Interview with James McKenzie Leith


Interview with James McKenzie Leith


James McKenzie Leith was a swimming instructor before he joined the RAF. He trained as a gunner and was posted to 429 Squadron at RAF Leeming. On their first operation their aeroplane was damaged and they attempted an emergency landing but this was interrupted and they ditched in the sea. James deployed the dinghy and directed the crew to safety. He became a member of the Goldfish Club. His second pilot went on his second dickie trip and was killed in action. They got another new pilot and were deployed to 624 Squadron on Special Duties and then on 148 Squadron also on Special Duties dropping supplies and agents into occupied areas. When dropping supplies during the Warsaw Uprising James had a very close view of the burning city.







02:11:41 audio recording


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BW: This is Brian Wright interviewing Flying Officer James McKenzie Leith at 2.30 on Thursday 12th of January 2017 at in his home in Fulwood, near Preston, Lancashire. So, Jim, if that’s alright to call you Jim, just for the record please would you confirm your date of birth and where you were born please.
JML: 21 5 ‘24. Bathville, Bathgate.
BW: And that’s near —
JML: Scotland.
BW: Glasgow, Scotland.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Yeah. What was your family life like? You had mother and father at home. Did you have brothers and sisters?
JML: Yeah. Two brothers.
BW: And were they —
JML: And two sisters.
BW: And were you the youngest or were you right in the middle or the eldest?
JML: Middle. Yeah.
BW: And what was your home life like in Glasgow or Bathvale? Was it a nice little village, you’d say?
JML: Yeah. A very good village because my grandfather was the local policeman.
BW: And where did you go to school?
JML: Bathgate.
BW: And did you stay in Bathgate throughout your school years?
JML: Yeah.
BW: And —
JML: I left school at fourteen.
BW: At the standard age.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And what did you then go on to do?
JML: I went working at the local swimming pool. Learning the people on a course of course first to get trained. Then learn people how to swim.
BW: And so you —
JML: Came it came in very handy later on I can assure you.
BW: So you were a swimming instructor in that respect.
JML: Yeah. Well, I was training to be a swimming instructor. Yeah.
BW: Ok. And how long were you doing that for?
JML: Probably two years. Yeah.
BW: And after that did you remain at the swimming pool or did you go on to another job? Did you take a job elsewhere?
JML: I went in the forces. Into the forces after. From being there. The swimming, the trainee swimming instructor.
BW: So you’d have been only sixteen.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And did you join the RAF first or was, did you join another branch?
JML: Well, I was in the Air Training Corps etcetera. Yeah. Stayed with them for, I don’t know. Quite, quite some time. The ATC as it was called.
BW: And were you always interested in joining the RAF then?
JML: Oh yes.
BW: As a young boy.
JML: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: What attracted you to it?
JML: I don’t know. I just, I just liked it. My brother was in the army. My elder brother. He was in the army. And my sister who was older than me as well, only just, was a trainee nurse. So next in the, on the list was Jamie. And I, and as I say I went the ATC and I was quite happy we got into the RAF when the time came. Yeah.
BW: And what specifically did you intend to do in the RAF? Were you initially trying to be a pilot or or —
JML: No.
BW: In the [unclear] or something.
JML: I was just going to be in the RAF and leave it to them. Definitely.
BW: And so you joined before war actually broke out.
JML: I went in the —
BW: Because you were only [pause] Or was it just as war had started? It was ’24, and you were sixteen. Yes. So it would be 1940, wouldn’t it? So war would have started while you were —
JML: Oh yeah.
BW: Just joining up.
JML: Definitely. Yeah.
BW: So, was the, was the onset of war something that compelled you to volunteer more than the interest or was it just everything came together?
JML: Yeah. In general, I joined the ATC. The Air Training Corps. I joined that and eventually got in to the RAF.
BW: And where did you sign on? In Glasgow?
JML: Edinburgh.
BW: Edinburgh.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And what happened from there? Where did they send you for training? Do you recall?
JML: London, funnily enough. From one capital to the other. London.
BW: Do you know whereabouts at all? Or not?
JML: No. Don’t ask me that. No.
BW: Ok.
JML: No.
BW: And so you, did you apply at that time to be aircrew or did you once in the Air Force stick at a ground trade or as a mechanic or something or did you want to go as aircrew?
JML: Aircrew.
BW: From the start.
JML: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Do you recall where you did your aircrew training? Your gunnery training.
JML: Yes. Let me see now. That was under [unclear] Stormy Down, Cardiff.
BW: Stormy Down.
JML: Yeah. Stormy Down.
BW: Ok. Yeah.
JML: Have you heard of that one?
BW: Yeah.
JML: Yeah. Stormy Down. Yeah.
BW: And as an air gunner what aspects of your training can you, can you recall that you had to do?
JML: Well, being in the aircrew and training at Stormy Down I just automatically seemed to slot in and become an air gunner. And we used to fly out over the Bristol Channel towing, towing a drogue behind an aircraft and the air gunner flying in Whitleys.
BW: Whitleys.
JML: A Whitley. I think it was a Whitley if I remember rightly. And the rear gunner there shooting at a drogue as it went along to try and pass the test that your eyesight was good etcetera and you could see alright. Yeah. That more or less was it, I think. Probably there about, I would think at least two months. Maybe even more. Training. Yeah.
BW: And did you do any ground training with the guns at all?
JML: Very little. Very little during the period when we were at Stormy Down because it was all mostly in the air. Firing from the ground came later somewhere else but I’m trying to think where it was but I can’t think at the moment. On a beach somewhere. Somewhere in Yorkshire. Probably at Bridlington.
BW: So from Stormy Down you moved up to Bridlington to do some further gunnery training.
JML: Air gun training, yeah. Definitely.
BW: Ok. And then Dalton and Lyneham —
JML: That’s right.
BW: I believe.
JML: Yeah. That’s, that’s further training there. We went on to aircraft.
BW: And at this stage did you crew up with the guys that you were going to —
JML: No.
BW: Follow through with training?
JML: We just went with anybody.
BW: Ok.
JML: Because most of them were training as well. Yeah.
BW: And from your training as a gunner which seems to have finished at Lyneham do you recall what happened after that? Did you go to a Conversion Unit?
JML: Where did I go from Lyneham? [pause] Yeah. Yeah. We moved on to —where did I move on to? A Conversion Unit. Bloody hell.
BW: That’s alright. If it’s, if it’s escaped your memory don’t worry. But I’m just curious if you met your first crew at the Conversion Unit or whether you met them when you got to your squadron.
JML: That was it. It was a right mixture at the time [pause] Yeah. We crewed up at, yeah. We more or less became a crew eventually at the Conversion Unit.
BW: And can you recall who your fellow crewmates were?
JML: Yes. The first original ones were, there were the three Canadians. The pilot, flight sergeant [pause] now then. Charlie Bois. C H A R L I E B O I S. I think that was how you spelt it.
BW: Ok.
JML: Charlie Bois. And the navigator was Jim Cameron.
BW: Jim.
JML: Jim.
BW: Yeah.
JML: Cameron.
BW: Cameron. Ok.
JML: Canadian. The bomb aimer was Joe Senecal. S E N E C A L. Now then.
BW: You have a wireless operator and a couple of gunners in there.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Of which one, one is you.
