Interview with Frank Leatherdale


Interview with Frank Leatherdale


Frank was an aircraft spotter for the Local Defence Volunteers and volunteered to join the Royal Air Force as a pilot. He went to Calgary in Canada on the Empire Air Training Scheme, where he few Tiger Moths at the Elementary Training School. He was, however, re-mustered as an air observer and qualified in February 1943.
Frank joined 115 Squadron at RAF Witchford, where his crew was formed and flew in Lancaster Mk 2. His first tour consisted of 30 trips, although they only completed 29 because of a change of pilots. He then joined 7 Squadron, part of the Pathfinder Force. He trained at the Pathfinder Training Unit and went to RAF Oakington where they were twice Master Bombers. After his tour, Frank was posted to the Radar Research Establishment at RAF Defford as station navigation officer. It involved several different aircraft and flights (bomber, coastal, naval). He describes several of the interesting people he flew with and the work on Doppler navigation. Frank was subsequently sent to the Pathfinder Training Unit as an instructor and recounts a flight with Air Vice Marshal Bennett, investigating blue target indicator bombs.
After Frank was demobilised, he worked initially as an air traffic control officer before accepting a permanent commission into the RAF. Frank goes on to describe his post-war RAF activities.
Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work in Pathfinders.







00:59:36 audio recording


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GR: It’s Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale.
AM: OK. [laugh] So, my name’s Annie Moodie. I’m working as a volunteer for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln and we’re recording memories of Bomber Command veterans for the learning centre in Lincoln so that there’ll be there as a record for future generations. And, I am in Norwich today and with Squad— Squadron Leader Frank Leatherdale and it’s the 18th of October 2015. So, thank you for agreeing to this. And, maybe can — if you can just tell me a little bit about your early days. Where you were born and what did your parents do?
FL: I was born in Thornton Heath, which is part of Croydon these days, almost London, but — and educated at the City of London Freemen’s School at Ashtead, um, not that my father was a Freeman. He — we were day pupils there, my brother and I, um, and I was born on 3rd of November 1922. We’d better start there and [clears throat] when I finished school war had just started. July, I finished and, um, I was still too young to join the RAF. They wouldn’t have me until I was eighteen so I joined the local Defence Volunteers, which was before the Home Guard, and I was a bit of a nob [?] on aircraft recognition because I used to make Skybird models. These were 1:72nd wooden scale models of various aircraft and if you’d been filing away at a piece of wood you know that shape when you see it in the sky very well. And this was known in our DV and so they made me a fulltime aircraft spotter and, um, whenever the air raid alarm went I had to leap in my bike, cycle up the road about three or four hundred yards, to where a house had a very good vantage point all round. This was in Leatherhead in the North Downs and the people at this house on the corner left a window open downstairs so I could reach in and grab their telephone. So, this was known as Point L21. Whenever I got there I had to put two numbers, one was the Leatherhead Police Station, the other was a number in the Brooklands Defence. I never did find out quite where it was but it was an Army number. Anyway, and then I reported what I saw and I never saw great droppings of parachutes or anything like that but I did see aircraft and, on one occasion, I was watching the sky and saw this flash out of the corner of my eye, to the south east, and I thought, ‘That’s funny, what was that?’ And the only equipment I had was what we had in the family. I didn’t get any government equipment. So, I just got some little binoculars and I looked through this thing. There was a group of some twenty-odd aircraft coming across and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s unusual,’ and wondered what the flash was I saw and I reckoned then they were Messerschmitt Jaguars which I’d just read about it. The Messerschmitt Jaguar was a version of the 110 fighter but the bomber version with the glass nose. In fact, later on we learnt that they only built about three of these things but it was reported as a new type in our journals. And, um, anyway, I thought they were going to try and get down to London through the back door’ sort of thing, coming over our way. And —
GR: In fact, this would have been, this was 1940 while the Battle of Britain was —
FL: Sorry?
GR: Was this 1940 [unclear] during the Battle of Britain?
