Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips


BIG salutes WW2 RAF light bomber pilot by Big Lottery Fund

Leslie Valentine

Leslie Valentine pictured at the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London

RAF Flying Officer Leslie Valentine hurtled along at 250 mph 50 feet above the D-Day Normandy shoreline, his Douglas Boston light bomber ‘E’ Easy running the gauntlet between a devastating barrage of Royal Navy gunships and German 88 heavy artillery defences.

Holding his nerve the 24 year-old blazed a trail of thick smoke across the British landing beaches, shielding his comrades below from enemy view. It was a valiant mission, and one of 60 back to back operations that the plucky young pilot would carry out during WW2.

Leslie is one of many World War II veterans who are applying for funding for a second commemorative trip under the Big Lottery Fund’s extended Heroes Return 2 programme, which since 2009 has awarded over £25 million to more than 52,000 Second World War veterans, widows, spouses and carers across the country for journeys in the UK, France, Germany, the Middle East, Far East and beyond.

Shortly to celebrate his 95th birthday, Leslie from Hethe, Oxfordshire is the only surviving of two British servicemen to hold the revered Croix de guerre (cross of war) with Silver Star, one of France’s highest accolades for heroic deeds performed in the liberation of France. Leslie’s derring-do has also been captured for posterity in a stunning watercolour painting ‘Friendly Smoke’ by renowned artist Michael Turner – though at the time the artist had no idea that a striking coincidence would reveal the true identity of the real pilot immortalised in his historic depiction.

Painting of Boston E Easy

Michael Turner’s ‘Friendly Smoke’

Called up for military service at the outbreak of war, 19-year old Leslie joined the Highland Light Infantry as a Private. A few months later in the wake of Dunkirk he was posted to northern France but was recalled back to England after just ten weeks.

Spotting an RAF recruitment poster on the battalion notice board calling for pilots and navigators Leslie, a mathematician, readily volunteered to use his skills and along with a 2nd Lieutenant from the battalion was one of only two accepted from 800 applicants.

Leslie recalls: “Unfortunately the 2nd Lieutenant broke his arm and so I went alone through the selection process and was later installed as a student Pilot in the RAF.”

Leslie joined RAF 88 Squadron 2nd Tactical Air Force, Bomber Command, where he carried out mainly daylight sorties across France, sabotaging vital supply lines to disrupt transport of enemy reinforcements, such as road bridges, rail yards, road transport convoys, submarine pens and the deadly V1 rocket launching sites.

He recalls: “We flew in very close formation, an arrowhead, six aircraft, two in front and three behind. We had a lead navigator who got you over the target. He was in charge. You needed a very good navigator. You were always a bit apprehensive but once you’d started the job you had to concentrate on what you were doing.”

Such were the abilities of the Boston that it was the operational choice to undertake the hazardous task of laying smoke over the beaches to protect the invading UK forces from enemy fire on D Day 6th June 1944. Entrusted with this critical role Leslie took his Boston ‘E-Easy’ down to just 50 feet above the D-Day beaches.

Above and over his aircraft arched the trajectories of shells from the 14” guns of the capital ships of the Royal Navy 8 miles off shore, and the German 88 heavy guns firing back from just inside enemy lines.

Leslie Valentine

Leslie pictured in his RAF uniform

Leslie recalls: “I’d anticipated that it was going to be a little hairy. I had just 46 seconds to let off four canisters of smoke. The Germans were only half a mile back off the beach. The noise of the shells was deafening.

“Not only was there the chance of being hit in the crossfire but, as the UK forces on the ground were unsure who the aircraft flying so low above them were, they also let fly with small arms fire. I was flying at 250mph at only 50 feet I had to hold it very steady, at that speed and height if I’d even sneezed that would have been it.”

Two aircraft were lost on this mission, but Leslie returned safely to 88 Squadron base at RAF Hartford Bridge, going on to fly many more sorties against tactical targets by both night and day. Surviving two tours of operations, 60 in all he said: “After a while you felt you had become lucky.”

Of his part in Michael Turner’s famous painting of ‘E’ Easy he recalls: “My son had bought the painting for me some years ago. One day I was looking at it and I had a sort of feeling  about it so I went and got my log book out and saw that my log entry for 6th June showed that I had flown ‘E’ Easy on that day.

“I couldn’t believe it. We got in touch with Michael Turner and he visited me with some other copies of the painting and asked me to sign them while he signed my copy, saying ‘thank you for being the subject of my painting’.”

Accompanied by his son Dudley, Leslie recently visited the Bomber Command Memorial in London and was invited to a private audience at 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron presented him with the WW2 Defence Medal.

Now, living in Hethe, Oxfordshire, only four miles from Bicester where he was trained in 1943, Leslie is looking forward to his Heroes Return trip to Northern France next month where he has been invited to attend a special Armistice Day commemoration, and from there he will return to the Normandy beaches to pay his respects to fallen comrades.

He said: “I think heroes return is a marvellous idea and I would like to thank the Lottery.”

For more information about Heroes Return, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn


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