JML: I’m trying to think of the [pause] I think what was he called? I’m thinking about the flight engineer [pause] Well, I think it was George Messenger. Because he was with us a long time so George was probably there then.
BW: Ok.
JML: Mickey Neville, wireless operator.
BW: Davy Lambert, gunner, along with me. That should be seven, I think.
JML: Yeah. That’s right.
BW: Yeah.
JML: So Davy would be the mid-upper.
BW: That’s him. Yeah.
JML: And where were you based with 429? Do you recall?
BW: Yeah. This is all in my head and it’s just all rumbled up. I’ll get it. I’ll get it in a minute.
JML: It’s a bugger, isn’t it?
BW: Do you think it was in Yorkshire?
JML: Oh aye. I never moved until I went abroad. I was there all the time.
BW: There were a couple of bases. One at East Moor and the other at Leeming.
JML: Leeming. That came up. That. Leeming. Leeming Bar it was called in them days.
BW: And what was your accommodation like there? Your barracks.
JML: Oh good. Yeah. More or less nissen huts. Yeah.
BW: And what were your arrangements? Were you all in there as a crew or were you all in there as gunners?
JML: Different. Different. Yeah. The crew, the crews were in the mess together. Not there, not in Bomber Command where I was, no. It was just a mixture.
BW: And did you socialise together as a crew?
JML: Oh, just so so because as I say we were, this was a Canadian squadron so they more or less, they more or less kept together and the RAF lads like myself and Mickey Neville and that. So, we did. We did socialise I suppose. Yeah. Definitely. Yeah. Because we were always at the at the sergeant’s mess was the sergeant’s mess and everybody mixed in there. Sergeants. Officers went to their own mess. But our crew of course at the time were all either a sergeant or flight sergeant apart from Jim Cameron, the navigator. He was a flying officer. Canadian. So he was the odd one out.
BW: How did you get on as a crew?
JML: Very good. Yeah. Really good. Yeah. Definitely.
BW: How did you all meet? Were you all put in to a large room together to sort yourselves out or, or not?
JML: No, you just, it was actually, probably two. Two to a room at the time. Aye. And at the time, at that time, apart from Jim Cameron, the navigator who was a flying officer all the rest of us were either sergeants or flight sergeants. And of course we were all more or less all together all the time.
BW: Did you get the opportunity to go off base and socialise? To go in to the nearest town?
JML: Oh yeah. Definitely.
BW: Have a few beers.
JML: Yeah aye. I mean, we were quite, quite the [pause] the Canadian lads probably kept together more than with the RAF lads. We more or less kept to ourselves. Mickey Neville and Davy Lambert etcetera. When I think about it now. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
BW: Why do you think that was? Was there, was it a cultural thing?
JML: No. It was just —
BW: Or just circumstance.
JML: Yeah. No, no reason why not. Yeah.
BW: So thinking now about your operations and what you were going to do describe for us how you would be briefed. What sort of things would lead up to the start of a mission and what would you do yourself when you got to the aircraft?
JML: Well, briefing used to take place probably very late afternoon. Depending, depending on the take-off time. And of course each, each section had their own briefing. Apart from when all the crew members were together at the main briefing. Then after the main briefing the sergeants, gunners etcetera went to the gunnery officer. The navigators went to their. So in actual fact the main briefing would take place with all the crew members together at one time. Then after you had been told etcetera where you were going the officer in charge said the gunners or the wireless operator and that would call more or less their own briefing and give you information about what they thought you should do when you got on board the plane. And that was what I can remember anyway. It’s hard to remember. It is.
BW: I know. So, thinking now, at this point you’ve been briefed on your operation and you’re presumably driven out to the aircraft at dispersal. What would you do as a crew from being dropped off? What sort of, did you have any good luck rituals or checks that you would do when you got into your position in the aircraft?
JML: No. No. Not really. When you got on board of course like there was seven of you. Three or four, four at the front approximately. You all take your positions etcetera. Mid-upper gunner of course is middle turret. The rear gunner, myself, in the rear. And then the skipper would call up to make sure you were all in your position and you’d checked everything and you were quite happy. That you were ready to go. He did that with all the crew.
BW: And how did it feel when the engines started and you were on your way sort of thing?
JML: Well —
BW: Taxiing out.
JML: That didn’t seem to bother. It was just like taking off again, you know. The only thing that was going to be a bit different when you crossed the Channel but other than that it was just straight forward. Yeah.
BW: And I believe you had an eventful first sortie. You’d been briefed to go. First operation. You’d been briefed to raid Stuttgart.
JML: Stuttgart. Yeah.
BW: And describe for me what had happened when you’d taken off.
JML: Oh, we’d had an uneventful trip. No trouble at all. Across the Channel, over France etcetera heading towards Germany. We had no bother at all. Occasional flashes of flak somewhere but other than that there was no bother at all until we got near the target area and then it started to brighten up a bit if that’s the right word. We didn’t see any night fighters. Plenty of flak. And then when we got to the target area the flak was very strong and there, unfortunately we were hit and the pilot had to turn off one of the engines because that was hit very badly. And so we’d three engines, so we [pause] he just dropped the bombs where we were which was somewhere near the target and turned around and headed for home. But by that time he’d decided to take drastic action and he cut off the engine altogether so we were flying on three engines and headed for the target. Well, away from the target to get back to England which was a good trip all the way actually. No problems at all apart from the plane seemed to be losing a bit of height etcetera. But other than that we had no trouble at all getting back to the coast. By that time we were, I think we might have been struggling regarding fuel because the pilot had asked the navigator to find out the nearest aerodrome as we were crossing the Channel which he did. And we headed, headed for that particular, that particular aerodrome. I cannot, I can’t think of the damned name of it now. But that’s where we headed for but, and we got there and got permission to land. And the pilot made an attempt to land but as he made the attempt to land another aircraft which I think was a Lancaster was underneath us so we opened up the engines and headed back out over the sea. And unfortunately, I don’t know what happened but a minute or so after we’d attempted to land the pilot was shouting, ‘We’re going down. We’re going down.’ And a few seconds later, I’m still in the rear turret, the plane hit the sea and it, I think it broke up mid-way along, mid-way along the thing but by that time I’d only just got out the turret and was thrown up. Thrown up the plane. I don’t know if I was semi- conscious or not but I found myself in the middle of the aircraft and presence of mind, I don’t know why I stood up. I was standing in the middle of the aircraft. Well, there was a handle and that handle released the dinghy. I probably didn’t realise it at the time. So I pulled the handle anyway and could see the actual dinghy come out the wing and inflate itself automatically. Of course that didn’t bother me because I mean having been used to water in civilian life I wasn’t bothered at all. So, I mean, I scrambled out. I scrambled out the plane somehow and managed to keep pulling on the dinghy to get the dinghy right out. And Davy Lambert, the other gunner had climbed on the wing of the plane and between us we got the dinghy going and Davy got in the dinghy. And then we, I was still sitting on the, on the wing and then I got in to the water itself and started to shout out names etcetera to find out where everybody was like. And eventually we all got in to the dinghy. I was last in because I was quite happy in the water. I wasn’t bothered. Water didn’t bother me. We got them all in to the dinghy and fortunately they, on the land they knew that the plane had gone into the sea somewhere and an air sea rescue launch picked us up within the hour. So it was very very quick. Quick. A very, very quick hour. But everybody was alright. Nobody, nobody was injured even though the, even though the plane was in a mess and as I say we were picked up within the hour so that was it. Our first trip. Brilliant.