FL: October 1940 yes. And so I reported these aircraft through, to the numbers that I had to ring and I found that, whilst we had air raid warning at Leatherhead, um, it hadn’t reached Brooklands. Their sirens hadn’t gone, which was a bit odd, someone slipped up there but, nevertheless, I didn’t think these things were going to Brooklands. I thought they were going to try to get round, as I say, to London from the north, from the north to west through the back door but they got over at Esher and then they then just peeled off. It was like watching something at the Hendon air display in the peacetime. But they just came down one after the other and bombed the Vickers works at Brooklands. They didn’t touch Hawker’s on the other side of the airfield, thank God, but the trouble was, that as the sirens hadn’t gone, they didn’t respond to my warning, which was, would have given them about five minutes. They would have to be pretty quick off the mark. But one of the bombs hit their canteen and it was lunchtime and two hundred workers were killed there with that bomb. Luckily for us, a Polish Squadron based at Croydon, with Hurricanes, had seen these aircraft approaching Brooklands and the chappie in charge of them said, ‘We’d better go and investigate this.’ And they just managed to get there and attack them as, as they were breaking away from their dives and they shot one down, and the Bofors guns got another one and, um, that was it. Well, when the raid was over I jumped on my bicycle and cycled up to where I’d seen this smoke coming up from the one that had been shot down by the Hurricanes in fact, but it didn’t matter. But being an excited schoolboy (I was only seventeen) I didn’t write down how many there were or what it was. I could so easily have looked at this wreck on, burning on the ground and identified it. I, in fact, took a piece of wreckage of it, which is in the museum at Brooklands now. It’s only a little piece of metal. So, as I said, we weren’t very sure what these aircraft were but we eventually found out that they were a fighter bomber. The Germans only built three Jaguars [slight laugh]. These were just their normal fighter bomber Messerschmitt 110. Anyway, I eventually joined the RAF after that and wanted to be a pilot, like we all did, and was sent out to Canada, to the Empire Air Training Scheme, and I went out right across to Calgary and we were flying Tiger Moths at the Elementary Flying Training School and, very quickly, I didn’t have many hours, I got my log book. I had only twelve hours altogether, um, learning to fly this thing but I crashed one on take-off. A lot of people had trouble landing. I had no trouble guessing my height off the ground. I could land them beautifully. It was take-off that got me and when you open up the engine on a, any aeroplane but particularly a thing like a Tiger Moth there’s a vertex, vortex of air going back onto the tail plane and if you don’t do something about it that’s going to push that tail round so the pilot has to take off some of the rudder to keep the thing straight. I was told all this and I thought, ‘Well, that was easy.’ And then I was given a flight commander’s check and this was when I did a ground loop on take-off, spun round, and, you know, well what happened there? Well, of course the undercarriage collapsed. Not a lot of damage done but worrying. Anyway, I was given another check by a more senior instructor and the same thing happened. I did another ground loop. Years later I realised what I think what was happening was that my first instructor was only quite soon, only just been appointed, a pilot himself and, um, and when he said I’d got control he was still on the controls, quite unwittingly I should think. And so, as we were starting to take off he was working the rudder but didn’t know he was. And so I thought, ‘Oh this is fine.’ Off we went but when the flight commander gave me the check he didn’t have his feet on the rudder bar and I had [emphasis] control when he said I had and, um, and of course I didn’t do anything about correcting this swing until I saw the nose starting to move on the horizon and so then I started to over-correct in the opposite direction and that caused the ground loop. So, I was re-mustered, um, and sent down to a training unit right across the other side of Canada to be re-mustered as an air observer. And well, I was all very upset by that but still, I did what I was told, and became an air observer and qualified as such in February ‘43. Oh, I had been sick in hospital in the meanwhile, in Canada, with glandular fever but anyway, so that put me back a bit. And I eventually, afterwards, realised that how lucky I’d been because the most of the pilots on my first course had a very rough time of it. Many of them were killed when they eventually got across Europe and I always thought, ‘Well, I’d rather be a live navigator than a dead pilot.’ Until I was a sergeant na— navigator with the flying Os, we had in those days, I won’t tell you what we used to call them but you know what [laugh]
GR: I know what [laugh].
