a lot of time researching him and what he did. I so wish I could have met him.

“It is only right that his name is now among those who also gave their lives.”

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