BW: And this was November 26/27, 1943.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And presumably you’d come back at night.
JML: Pardon?
BW: You’re still night time.
JML: That happened —
BW: So this has all happened in the dark and the cold.
JML: 4 o’clock in the morning it was. Approximately.
BW: So, it’s pitch black.
JML: Oh yeah.
BW: And freezing cold water.
JML: It was bloody cold. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But as I said water didn’t bother me so I was alright, you know. I was more interested in what was happening to the rest of crew if they couldn’t swim. As it happened most of them could swim so [pause] And the plane hadn’t really broken up like I thought it might have done. So the wing was still there with it. With the, where the dinghy was. And we were all quite, well, I wouldn’t say quite happy in the dinghy but at least we were all in the dinghy and very quickly picked up by the air sea rescue lads. Pitch dark mind you. But we were making enough noise for them to find us. But it was no bother.
BW: And so I’m assuming that the rescue launch was using a searchlight to sweep the sea to look for you.
JML: Sea. Right.
BW: And it was only from signalling or shouting while you were in the dinghy that they could try and locate you.
JML: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Because we’d no lights or anything. No. Nothing at all.
BW: Amazing.
JML: Yeah.
BW: So, what happened when you got on board and were taken back to base? Were, were you debriefed at all any further or —
JML: Well, we, as I said it was right down south. I can’t. I can’t remember any debriefing to tell you the truth. I can’t remember any bit of it because obviously we’d landed at this place down south when we should have been up in Yorkshire. So, we stopped there anyway. I think we stopped there. A little bit of a stop there that day and I think it was the next day [pause] that’s right. We were only there a day and then we were, made our way back to Leeming in Yorkshire. By train of course. Got the train in to, got the train into London and then we headed back home over to, to Leeming. Yeah. I think that was it anyway. Near enough.
BW: And did any of the senior officers wonder where you’d been?
JML: They knew. They must have got notified like that, over what, I can’t remember the registration. It doesn’t matter. There were [pause] no. I’m just trying to — anyway, they knew anyway that something had happened to us and that we were alright. And I can always remember that I had it and I can’t find it. I think it was, I think it was 6 Group, I think, if I remember rightly. The Canadians. 6 Group. And when the, when the Group paper came out the next day or a couple of days later I can see the headline now. It had it across it. The headline of the paper was well [pause] all the Canadian squadrons had a name. We were, we were the Bison Squadron. And on the headlines of the paper in red, “Bison boys launched on maiden trip.” That was the first trip we had done and in the paper that was the headline. And it gave a, what had actually happened to us, you know and what annoys me is I have an old typewriter upstairs and up to a few years ago I’d got the newspaper itself. I got the front page of it from wherever it was like. We all got one I suppose. I kept that for years. That’s what I was trying to find. And on the old typewriter upstairs I made a typed copy of it. Of what it said. I can’t find it. So that that was our only trip with Bomber Command.
BW: But you became a member of the Goldfish Club as a result.
JML: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Did you get a badge?
JML: It’s there. It’s the yellow one. The smallest.
BW: So this is like a what we now say is a credit card sized.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Piece of card that says on it Goldfish Club Membership Card 1942 with the emblem on and details you as, “Sergeant J McK Leith. James McKenzie Leith qualified as a member of the Goldfish Club by escaping death by the use of emergency equipment on 27th November 1943.” Fantastic. And the design of this card, it says is based on the unique waterproof card issued during World War Two.
JML: Yeah. I can’t remember who sponsored that. I can’t think of his name. One of the richest men in Britain.
BW: I can only think the Duke of Westminster but there’d be others of course.
JML: I can’t remember his name.
BW: The sig.
JML: We got though —
BW: The signature on it is Charles Robertson.
JML: Aye. He’s the one organised the thing, isn’t he?
BW: Robertson.
JML: You got a payment you know from it. This chap I’m talking about.
BW: Right.
JML: You got, you got seven days leave after you ditched and you got paid by whoever it was that started this Goldfish thing. What was he called? Bloody hell. Anyway, he was one of the, he was one of the richest men anyway and he, I think you got seven days leave and you got seven days pay which he paid. That’s if I remember right properly. I don’t know if you’ve heard that before or not.
BW: I haven’t but I’m sure you’re right.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And so you arrived back at Leeming and you’re all dried and back to normal.
JML: Oh yeah. Not, not long back to normal.
BW: And what happened? What happened next?
JML: Oh dear [pause]
BW: Did you continue any other operations or sorties with the Bison Squadron?
JML: They decided, when I say they decided, they got there the squadron commander, a wing commander at the top decided that the pilot Charlie Bois, he was called [pause] it was, that’s right we were still fit to fly the Halifax. He wasn’t very tall, wasn’t Charlie Bois. Fairly small. That’s the pilot I’m talking about. And anyway, they decided that he was still alright for flying. But about a month later we, we were we had some time off actually flying. And then we got [pause] It would be about a month before we were picked to go on another. Another bombing raid. I can’t remember the date. The details. But the [pause] got on the plane at the dispersal point and somehow or other as we left the dispersal point, by the way this is, we were still into November December and it’s gone dark of course at four or 5 o’clock like, you know. And somehow or other at Leeming there was two squadrons. We were the Bison Squadron and the other squadron was the Lion Squadron. I can’t remember the number of it but it was the Lion Squadron. And on this particular day we were going on this other flight which would have been our second flight. As we taxied at our dispersal point an aircraft from the Lion Squadron coming down the [pause] I can’t describe it.
Now, this aircraft from the Lion Squadron coming around the perimeter track, and we coming, coming out of our own dispersal point and this aircraft from the, the Lion Squadron hit our aircraft as we left the dispersal point. Very [pause] really damaged the planes and mind you we all scrambled out and we were all right. And the lads from the Lion Squadron they were alright as well. But the two aircraft were a right mess. So that, that flight was cancelled completely. And after that I don’t exactly know what happened but that Charlie, as I said he wasn’t a very big bloke he was taken off flying bombers. I don’t know who decided it, but somebody decided he’d be better flying lighter aircraft so he was taken off the squadron and what happened to him after that I’ve got no idea. But the RAF lads that was myself, the mid-upper gunner, the wireless operator and, no that’s, that’s right. We three RAF lads were sent to another unit and I think it was Dishforth. Dishforth. Either Dishforth or Driffield, one or the other to await being crewed up with another pilot, navigator, bomb aimer. That’s it. Yeah. Now then, as I say it was either Dishforth or Driffield but it doesn’t matter. That was another Conversion Unit and we went there in, we were now in to December. I don’t know why but for some unknown reason we three, Mickey Neville, Davy Lambert and myself were at that unit for oh a long, long time. I think they’d forgotten about us. But eventually [pause] I’m just trying to imagine how we got crewed up again. I can see it all but [pause] Anyway, we got crewed up again but I just can’t remember. I can remember the pilot. Pilot Officer Proud. P R O U D. Another Canadian. And I think we must have still kept the three other Canadians as well. But thankfully time was flying past.
JML: You must have been in the unit well into the spring of ’44.