FL: And, um, came back to England and joined 115 Squadron up at Witchford, just outside Ely, and when we formed up as a crew an Australian pilot said would I be his navigator and I said, ‘Yes.’ And I’m glad I did. He was a very nice chap and a very good officer and he selected the rest of our crew as he was going round in this big hangar meeting people as we did in those days. It was all very voluntary. And so, we got to 115 Squadron flying the Lancaster Mark 2s. Now, the Lanc 2 had Hercules engines so many people thought they were Halifaxes, looking at them quickly. Of course they’d got these Hercules engines but it was a Lancaster Mark 2 and a damn good aircraft because the Hercules engines had got more power than a Merlin so it was rather like having four — a Hercules was an equivalent four Merlins so we could lift a heavier bomb load. Our difficulty was, we also gobbled up more fuel, especially at high altitude. Anyway, quite shortly our pilot was — went into Ely Hospital with pneumonia and they wouldn’t let us wait for him to come out. They sent another pilot up to take over the crew and he was a Canadian and probably a far better pilot than our Australian chap but nothing like the officer that the Australian was. The Australian really was a good officer, had us all trained and — right, this Canadian, he’d come back from a raid and said, ‘Where have we been?’ [laugh] If we’d been shot down, you know, he wouldn’t have a clue where he was. And that was Mack all the time. He was sitting up late at night playing cards with his oppos in the billets and, um, there was one occasion when, in the following morning — oh, I by this time I was a flying officer and so was the pilot, um, anyway, we were down for flying that night and I looked at Mack and I thought, ‘I’m not flying with you tonight.’ His eyes were little slits and red. He’d been up half the night playing these cards with his — and smoking away there. And after, well years after the war I — oh, the raid was cancelled, thank goodness, so nothing happened, but I went to the flight commander, who was George Mackie, a very famous — also a, a navigator, well a flying O [laugh] and I said, you know, ‘Had I gone to you and told you this at the time what would you have done?’ He said, ‘Well, I’d have had to court martial him.’ And I thought it’s a good thing I didn’t. He was a good pilot as I say. But anyway, we got through our thirty trips on that first tour and I, myself, had only done twenty-nine. Because of the change of pilots we were, most of the crew, were one short. However, I was awarded an assessment of above average and so I thought if we went to Pathfinders we’d get more money. And this is a little tale that needs to be told, that when the Pathfinder Force was formed — and, of course, the shot rate was pretty high. Clearly, you were out in front of the main force, they were coming along, and just these few aircraft out in front to mark the targets and our air officer commanding number 8 Group wanted to get us more money and Air Ministry said, ‘No, we’re not paying you danger money. That’s not how we work.’ So he went tick, tick, tick, tick. He promoted everybody one rank and got his money for us. So everybody was happy and, um, there we were and the rest of the crew were mostly made up to officers. They were sergeants or one was a flight sergeant. And so we went to 7 Squadron. After training at the Pathfinder Training Unit you went to Oakington just outside Ely —
GR: Did you have a break in between? Sorry Frank in between finishing your first tour and then going did you have a break, did you have —
FL: No, no. We, we carried straight on.
GR: Oh you went straight through.
FL: And, um, and I think well, I’m going to volunteer for Pathfinders, are the chaps are coming with me? Well the pilot didn’t want to, being Canadian he was going to go back to Canada and do more training, um, and the flight engineer didn’t want to because he’d just got married on one of the deep leaves that we had at the end of our ops. The rest of them came with me and joined, we joined Pathfinders and we picked up a new pilot there. And, in fact, we didn’t have, we had several different pilots in Pathfinders. It wasn’t a sort of regular crew. The rest of us were but the pilots seemed to come and go. And so, we staggered through a tour on Pathfinders, and we had — twice we were master bombers on the raids so that was good and when I finished there, I was assessed as above average and I thought, ‘Well, that was pretty good.’ But assessed as above average in a Force which was itself was above average. Anyway, I was then I posted to the Radar Research Establishment down at Defford which did all the flying for all the boffins at the Intelligence Communication Radar Establishment at Malvern and, um, I was the station navigation officer at Defford and they had all sorts of aircraft there so this was great fun for me. I liked flying in different planes and, um, anyway I did a lot of flying with the CO of the bomber flight. There was a bomber fight, a coastal flight and things like that at Defford, a naval flight as well, and this pilot, the CO of A Flight, was a chap called Ken Letchford [?] DSO and bar, DFC, from his Pathfinder days. Anyway, I did quite a lot of flying with him and got on very well with him and I flew with a lot of other pilots as well and, um, one of the jobs we were working on was Doppler navigation and the boffins were sitting at the back of a, another Mark 2 Lancaster actually and I had to align the nose, looking at the road or ground ahead, and the boffins would say, ‘We’ve got a return coming up at two miles.