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


BIG salutes WW2 RAF light bomber pilot by The National Lottery Community 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



Paying respects to lost navigator by The National Lottery Community Fund
June 29, 2012, 2:20 pm
Filed under: memorial, monument, RAF | Tags: , , , , ,

Of all the men who served in Bomber Command, Flight Lt John Hall may well be one of the luckiest. Crews had to complete at least 30 missions, despite odds of being shot down at one in 25 per mission. Yet John Hall survived 60 missions – including being shot down twice over the Channel. On the first occasion he and his crew spent four days in a dinghy and were picked up off the Isles of Scilly.

John Hall visited the Bomber Command memorial

John Hall visited the Bomber Command memorial

For his courage, John Hall, a rear gunner, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1943.

Of the 60 missions he flew, John said the worst was the March 1944 raid on Nuremberg when 795 bombers were sent to the industrial town and 95 failed to return. More airmen were killed that night than in the entire Battle of Britain.

He recalled: “It was a full moon and you could see anti-aircraft fire, searchlights, German fighters, flak all around and bombers in flames going down left right and centre. It was hell on earth.”

The 91-year-old veteran travelled down from Sunderland to take part in the unveiling of the memorial to Bomber Command in Green Park by Her Majesty The Queen on Thursday 28 June. And next month, John will be making an emotional Heroes Return trip to Netherlands to pay his respects to his friend James ‘Hank’ Hancock, the navigator on his Lancaster bomber.

John explained: “We had to do 30 trips on the first tour. When we were coming back from our 28th raid our navigator Hank said that he had an awfully sore throat. We went to the doctor first thing in the morning. The doc took one look at it and said ‘it’s not just a sore throat – you have quinsy. I’m afraid you are grounded’.  

“This meant that Hank missed our 29th and 30th raids. When he recovered, Hank was then put with a different crew to complete his last two missions. I approached Wing Commander Guy Gibson and asked if we could fly another two raids with Hank so that he’d be with us for his last two missions. We were like a family. He said that he couldn’t allow it as we had completed 30 and had to rest.

“I watched Hank fly out on his 29th trip and saw him back. But he never returned from his 30th.

“He was a good lad. I’ve got a photo of him on my wall. We were all like brothers.”

For more information about the Heroes Return programme, call BIG’s advice line on 0845 0000 121 or visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn



Podcast – “My time in Bomber Command” by The National Lottery Community Fund

The historic unveiling of the first national memorial to RAF Bomber Command takes place today at Green Park, London. We were lucky enough to talk to veteran Harry Irons, who flew 60 missions during World War Two.

Now aged 88, Harry talks about some of his wartime memories, his Heroes Return trip to France and what it means to finally see a memorial for Bomber Command.

In 1941 Harry Irons volunteered for air crew duty with Bomber Command. He was only 16 but added a year to his age and was accepted for gunnery training.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in 1944, Harry was promoted to Warrant Officer and went on to survive 60 raids over the Ruhr, Munich, Nuremberg, and Northern France, flying as a rear gunner in Lancaster and Halifax bombers.

Harry was living in London when war broke out. After witnessing the devastation of the Blitz he decided to volunteer as aircrew, and was assigned to 9 Squadron based at Waddington in Lincolnshire from where he flew 37 missions in Lancaster X for X-ray.

Harry, who has worked tirelessly to help raise funds for the memorial, will be attending the official unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, and members of the Royal family.

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Bomber Command veteran Harry Irons

Looking forward to the historic day, he said: “As part of a crew you got to know each other, you were like family. We lost so many brave men. But we are over the moon. We are so grateful at last to be able to do something for the boys. At last we have got some recognition”.

For more information on the Heroes Return programme and the funding that is available for World War Two veterans, call the advice line on 0845 00 00 121