BW: This is what I’m trying to remember. I’m trying to remember exactly how it came about. As I say we got this, this bloke called Pilot Officer Proud. I’ll never forget his name. I was just trying to remember where. [pause] Anyway, to cut a long story short Pilot Officer Proud hadn’t flown on any operations at all. So we went to Linton on Ouse. Does that ring a bell?
BW: Yes. That’s in Yorkshire.
JML: Yeah. That’s right. We teamed up with Pilot Officer Proud. That’s it. More or less with the same, the same crew as previously apart from the pilot. But the crew stopped the same. Right. I’m trying to think of is it, did I say Dishforth?
BW: You said it was, it was either at Dishforth or Driffield. And I think there was a Conversion Unit at Dishforth. But you then moved from there once you’ve met your new pilot to Linton, Linton on Ouse. So it sounds like you’ve been assigned a new pilot and are ready to be transferred to a new squadron.
JML: I’m trying to think which one it was actually. 429 Squadron. 429 624148. What you find in there? 429.
BW: After December ’43 at Dishforth it was 426 Squadron for the remainder of the war. And then at Linton.
JML: Linton on Ouse.
BW: 426 must have moved from there. From Dishforth to Linton as well. So if you’ve gone from those two airfields it’s possible you’ve been with 426.
JML: I’ve got them here.
[recording paused]
BW: So you met and crewed up with Pilot Officer Proud again.
JML: Correct.
BW: And he was from 408 Squadron. That’s what you’re saying.
JML: No. That’s where we got him but he hadn’t flown on any operational trips when we crewed up with him. We’d only done one but he hadn’t done any at all. Right. Now, he went on an operation as a second pilot with 408 Squadron. Now, where they were going I don’t know but they never came back. It was lost with all the crew including Pilot Officer Proud. So we never flew any operations at all with Pilot Officer Proud unfortunately. I had a hectic time for a bit. Flying.
JML: Now, why have I put that there?
BW: So, Pilot Officer Proud went up on an a operation as a —
JML: Second pilot.
BW: Second pilot and never came back.
JML: Yeah.
BW: You then returned to Dishforth. To the holding unit.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And your new pilot who you met was — ?
JML: Must be Lawrence.
BW: Lawrence.
JML: Toft. T O F T.
BW: And was he an officer?
JML: No. Not then he wasn’t. He was a flight sergeant.
BW: Flight sergeant. Ok. And so you’ve now got, you personally have moved onto your third crew.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Now. And what happened with Toft? You called him Tofty. Is that right?
JML: Lawrence.
BW: Lawrence.
JML: Or Lawrie. Yeah.
BW: Did you do much training with him?
JML: No. Because he had already done three trips I think with, back to the, what did they call the squadron earlier when we ditched in the sea. He came from that squadron.
BW: 429 Bison.
JML: 429. Yeah. And we went to Dishforth, wasn’t it?
BW: Yes.
JML: What, what, when was that? What?
BW: That would be spring 1944.
JML: What was that with?
BW: So you were there several months between the holding posts.
JML: I went with him.
BW: And it was a while because you thought they’d forgotten about you all. And you then would have been assigned your crew roughly Spring 1944.
JML: Yeah. As I say we got Tofty. That’s right. Then we went [pause] Yeah. We got Tofty.
BW: How would you describe him? What sort of a person was he?
JML: Very clever. I did try to think. Mickey Neville, Davy Lambert, myself. That’s the three of us. I’m just trying to fit in the other. He was actually Canadian that one.
[recording paused]
BW: So your crew now.
JML: Yeah.
BW: If I read these names out to you. Flight Sergeant A J Toft.
JML: That’s right.
BW: Flight Sergeant Johnston.
JML: Johnston. Yeah.
BW: Sergeant T S Jones.
JML: That’s him.
BW: Sergeant G H Messenger.
JML: George.
BW: That’s George Messenger.
JML: George Messenger.
BW: Sergeant Mickey Neville.
JML: Mickey Neville.
BW: M R Neville.
JML: David Lambert. Yeah.
BW: And sergeant D P —
JML: That’s the one I couldn’t remember. He’s Canadian the [pause] I’ve lost him again. Jones. Tommy Jones is it?
BW: Yeah.
JML: Tommy Jones.
BW: Yeah. Jones. T S Jones.
JML: Bomb aimer. Yeah. That’s the one, that’s what I’ve been trying to think about.
BW: And he was your bomb aimer.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And he was Canadian.
JML: Right. Yeah.
BW: And what sort of a guy was he?
JML: Very queer but can’t account for that. Not queer, queer.
BW: Quirky perhaps or unusual.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And so what was going to be your next mission with them?
JML: We went abroad.
BW: You were sent abroad to 624 Squadron. Is this right? To Libya.
JML: Hmmn?
BW: Did you go to Libya? You say you went abroad.
JML: That’s right.
BW: You were posted to 624 Squadron.
JML: Blida.
BW: Blida, Algeria.
JML: Yeah. B L I D A. Blida.
BW: And this is now special duties.
JML: That’s right. I just couldn’t think of that bloody bloke’s name. Jones. Tommy Jones. Anyhow.
BW: And how did you end up as a crew being posted there? Did you volunteer or were you picked?
JML: Just, were just sent. Yeah.
BW: And what was that base like? What was Algeria like?
JML: It was actually quite good. In fact, very good actually.
BW: Did you fly out there or did you —
JML: Oh yeah.
BW: Travel by ship.
JML: We took a brand new Halifax out to that place. Different to the one that we had but they changed the tail on it. Made it a square tail instead of that way and it was a new one. Brand new. We picked it up at a place called, Hurn is it? Hurn, near Bournemouth. Yeah. We took that with us.
BW: So was this a brand new Mark 5?
JML: Yeah. It would be. Yeah.
BW: Mark 5 Halifax.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And you flew it from Bourne.
JML: That’s it.
BW: To Blida.
JML: To Blida.
BW: Blida.
JML: Yeah. So we got on to special duties instead of Bomber Command.
BW: And what sort of things were you doing on special duties? Do you remember what sort of operations you were tasked with?
JML: Yeah. Either dropping agents or dropping supplies to the French in Southern France.
BW: Did you get to talk to any of the agents at all?
JML: Not allowed. No.
BW: What were your briefings like at this stage then? When you, when you joined this brand new squad, well for you it was a brand new squadron, what were your briefings like now as regards preparation for a mission? What were you told about it?
JML: Well, briefings briefly consist of whether you were dropping agents or dropping supplies and that was more or less, and of course whether you were going to Southern France or anywhere you were going. But at no time were you allowed to have a conversation with any passenger that you were taking because it was all top secret. And that was more or less the briefing. Yeah.
BW: Were you able to find out anything about the agents that you were tasked with dropping or the cargo that you would carry as supplies? Was any of that ever made known to you?
JML: No. No.
BW: So —
JML: Definitely not.
BW: So if the pilot ever knew he wasn’t even able to discuss it with you as crew. If the pilot knew he wasn’t able to discuss it with you as crew then.
JML: No. Definitely not.
BW: And what were these operations like in comparison to the couple that you had flown with Bomber Command? Was there a difference for you as a gunner? Were you, did you feel it was a better environment or less hostile for example or what?
JML: A lot less hostile because —
BW: How was it being in the rear of this Halifax this time? Were there, were the missions quieter in that you didn’t fly over heavily defended targets? Is that right?