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes there’s a motorcycle there,’ or whatever it might be so, eventually, over time they would learn what these returns were on their Doppler. A car would give them this sort of picture and something else would give something different and so on. Well, this meant very low, a lot of it was very low level flying, and Ken Letchford would get right down on the deck, which is what the boffins wanted, so that their Doppler radar looked along the ground. This was just after the Germans had broken through in the Ardennes and, um, so there was a bit of a hurry on to get this equipment working because, at the time of the German breakthrough, which was a bit foggy, the air wasn’t able to give much support to the American sector where the Germans had attacked. Anyway, I would be lying there in the nose and all down the Bristol Channel you’d get these little blocks with a pole and a little light on it for, to warn the shipping, a little — fishing smacks and things, and Ken would go over [slight laugh] and down the other side. Well, when you switch the microphone on in an aeroplane you get a swooshing noise and as soon as I switched on Ken would say, ‘It’s alright Frank. I know where it is.’ And he always did, while most pilots would lose have lost it under the nose, they’d no longer see it, but his skill was he always knew right where it was, and sure enough, as I say, up and down the other side and so there it was. Anyway, one of the pilots I was flying with was — it was the first time I’d flown in a Beaufighter and he’d done his ops on Beaufighters, this chap, and, um, we had a, or the boffins had, a radar station on the Welsh coast, at a place called Brawdy, so that they could work out over Fishguard Bay and so we’d gone down there for, to take some equipment to them. On the way back this pilot decided to beat up Porthcawl and he dived down on the beach at Porthcawl as we were flying back home and to get in the Beaufighter the navigator had to go up through the bottom of the back compartment. The main spar separated you from the pilot’s cabin, no way through physically, and it was the general practice and I did the same as I’d been shown to leave my parachute pack on the airborne interception equipment and, anyway, as the pilot had dived down on Porthcawl, pulled up afterwards, he pulled a lot of G and I was crushed down in my seat and hanging on the sides of the plane and I could feel myself slipping down. And the floor of my compartment was the door which I had climbed in through and it had put the extra load and the extra negative G had snapped the lock on it and that meant I’d slid out a bit so my intercom plug pulled out of the socket and I couldn’t talk to the pilot at all. Thank God he was the man he was because, not only was he an experienced Beaufighter pilot, he’d also done the test flying on Beaufighters at Bristols and as soon as this door started to open he felt the change of trim. So, he thought, ‘Crickey.’ You know, he could guess what was happening and so he quickly put the plane into a bump, and a bump is a reverse loop, and you can — and coming down like that and again had he continued he would have done up and done the loop but he just, just pulled up. So, anyway he stuck the nose down quickly and that got me [unclear] back into my seat with positive G instead of negative G and, um, I was able to plug in and say I was still there and he said, ‘Yes right. We’ll carry on.’ And we got home alright. Just after he’d left Defford, which he was wing CO there at this time, a chap Peter Gibb, he set the world record for a jet aircraft altitude climb. He was — had gone to, back to Bristol’s as a test pilot and, um, he set this thing at about sixty thousand feet or something [clears throat] and about a fortnight later he thought, ‘Well, I can better this.’ Bristols had different engines so he got them to fit more powerful Bristol engines to this Canberra and he went up, and he left the navigator out so it would reduce his weight, and set another world record, which might be even still there to this day. Certainly all the time war was on it was still the record, of about sixty-five thousand feet. Anyway, as I say, I flew with several interesting people, many of them much medal-ridden. One, a chap called Trousdale, he was a New Zealander really, um, but he got the DFC and an AFC and he was also awarded a Dutch [emphasis] DFC because he’d done intruder work in his Beaufighter and he bombed bridges and barges and things like that. Anyway, the Dutch DFC is like ours but is — where the DFC’s got blue and white stripes and the Air Force Cross has got red and white stripes, the Dutch one has got orange [emphasis] and white stripes so, until such time we was issued our campaign medals, these three medals were together. Later on, of course, the Dutch one, being Dutch, would become at the end of his row of medals with the — so you would have the DFC, the AFC, then the campaign medals and then this Dutch one but until that time they were