JML: Yeah, yeah, yeah the, the flights from Blida in North Africa mostly went to Southern France and of course you flew most of them over water of course and once you reached the coast you then had to find where the agents were and nine times out of ten they were in the, in the mountains. And the mountains were the biggest, the biggest drawback we had.
BW: And you were still flying at night on these missions.
JML: They were all night. Night. Yeah. All night missions. Yeah.
BW: And from 624 you moved on to 148 Squadron.
JML: [unclear] Yeah. 148.
BW: Which would be, which would be flying from Italy.
JML: Brindisi.
BW: And doing the same sort of work.
JML: Exactly the same, dropping supplies or agents, yeah.
BW: And from Italy you presumably saw out the rest of your service with 148 Squadron. At what stage were you sent back to the UK?
JML: I’m trying to think how long we stopped in there. We flew back to, to Cairo [pause] to await transport to the UK. And that was it.
BW: And was that 1945? Or would it be after do you think?
JML: No. No. I’m trying to think when we, 1944 we were flying, was that 1945? Would it be ’45 or was it late nineteen — ? Oh, it must have been ’45. ‘44 we flew out of from England, did the tour. Yeah.
BW: And how long did you stay in the RAF after the war?
JML: Not so long. I can’t think when I came out.
BW: Would it be 1946—
JML: ’46, I think.
BW: When you were repatriated and left at, in 1947. Discharged on 28th of September 1948.
JML: As long as that did I wait?
BW: You’ve come back to Wheaton or Kirkham.
JML: Kirkham.
BW: In 1946.
JML: That’s it, yeah.
BW: And that’s when you met a WAAF.
JML: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: What was her name?
JML: Hmmn?
BW: What was her name?
JML: Margaret Iddon. You want her surname.
BW: Your, your girlfriend at the time. In 1946. What was her name?
JML: Margaret. You want her, do you want her —
BW: What —
JML: You want her surname as well. That’s it. Margaret Iddon. I D D O N. Oh well, no, I’m getting confused. Sawford. Sorry. S A W F O R D I think. Sawford. That’s, that’s your mum’s name isn’t it, Margaret?
Other: Yeah. I knew you’d mentioned Iddon and I thought well I’m not in on this.
JML: It’s amazing how I get confused Margaret.
Other: Never mind.
BW: And what happened after? After you were demobbed?
JML: I went working for [pause] as a salesman for Jackson, the tailor.
BW: And how long were you there?
JML: A long time. ‘Til maybe about, probably 1965 or ’66. More or less to retirement, near enough.
BW: And what do you think of the commemorations taking place at the moment Bomber Command? It’s been a while since the veterans have been commemorated but now they’re being honoured, if you like for their service. What do you think?
JML: Well, yeah because we were having this place what’s it called again? I’ve forgotten the name.
BW: Lincoln or Hyde Park. The Memorial at Hyde Park.
JML: Well, I think that’s the [pause] that one at the Arboretum. Is it the Arboretum?
BW: Oh, yes the National.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Memorial Arboretum at Stafford.
JML: Yeah. I’ve been going there for the last ten years on and off. Obviously we’ve got, we’ve got a spot there.
BW: Are you glad the veterans of Bomber Command are being remembered?
JML: I suppose so. Yeah. Because I mean they [pause] I’m just trying to think if there’s a proper thing.
BW: There’s a Memorial in London.
JML: Yeah. Yeah. I got an invite to that but I didn’t go.
BW: And there’s now this Centre in Lincoln.
JML: Yeah. The only other one I know about is this one at the Arboretum which is where the Special Duties have their place.
BW: Alright. Well, that’s, that’s all the questions I have for you, Jim.
JML: Thank God for that.
BW: Thank you very much for your time.
JML: Yeah. Well, I’m sorry I can’t give you as much as I wanted to do, you know.
BW: That’s alright. Thank you very much.
JML: I’m trying to remember things, you know.
[recording paused]
BW: So, this is Brian Wright interviewing Flying Officer Jim McKenzie Leith on the afternoon of Thursday the 12th of January 2017 at his home at Fulwood, Preston in Lancashire. Now, Jim you’ve kindly told me that you were born the 21st of May in 1924 in Bathville near Glasgow and you were the middle brother of five. You had two brothers and two sisters. And that you left school at fourteen and you had been a member of the Air Training Corps prior to joining the RAF in 1940. And following your initial training as airman and then trade training as an air gunner you joined 429 Canadian Squadron in Yorkshire based at RAF Leeming. And you described for me your first sortie when you were returning from a raid on Stuttgart on the 27th of November 1943 and were forced to ditch in the, in the Channel. And you recovered from that. After a period of time on holding squadrons at Dishforth you were then sent to Bilda, sorry Blida.
JML: Blida.
BW: Blida, in Algeria in 1944. And you were first on 624 Squadron and this is a special duty squadron that I’d like to ask you about. You flew a brand new Halifax out. And how did it feel to join this new squadron? Were you aware of the sort of things you were going to do when you arrived in Algeria?
JML: No idea. No idea at all.
BW: And when do you recall your first operations with this squadron? What sort of things did you have to do?
BW: You were dropping supplies and agents in to Southern France, weren’t you?
JML: Yeah. Definitely.
BW: You couldn’t talk to these guys who you were flying.
JML: No. Well, we mostly dropped supplies. Very seldom did we drop agents. Just occasionally. But the briefing etcetera was quite plain enough as you were flying, flying across water all the time ‘til you got to Southern France. And then you had to find out the position where the agents were but mostly they were in the, in the mountains and so the thing was to make sure that you got your position right because if you didn’t, depending on the weather would you be able to make your drop or not because most of Southern France there was mountains all around where the agents were in secrecy waiting on supplies coming etcetera.
BW: And do you recall what the pilot had to do or you as a crew had to do on the approach to the drop zone?
JML: It was very important actually approaching there because obviously there was different signals. We did signal which we would flash to the ground and if we were in the right position we got a flash back from the ground. But it had to be matched up with the letter or number or whatever it was you were expecting because obviously there was plenty of Germans around on the ground as well and they got the message that we were sending down which was the letter of the day. Which of course changed by the way at different places. And of course the Germans would try and find out and flash a letter back hoping that it was the same as the one we were expecting and we would drop the goods. But nine times out of ten of course the letter we got flashed back was the right letter. But occasionally there were times when you got a different letter. And of course you knew right away that it was the wrong area and you would definitely not drop any ammunition or anything else, or agents depending what you were dropping that particular day.
BW: And were there occasions when you didn’t get the right signal?
JML: Oh, definitely. You’d get the wrong, the wrong letter of the day, you just ignored it.
BW: And did you experience any ground fire let’s say from the Germans? Were they, did they attempt to shoot at you if they thought you were going to approach?
JML: Very very, very occasionally.
BW: And did you have to fire your guns back at them?
JML: Very seldom. Very, very seldom.
BW: And do you recall what sort of height you would be when this was taking place? Were you at low level? Or were you —
JML: The drop, the drop zones were very, very difficult because as I said nine times out of ten they were in the mountains and depending on the weather etcetera it was very difficult to judge the height of the mountains. And especially in the Pyrenees where most of the agents were in hiding. Very very difficult.