these things and then he was an outstanding chap to look at, he’d got all these strips of different colours. Anyway, he was a very good pilot and, um, one of the flights I did with him, he decided to go in a B17. We had one Flying Fortress, an American Boeing B17. We also had a Liberator there. Anyway, we had to go down to Geschborn, Eschborn [emphasis] in Germany to pick up some equipment which the boffins had left there. As the Army advanced across Germany they got parcelled this stuff up to bring it back to examine it more carefully in this country. And we went over to pick this up and we had to land at Croydon airport coming back, both to clear Customs and to dump off this package of radar equipment, which was going to go Air Ministry to get it in their hands quickly. And so, as we came into land I had wonderful seat right in the nose of this B17. I was navigating on a thing called a Bigsworth board, which was a mobile chart table really. How I came by it? I don’t know. I must have found it somewhere in some odd corner of a RAF station I’d been on. It was from the First World War really. But anyway, it was a very good mobile chart table, and as we flew up the Thames and then turned south to go into Croydon, over the houses, which I hadn’t seen before because they didn’t go that way, bombers obliviously at night but even in daylight we wouldn’t fly over London. Anyway there we were having to fly over London, all these houses, incredible, and we came in and Croydon was a grass aerodrome, didn’t have built-in runways at that time, and I’d been there as a boy, before to war, to see airliners go in and out and, um, I thought, never thought I’d come and land here so it was quite an experience for me to land there. Anyway, um, when I’d finished my two years as a station navigation officer at Defford I was sent to the Pathfinder Training Unit as an instructor and I hadn’t been there very long when the CO said, ‘Oh Frank, go and get your kit. The AOC wants to take a Lanc up.’ The AOC, this was Bennett, Air Vice Marshall Bennett, the most famous navigator in the world, you couldn’t get a — you know, what he hadn’t done, a tremendous man. Anyway, the reason he wanted to go on this flight whilst we had target indicator bombs, which were red and green and one or two yellows but we, our boffins couldn’t get blue and the Germans would make up false target indicators, which they would fire up with their anti-aircraft guns, and try and make people bomb the wrong place so, if they could get a blue marker then the Germans would have — apparently one Dave Brocks [?] said, ‘We’ve got the thing for you. We’ve got a blue marker.’ And so Bennett, being the man he was, said, ‘Right, I want to see it.’ And so, this is why he took a crew made up of other instructors at the Pathfinder Training Unit and, um, I must admit I wasn’t unworried. I was right on my toes because I was ready, knowing that Bennett was an efficiency man, and we took off from Warboys where we were. You could see the Wash and the ranges on it but of course coming the other way I knew very well — but he would knew where he because he knew the place was like the back of his hand. Anyway, I kept the thing right up to date on my G Box. If he asked for a course I could give it to him immediately. And anyway, these marker things, what Brocks had done was to fill marker bomb case with chopped up blue paper and so, when it was burst in daylight, this showered down and make quite a little blue cloud of — in the sky but quite hopeless for a crew to see it and in daylight not at all. So he wasn’t very pleased with that but it was interesting. Well when we landed — By the way Bennett wrote a book on air navigation, I think it might be still the book on it and I had it in my RAF bag and so we landed and I said, ‘Would you mind Sir autographing my book.’ ‘No lad!’ [laugh] I thought he’d be happy to do it. And he turned round to the wireless operator, sorry the flight engineer, and said, ‘And get your microphone checked.’ And this chap had been stuttering and stammering all the way through the flight and I didn’t know him from Adam, of course, it was just other instructors pulled together to make this crew up for the CO, AOC, and he turned round to this flight engineer and said, ‘Get your microphone checked, lad.’ And the chap looked a bit red faced but still. There wasn’t anything wrong with his microphone at all. He was just scared of Bennett. Couldn’t say two words together but you didn’t need to be scared of Bennett. If you were doing your job he would back you to the hilt but if you weren’t doing your job that was another matter. He would soon see you were going to — and he was a great one for training and even when we were on the Squadron we never wasted time. If you weren’t on ops for some reason you’d be sent off on a training exercise. Now, I didn’t worry about this because I could see the benefit of it. It speeds up your work, certainly as a navigator, if you keep in practice every day but some of the boys didn’t like this. They thought it — they would rather go into town [slight laugh] and relax and so on. But anyway, there we were that was Bennett’s method and I think it saved a lot of lives and improved a lot efficiency. So —
GR: So where are we in war time now?
AM: 45? Or 44?
FL: Well, the war came to an end.
AM: 45?