BW: And on the times when you had to drop agents by parachute were you able to speak with them at all?
JML: No, nobody was allowed to talk to any of the agents in the area. In the plane or out the plane. It was taboo. Not allowed.
BW: And so you never knew the names of the people you were —
JML: Definitely not.
BW: You had on board.
JML: No.
BW: I understand some of the agents were occasionally dropped in handcuffs because they had potentially been in prison. One veteran from 624 told me of an incident where that happened. Did that ever take place with you at all? No.
JML: Definitely not. No.
BW: And what were the facilities like at Blida?
JML: The what?
BW: What were the facilities like at Blida?
JML: Oh, quite, quite good. Quite good. Some of them had tents. But we and our crew were very fortunate. We’d quite a good billet. A nice wooden billet.
BW: How long were you with 624 Squadron? Do you recall?
JML: I would say three months. Three months. Maybe four.
BW: And you and your crew had been posted to the squadron from your previous unit in England. So none of you had volunteered for special duties.
JML: No. No.
BW: You were just posted as a part of a routine squadron.
JML: Definitely.
BW: Were you given any extra money? Were you paid any extra for these?
JML: No.
BW: Operations. No.
JML: No.
BW: And were you trained or given any briefings on resistance to interrogation if you were forced to land or were captured in France?
JML: No.
BW: After your service with 624 you moved on to another special duties squadron, 148.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Where were they based?
JML: Brindisi.
BW: In Italy.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And you were, where were you flying missions to in in Europe from this base?
JML: All the [unclear] countries, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece. All around All around the Balkans.
BW: And the same question I suppose. Were you ever able to learn anything of what these operations involved in terms of supplies? The type of supplies you were dropping or agents.
JML: Not really. No. The only time we were advised on ammunition etcetera was special operations to Poland, and Warsaw where the uprising was taking place and they needed, they needed ammunition of any description.
BW: Can you tell me what you understood of the operation that was briefed to you about this? What were you told about flying to Poland on this particular occasion? This would be August 1944.
JML: Yeah. Well, the uprising was taking place but, but they were fighting a losing battle because of the number of Germans that were actually occupying Warsaw at the time. And the [pause] they were very short, the Polish Resistance regarding food and ammunition etcetera. So it was very, very difficult.
BW: And do you recall how many flights you had to make in support of the Poles in Warsaw?
JML: I think we made four trips in all to Poland itself especially during the month of August forty — it would be ’44, would it?
BW: That’s right.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And was it noticeably heavier in the aircraft because of the load you were carrying or —
JML: No. No. Definitely not.
BW: How would they carry out this sort of drop? Were the supplies positioned in the bomb bay?
JML: Yeah. Normal. Yeah. Carried them instead of bombs. And in the interior. The interior of the plane as well. Yeah. It was very, not much room at all in the plane because it was always packed with either kit bags or [pause] well, and it depended how much we could take apart from what was in the bomb bay.
BW: And your pilot was a Lawrence Toft.
JML: Ahum.
BW: What do you recall of him?
JML: Lawrence was a very, very quiet fella. Very quiet. But what he did say it made you think that he knew what he was doing and he had great faith in the rest of his crew because his crew had great faith in him.
BW: And did you feel on these missions that it was any more dangerous than what you would have done flying over Germany?
JML: The trips to Poland, especially to Warsaw were very difficult because we were flying in to a city and flying in very low to make sure that what we were carrying dropped in the right spot because if they weren’t dropped in the right spot the Germans could get to them before the Polish partisans. Very difficult.
BW: And over the city you would be getting signals from the rooftops instead of —
JML: Yeah.
BW: Of the country.
JML: And we were flying very, very, very low. About three hundred feet above the city. And most of the partisans at that particular time in Warsaw were more or less short of ammunition, short of food, more or less short of everything.
BW: And I believe there were enemy troops positioned on the roofs of the city.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Firing at you as you approached. Is that correct?
JML: Oh definitely.
BW: What do you recall of your sight of the city when you were flying over it? What kind of things could you see?
JML: There’s lots of parts as well. The city itself in parts was just a mass of flames. Some parts of it wasn’t but most of it, and there was a lot of activity. You could see the gun flashes and I think most of them were from the Germans fighting the partisans on the ground. There wasn’t much activity in the air. Quite a bit sometimes but mostly it was on the ground.
BW: And was your target Napoleon Square?
JML: That was it, the centre of Poland.
BW: And so the three or four trips that you made were they over a week or over a couple of days or —
JML: A week. Yeah. A week to ten days, definitely. Some, some were right into the heart of Poland. The city itself. A couple of them were on the way in. Where the partisans were doing their best.
BW: Did you see any other supply aircraft at the time?
JML: No.
BW: Were you flying —
JML: No.
BW: With other aircraft from your same squadron?
JML: There were other aircraft supposed to be there like we were there but I never saw any other planes.
BW: And were you ever, was the aircraft you were in ever hit by ground fire at all? Do you recall any of that?
JML: Oh yes. Hit by the flak. But only very light. Yeah.
BW: Did any of it come near you?
JML: No.
BW: And were any of your fellow crewmen hit at all or injured?
JML: No. There was no hits, no injuries fortunately. Yeah.
BW: So you came back from these operations pretty well unscathed.
JML: More or less. Yeah.
BW: And there were no issues with the aircraft when you landed. Nothing had been disrupted.
JML: Oh yeah.
BW: With the undercarriage for example.
JML: Oh yeah. Yeah. There was marks and that on the plane that had been hit by anti-aircraft fire etcetera but nothing, nothing serious.
BW: Could you feel it when the aircraft was hit?
JML: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: And what was that like?
JML: That was only light. Very [pause] how can I can’t describe it? It was very very light anti-aircraft fire.
BW: Presumably like machine guns or rifle fire and things like that. And were you debriefed in the sense were you given information about how successful the drops had been at all?
JML: Oh yes. Yeah. Definitely.
BW: And what sort of things were you told?
JML: As regards the drops etcetera the actual drops that were done were very successful. There was quite, quite a number of aircraft took part in these special drops. I think in one night, I think it was sometime in August, the squadron did lose over a, over the two nights I think they lost four aircraft. Which were either shot down on their way in or shot down on their way back but they lost four.
BW: Did you know any of these crews?
JML: No.
BW: Were you able to befriend or did you get to know any of the other crews while you were stationed at Brindisi?
JML: Not really. We more or less stuck to ourselves, you know. When you’ve got seven of a crew, you know we were all quite friendly.
BW: And were there any other squadrons based with you at Brindisi at the time?
JML: Not, not on Brindisi. There was a [pause] there was a Polish squadron there as well but there wasn’t there wasn’t many of them. Just a few. I can’t remember the number of it but they were based at Brindisi the same as we were.
BW: Were they flying Halifaxes like you?
JML: Yeah.
BW: It must have been quite important for them to be flying supplies into their own, into their own country.
JML: Oh, very much so. Yeah.
BW: After the uprising had finished were you continuing to fly with 148 or did you stop at that point?
JML: No. No. We started, carried on. Back to dropping supplies into Northern Italy where the partisans were and also still supplying Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania which were still occupied by the, by the Germans.
BW: Did you ever land in these places to offload supplies or not?