FL: Well, I was eventually demobbed and, um, oh, whilst I was at Defford at the radar establishment I was working on equipment called Airfield Controlled Radar, 3X, X stands for ten centimetre waveband and I said to the wing commander of flight and I said, ‘Look if I’m here to use this equipment and help the boffins I need to get trained as an air traffic control officer.’ He said, ‘Yes I can understand that.’ So I was sent off just on — as duty from Defford to the Air Traffic Control School at, er, Edgeware. I became a — qualified an air traffic control officer so, when I came to be demobbed, I got myself a job with the Ministry of Civil Aviation and, um they were all ex-RAF chaps of course. I was posted to the area control at Uxbridge and one Saturday the boys were going off to lunch and they said, ‘Frank, you’d be alright looking after things.’ I said, ‘Yes, no trouble.’ And a little Airspeed Oxford came in up in, er, distress having flying from the Channel Islands to Southampton lost an engine and this was November, which was not the sort of time to come down in the Channel, cold water and so on. Anyway, as soon as the emergency arose and did what we would have done the RAF always and I picked up the telephone, got through to Mountbatten in Plymouth and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. Can you have a launch standing by?’ So they said, ‘Yes.’ And alerted a launch somewhere up, probably in Southampton, to get ready to fish someone out of the water. Well, the aircraft landed in Southampton so didn’t leave anyone on tenterhooks waiting for this emergency that no longer existed. I made another telephone call to Mountbatten to say, ‘Thank you very much, stand down, all is OK.’ Come Monday morning, the senior air traffic controller at this centre, who had been at Croydon before the war and how he dodged the war I don’t know but he was in air traffic —, and he, the plane was so antiquated, it wasn’t true. I mean, the RAF had been using radio telephony for ages but not these boys. They were sending turns to land at their simple air fields by WT, on the Morse code, so it meant carrying a wireless operator in the aircraft to trans— for the messages between the air and the ground. Anyway, this chap came in Monday morning and said, ‘What are these two telephone calls to Mountbatten?’ And I explained what it was and he said, ‘Oh no, no, no. You mustn’t do that. Only the Minister can ask the RAF to help. You should have sent a telegram (or a signal he put it but that turned out to be a telegram) to the Minister asking if he would give permission to help these poor blokes.’ Well, by that time they’d had been dead if they had landed in the deep and so I was so infuriated and instead of taking humble pie I said, ‘That is ridiculous, the cost of two telephone calls.’ And all the correct procedures, a far as I was concerned, and the bad thing would have been if I’d left them standing by and hadn’t told them the chap had landed safely. So anyway, instead of eating humble pie, that very morning I had a letter from the Air Ministry in my pocket offering me a permanent commission in the RAF. At this time I was still a volunteer, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. And I thought I don’t know what to do about this but that made up my mind, and I said, ‘I’m going back to the RAF.’ And that was the start of my proper RAF career in post-war days. I did a tour on Lincolns at Waddington and, um, and then I had been doing quite a lot of work on evasion and escape. There was an organisation, the Air Ministry Air Intelligence 9 it was called, and it taught people how to evade and so on and they used to lay on exercises to train people and each station might have one operation perhaps only once a year perhaps, but it laid on that the air crew go off as if they were invading, evading and told they would be dropped off of coaches and they didn’t know where they were, they wouldn’t be told where they were, they had to find out where they were just as if they’d bailed out and, um, and the local police and some army units usually provided opposition for them, trying to catch them. Almost the first exercise that I did, actually organising it, I thought well it’s — when these chaps are caught and brought in to the Police Headquarters, the Police Headquarters were regions around the country, they were being interrogated and I realised that this was not teaching them very much at all because there was no fear at all so they wouldn’t, wouldn’t know quite what, how to react to it. So I had myself, hired myself from Mos Bros an army officer’s uniform as a captain in the artillery with some war medals — oh, and I should say I’d been awarded the DFC in Pathfinders, so I had an MC on this uniform, and the exercise started and I was at the Police Headquarters where these chaps who were caught brought in and I had two big labels put on doors of two different rooms, one saying ‘RAF Interviewer’ and one saying RA— ‘Army Liaison Officer’. So, they would come in and they had been told, of course, to say nothing until the exercise ended on the Monday, the course was over a weekend, and various chaps were brought in and, much to my surprise, one of them was the station commander of RAF Coltishore and he’d decided to go on the run with the boys and he got caught. So anyway, he came in and to me as an Army Liaison Officer and he started to tell me all about the exercise, where they were going, where the [unclear] were and I was taking all this down and when he’d gone I went round to the wing commander policemen who was in charge of the opposition and said, ‘Look if we let this information out it’s the end of the exercise because there’s no point in it so we’ll keep this quiet until Monday morning.’ But then I had to put my report into Air Ministry, which I did, group captain so and so said this, that and the other. He was livid [emphasis]. He was going to have me court martialled wearing a uniform to which I wasn’t entitled, a medal to which I wasn’t entitled and, of course, it had all been laid on by Air Ministry, quite legitimately as far as I was concerned before-hand, and this station commander was none other than a chap called Bing Cross who was always a bit of a firing one. So anyway, that was that. Oh, and then the Suez operation came up and at this time I was at Upwood which was a Canberra station. I was in charge of the ground support system there and, when it as over, it was decided that proper, um, honour should we say, should be given to those who took part and Prince Michael, I think it was, came round and I had to lay out a graphic, get all these photographs that had been taken during the operation in Suez and, of course, you could speak to all the air crew of the squadrons that had gone from Upwood. Well, of course, naturally with such a high ranking visitor the air officer commanding Upwood, which was 1 Group, was Gus Walker, a little man who’d lost an arm during the war when he was rescuing a team, a crew of a bomber that crashed on his airfield at Flintham [?], a wonderful man, and anyway he was there and Cross turned up to represent his squadrons that had taken part in Suez and so Gus Walker, this 1 Group Air Vice Marshal, started to tell Bing Cross, the Air Vice Marshal of 3 Group, about me and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ And Cross turned round to Gus Walker and said, ‘I know him.’ [laugh] And, much to my surprise, told this tale about himself. I didn’t think he was like that. He’d forgotten over the years perhaps but, um, anyway, he told Gus Walker all about me so that was that.
AM: Gosh, where, where did you —
FL: And then I went out to Korea with the Army still on this evasion and escape drop. I was an Air Ministry liaison officer, the only one north of — well only one in Korea really, certainly —
GR: That’s while the Korean War was on?
FL: Korean Headquarters where I had a little tent and each new lot of soldiers coming in I had to brief them on evading and so on. Well, of course, evading in Korea was very different from evading in this country. I mean, you couldn’t walk around and pretend you were anything other than what you were, with your white face and so on. But, um, so really it was a question of teaching them how to live off the land rather than how to evade but, anyway, that’s what we did and so for two years I was doing that, not only with the Army, I was, I went out onto the boats, HMS Ocean and HMS, oh, the other one. Anyway, there were two aircraft carriers [sneeze] and also I used to work with the Americans, 5th Air Force. I went out on the other coast to one of their big aircraft carriers and spoke to their air crew and so on.
GR: And that would be the early ‘50s, wouldn’t it? 1952, ’53?
AM: No later than that. It’s later than that isn’t it —
GR: The Korean War was ’53.
FL: Anyway, I went back to — well, Air Force Technical Training Command, working in research branch, that was interesting, no flying really, and then from that back — well to 115 here at Marham then, and flying Washingtons, B59s, as the Americans called and I was flight commander on B Flight.
GR: When did you finish in the RAF, Frank?
FL: Sorry?
GR: When did you finish in the RAF the second time around?
FL: Yes —
Frank’s wife: We always forget don’t we?
AM: ‘80s?
FL: Well, oh, from that I was given command of 220 Squadron with Thors, ballistic missiles, so for that I had to go to America to be trained as a launch control officer and ,um, then came back and was stationed up the road at Swaffham, north Ickenham, and when I my tour of duty was finished with that, the only job open for a squadron leader of my seniority, was to run the officers’ mess at one of the three bomber stations and I thought, ‘My God, going from missiles to messes, you know, what is the RAF coming to?’ [laugh] I had long realised that it was a pilot’s Air Force and didn’t have the same promotion chances as navigators. It’s changed now. You’ve got quite a few navigators right up the top but not in those days. If you weren’t a pilot you got nowhere so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll come out.’ And, um, sorry, I can’t think of the year. It doesn’t really matter.
AM: No, it desn’t matter.
FL: So that was the end of my RAF career, running this officers’ mess. In fact, it got me a job in civil life but that’s another story and you won’t want to know about that [laugh]. It’s probably about some of the things in Bomber Command and there’s one flight that I would like to record —
AM: It’s on.
FL: And that’s with 115, from when I was at Witchford. 115 was a big squadron and A and B Flights had used up all the letters of the alphabet because our code letters were KO for 115 Squadron so you had KO, then the roundel and then the aircraft identification A, B, C, whatever it might be. Well, when they got round to C Flight, as I said, they’d used up all the letters of the alphabet so, instead of having KO as the number we had A4. Well, it was a big A and little 4 like a Q and this particular night we’d been down to bomb Friedrichschafen on the —
GR: Maltese [?] coast.
FL: There’s a big lake there now.
Frank’s wife: Lake Constance?