JML: No. We had, had two or four small aircraft which were stationed at Brindisi and they would. They would fly in to take a couple of secret agents in and land on a bit of land where they could get out and then the small aircraft would take off again and come back to Brindisi.
BW: Were they Lysanders?
JML: Yeah.
BW: The small ones.
JML: That’s the ones.
BW: Did you ever speak with any of the pilots there?
JML: No.
BW: Or crew.
JML: No. No. It was very hush hush.
BW: And once you’d flown these missions and I think it went up until the end of ’44 when the squadron ceased what happened then?
JML: I think just before the end of the, around about Christmas time etcetera we, we were told that we had now done x number of hours which was a tour of operations completed and we as a crew we were being stood down. And we were being sent down to Cairo for a rest period.
BW: How long were you there? In Cairo? Do you know?
JML: Oh, I’ve no idea. Probably a couple of months or so, I think.
BW: What are your memories of your time with the squadron in 1944 and in Cairo when you were off duty?
JML: Yeah. There was four of the crew were still together and myself, Davy Lambert, Mickey Neville and Larry Toft. We, we four were together in Cairo. What as I say happened to the other, the other three I don’t really know.
BW: Because your other three were Canadians, weren’t they? You had Flight Sergeant Toft who was your pilot.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Flight Sergeant Johnstone.
JML: Yeah. He was a Scotsman. Yeah.
BW: Sergeant Jones. Tommy Jones —
JML: Yeah.
BW: Was Canadian. Sergeant George Messenger.
JML: He was a, yeah engineer.
BW: And as you say Sergeant Mickey Neville and —
JML: Davy Lambert.
BW: Davy Lambert.
JML: Jock Johnson, the Scotsman he’s, he stopped with the squadron. Why I don’t know but Jock stopped there. And I’m trying to think what [pause] oh, and George Messenger. He stopped with the squadron. That’s the two isn’t it? They would have stopped with the squadron but they wouldn’t be allowed to fly for a certain amount of time because they’d to have what they called a rest. A rest before they started on their second tour. But other than that I lost. I lost. What Jock Johnston or what George Messenger did I’ve no idea. We other four were kept at Cairo for quite some time. And then Lawrence, the pilot was told that he was going to start flying Dakotas. So we didn’t really know whether he was very happy about it but that’s, that left three of us. And we three were posted home. We had to stop in Cairo ‘til we got information to pick up a ship and prepare to, prepare to sail home.
BW: And would that be 1945 when you —
JML: ’44. Yeah. Definitely. Yeah. That would be January/February. That’s it, yeah. Definitely.
BW: And do you recall where you were sent to? Where you arrived back in the UK?
JML: I think we landed at Liverpool. Definitely.
BW: And from there I understand you were posted to Kirkham camp near Blackpool.
JML: That’s right. Eventually. Yeah.
BW: And what happened while you were there?
JML: Just, that was, that was the, while we were there the war finished completely. And it became a demob centre.
BW: And you stayed in Lancashire because you met a young woman.
JML: Stayed there awaiting to get demobbed. Yeah.
BW: But you then met a young woman.
JML: Yeah. Aye. Margaret. Yeah.
BW: And so your relationship with her continued and you were married.
JML: Yeah.
BW: But only after a very short time. How long?
JML: I don’t know. Probably six months or something like that. Time I was there we got married. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: And you didn’t fancy staying with the RAF.
JML: No.
BW: And what, when you left did you go on to do then?
JML: I worked for the — what did that come under?
BW: Were you a salesman?
JML: Yeah. I was a salesman but I’m trying to think what I did. Yeah. Yeah. But anyway, I became a salesman. I worked for the Burton Group. That’s the best way to put it down. As a salesman.
BW: And did you ever go back to Scotland? Did you ever consider resettling to Scotland?
JML: No. No.
BW: And so you’ve lived and worked in the Blackpool and Preston area for the rest of you time after the war.
JML: Yeah. Until retiring. Until retiring. Yeah. Definitely.
BW: And do you still attend the reunions for your squadron? Do you meet up with your friends?
JML: Aye, we have done until the last twelve months or so but I’m afraid that we’re only got down to two or three. That’s all. They’re the ones that used to go to [pause] what’s it called? The aerodrome.
BW: Elvington? Elvington?
JML: No.
BW: Was it an airfield near here?
JML: No. I’m talking about —
BW: Or the Arboretum.
JML: Not the Arboretum. No. Bloody hell, it’s wild, deary, deary dear. Down near, down near Wolverhampton that’s still going. What’s that big aerodrome?
BW: Cosford. Cosford?
JML: No.
BW: Near Wolverhampton. No.
JML: No. It’s still going there. The aerodrome’s still going. They all land there now. Everything lands there. That’s silly that I can’t remember that. Deary dear.
[recording paused]
JML: Did we say Brize Norton before?
BW: Yeah. At Brize Norton.
JML: Their number is 4624 so they adopted us.
BW: I see.
JML: And the [pause] and they used to go there every twelve months for a reunion.
BW: Until they decided it was —
JML: Well, it got —
BW: Elevated to an operational base and higher security status so it prevented you going.
JML: Stopped us going. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Right.
JML: And your latest award was the Legion d’Honneur. Is that correct? You received the medal from France.
BW: Oh yeah. Yeah. Oh aye. Yeah. That’s on there somewhere.
JML: When did you receive that. Was it last year?
BW: I got it through the post but you could have it presented so when we ended the trip to [pause] oh bloody hell.
Other: The Arboretum.
JML: What’s it called? The bloody place where we got it.
Other: The Arboretum.
BW: Where?
Other: The Arboretum.
JML: The Arboretum. Aye. Yeah.
BW: So you had a little presentation while you were there.
JML: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Good.
JML: There was only two of us. You could have it presented or you could have it sent. But Joe, you know, this [unclear] it was his idea that while we were going to the Arboretum that we would have it done then but you didn’t need to do that. You’d just said you’d have it like and you’d get it. The only one I’ve spoken to that got his medal was Stanley. He lives right down south. He was a dispatcher as well you know and he had his presented by the local [pause]
BW: And was he on your squadron as well?
JML: Oh aye.
BW: But you never met him while you were serving in Italy or Algeria.
JML: No. I didn’t know him. No.
BW: Ok. That’s all the questions I have for you Jim. So, thank you very much for your time.
JML: It’s alright.
BW: For your recollections.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Very much appreciated.
JML: We had a good trip to France didn’t we?
Other: Yes. We did. Yeah.
JML: Bob and I and Margaret.
Other: Yeah. Yeah.
JML: Somebody wrote, it must have been some paper. I don’t know which one it was. Wanted to meet somebody from the RAF and that that had done a drop in this place in France. Somebody from, was an ex, I think it was an ex-RAF man himself. Buck. A Frenchman of course. So, Stanley, the one I was talking about, the wing commander’s wife of what do they call it, squadron.
Other: [unclear]
JML: At Blida, somehow or other got in touch with us. The person who had put this advert on to me. Anyway, she and her husband and the one I just mentioned, Stanley were trying to find out who actually made the, made the drop. Anyway, we couldn’t find out because as we said it was top secret unless you knew the special names and that etcetera. But anyway they decided to go so Bob and I and Margaret plus Sally Ann and her husband and Stanley went to France to this village.
Other: Sigoyer, it was called.
JML: Sigoyer, that’s right love, you know. It was unbelievable. You’d thought we’d won the war, won the war on our own wouldn’t you. The way they looked after us.
Other: Yeah. They did very good.
JML: It was brilliant. That was three years ago now since we been there.
Other: Maybe more. Four now.
JML: Pardon?
Other: Maybe four.
JML: Maybe four. Yeah.
Other: They took us they took you to one of the canisters that had been dropped.
JML: Oh, aye. Definitely. Yeah.
Other: To the Resistance.
JML: Yeah. It was, it was a good trip was that. Yeah.
Other: The mayor of Gap and all the fire, firemen and all the services from the, from the town and the village. All came out and sang and they had a commemorative service.
JML: Took us in a truck. Another truck.
Other: [unclear]
JML: Another truck or what they called it, didn’t they? Up the mountain.
Other: Yeah.
JML: To where the actual drop was done.
Other: Yeah.
JML: Where the men used to hide. Yeah. It was very interesting.
BW: I bet you’d have rather been in the aircraft though than on the ground with the Resistance though, wouldn’t you?
JML: Oh. Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. The, the girl that received the message, this, talking 1943 probably ‘43 maybe ’44. The BBC used to send messages out in code, and this woman who was the owner of the hotel, wasn’t she love? The daughter it was. My age now. But when she was, I think she was either fourteen, fifteen she picked the message up on the BBC that there was going to be a drop. It’s all in code you see. A certain a night, you know. So she was there, this lady. Told us all about it, didn’t she? Can’t remember what the code was. It doesn’t matter.
Other: I think it was something like the leg has fallen off the chair.
JML: Oh, that was it. Aye. It was code anyway.
Other: Something like that.
JML: Yeah. And it was ready for picking up or something like that. That was the code for that area.
Other: It’s a bit like something off, “Allo. Allo.”
JML: Yeah.
BW: Do you recall the lady’s name?
JML: Oh, no. No. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: So that’s, that would be a very unique experience to have met somebody who you dropped supplies to.
JML: Oh aye. I mean they took us in this four wheeled drive thing up the mountain as far as you could go. We had to walk the rest of the way and showed us exactly where the drop was made. And we were high up of course but in the valley below the mountain there were some caves and that’s where all the stuff was hidden away from the Germans. It was very interesting. Really interesting. Yeah.
BW: And they managed to survive in conditions like that?
JML: Yeah.
BW: Under occupation.
JML: Yeah. You’d have thought we won the war on our own the way they treated us. They were fantastic. Bob and Margaret still keep in touch with the school teacher. Get a card from her every now and again. Yeah. Oh, they really made a right good do of it.
BW: Brilliant.
JML: But the [pause] when we went to the France as a group, the special duties, they made a big song and dance about it. It was good. It was quite a [pause] there must have been about a dozen. A dozen or more went on the thing, but Brize Norton, the aerodrome, they supplied a guard of honour. Quite a, quite a guard of honour. And that was, that was well, the village itself were alright. They gave us all a medal of some description. I don’t know what it was. From the village. And we got the — what do you call it?
Other: Freedom of the town.
JML: Freedom of the town as well, you know. Gave us a medal for the freedom of the town. I’d like, I’d like to have gone back there as well but I’m getting too old for that sort of thing. Travelling. Old age catches up. Yeah.
BW: Right. As, I say that’s, that’s all the questions I have for you, Jim. So thank you very much again for your time.
JML: I’m sorry I couldn’t find —
BW: That’s alright.
JML: More of the stuff I thought I’d kept for you to see.
BW: That’s alright. Thank you.
[recording paused]
JML: And we just got on, we got on the river. And we just flew low following the river. We knew the river went into Warsaw after we’d made our way across [pause] what are the bloody mountains called? On the way in to Warsaw. After that it was very very, well, all hilly and that but somebody told us, one of the Warsaw blokes said, ‘Just get as low as you can on the river itself,’ which is the Vistula, ‘And that will take you right into the heart of Warsaw.’ So, well Laurie the pilot, as soon as we had crossed the mountains just put the nose down and got as low as he could and followed the river right into the heart of Warsaw. Yeah.
BW: So this was how you found the target?
JML: Yeah.
BW: I think, are they the Tatra Mountains because one of them, are they the Tatra Mountains in Poland. I think. But anyway, you come over the mountains, drop the nose, drop the aircraft down to presumably —
JML: River height.
BW: Fifty or a hundred or less.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And then after a certain distance because of course you’re following the river a little bit you see the outskirts of the town and you count the first of a series of bridges up the river.
JML: That was us. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: Do you recall how many bridges? Was it three? Four?
JML: I think it was the third bridge but I’m not very sure you know. Yeah.
BW: Find the third bridge and turn left.
JML: And then that was the heart. That was the heart of the city. Yeah. Yeah.
BW: So, you, as the pilot was flying in obviously straight and level over the river he’s going to have to climb to make the turn over the, over the bridge. Otherwise he’s going to dip the wing into the river, isn’t he? So —
JML: Yeah. Well, what Lawrence did he, he knew what he had to do his job so what he did instead of dropping the parcels etcetera, etcetera, etcetera he didn’t. He carried on a bit further up the river because he knew where his target was. And when he turned around to drop the stuff in he knew then, what he told us about, he was on his way home. If he dropped the things on his way in it would have meant he would have to turn and then turn around and head for home. But Lawrence didn’t. He carried on, came back to the target area, flew over the target area, dropped what he had to do and he was on his way home then and I could, that’s what I said, I’m in, I’m in the rear turret as we were leaving and it was just a mass of flames. The city itself. I could just see it, you know. Yeah. But that’s what he did and that was, that was why we got away with it, you know because a lot of them got, when they got in got shot down unfortunately over the target area.
BW: So this is because the Germans or even the let’s say pro-German forces and possibly even the Russians knew which route the supply aircraft would come in.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And so Lawrie was avoiding that.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Flying further up the river.
JML: Just went straight on. Yeah.
BW: Made the turn over the city.
JML: Yeah.
BW: Instead of over the river.
JML: Yeah.
BW: And came straight over the target, made the drop and was straight out.
JML: On his way out.
BW: As opposed to having to turn over the target.
JML: Yeah. Yeah.
BW: That’s a smart move.
JML: It was a smart move. Definitely. Yeah. But there was a lot of politics involved in that part. The story goes that, well it’s in writing that Stalin wouldn’t allow the RAF planes to land in Russia. So whether that’s right or not I don’t know but that’s the story. That’s the story anyway and that’s why they lost so many bloody aircraft. Instead of being able to just go in, drop the bombs, turn into Russia and drop. Go on Margaret.
BW: And that was the profile you flew each time on those drops was instead of following the expected route you fly further up the river and make the turn later.
JML: That’s what Lawrence did, anyway. Yeah [pause] She’s off again. Aye.
BW: And even though it was at night you were able to see vividly the flames and flashes over the city.
JML: Terrible. Yeah. Yeah. Terrible. Well, we were flying that low, you know. I mean in Bomber Command you’re twenty thousand feet in the air. Fifteen thousand feet in the air. We were just above the drop. I think it was three hundred feet. I think it was. Either three hundred or four hundred feet and then we dropped the, dropped the stuff. Yeah.
BW: Right. Thank you.


Brian Wright, “Interview with James McKenzie Leith,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2024,

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