FL: The Messerschmitt factory was in — it was a terrible night, stormy, thunder clouds, bouncing around and I was feeling quite sick. I did suffer from air sickness a great deal in rough aircraft. Anyway, we got down there, markers went down, we bombed the target and turned to come back when we did I didn’t get much help on the way down fixing our positon. And so I knew we obviously — Friedrichschafen that was the name of the place. I knew we’d been at Friedrichschafen when we bombed so from that I could work out what the average speed wind had been since we took off and I thought I’d use this average wind to get home. And the wireless operator couldn’t get me any bearings. Because of these thunderstorms the radio waves had been bounced off the thunderclouds and so the DF direction systems couldn’t help us. It was us on them or them on us. But we got back to where it was over Witchford to Ely and, in those days, all the aircraft had a radio transmission in the aircraft to speak to the ground but it had a limited range of nine miles, deliberately, because there was so many airfields that if it was any wider the ether would be absolutely cluttered with talking so, anyway, we got to where we should have been over Witchford, over Ely, and calling up for a turn to land, deathly quiet, nobody about, no other aircraft, nobody answering. So I thought, ‘Well that’s odd.’ Well, if the wind has changed well we would have been blown this way so I’d go north for ten minutes but then the wind may have gone the other way so I’d go west for ten minutes, still trying to find Witchford, and we had a system, if you were lost you called out ‘Darky’. That was the call sign to get help and any ground station hearing somebody calling ‘Darky’ would answer it with the name of their station. As I said, we were limited to nine miles so you knew you would be within nine miles of that airfield, um, but anyway, nobody answered our Darky call and we went north ten minutes, west ten minutes, north ten minutes, west ten minutes and all the time the bright lights on the fuel tanks were glowing red and I thought, ‘Oh my God, you know, we’re going to be in trouble here.’ And then, just as I was going to tell the crew to — I think I did tell them actually, yes, we sat on the Mae West dinghy, individual pack, and but you didn’t have it clipped to your parachute harness. Normally we just sat on it, that was it, but when you wanted to use it you had to clip it on to the side of your parachute harness otherwise you wouldn’t have a dinghy. So, I warned the crew to hook on their dinghy’s and just at that point we were going north and the rear gunner spotted a searchlight to the rear, to, in other words, to the south and just shining a single searchlight on the cloud. Well, that was, er, quite a normal procedure for showing where an airfield was, a Sandra light it was called, a single searchlight, so we turned to go towards that and I thought, ‘Hang on. We’re going south and we might have been blown a long way south to start with and we could be going to France.’ And we knew the Germans had set up airfields in northern France, along the coast, to make them look like RAF airfields to try and say, ‘Come on in boys. This is where you are.’ Just to capture you, capture the aeroplane, so we carried a little bomb in the aircraft and coming down on hostile country this was to be put in the wing over the fuel tank and then you ignited it, it was an incendiary bomb, and it would burn the aircraft up. And that was the job of the wireless operator was to get out through the hatch on top and go and do this once we’d landed. Anyway, we did quite agree and what I told them to do was for the gunners to protect the aircraft while he was going to do that. Of course, he couldn’t get out until the aircraft had landed, obviously. Anyway, as we got down into the circuit, once we’d broke through this layer of cloud, we could see where the searchlight was shining on the cloud, reflecting all around like daylight underneath, and one of the gunners said, ‘Cor, this is a Messerschmitt over there and a Dornier over there.’ Oh yes, this is one of those German places so I said, ‘Look, gunners stay in their turrets and fight off anyone who comes while we get out and get this bomb burning.’ Well, I used to carry a Mouser pistol because I didn’t like the idea of the RAF only giving you a Bentley 38 with six rounds of ammunition. It wasn’t going to last you very far on the continent but a friend of my fathers had captured this Mouser nine millimetre in the fighting in Russia after, as the First World War ended, and he’d had given it to me so I had this thing. Well, I was going to go to the door and help fight off any Germans coming to try and capture the aircraft and as the tail hit the runway, as we landed, the engines cut, we were right out of fuel. I thought, ‘Goodness me we couldn’t ever get any closer than that.’ Well, we knew it was really low because we’d had red lights on the fuel tanks for some while but, of course, as the engines cut the lights went out because it was the dynamos in the engines that kept the lights going. So, I went on back down to — in the darkness to fiddle with the outside door. Well, it was opened from the outside and a good old English voice said, ‘Oh, 115 Squadron.’ Oh no, there’s something funny about this because, as I said, we didn’t carry 115 letters. We weren’t marked up as KO we were marked as A4 so I thought I’ll put my pistol behind me [laugh] you know, and we found we had landed — oh, sorry as we were approaching it through the static we did pick up the words, ‘Something Ford Bridge standing by.’ I thought Stamford Bridge. Can’t be Yorkshire but it might have been. But anyway where are we? And it turned out what we’d now call Blackbushe, down near Woking . And, um, so it transpired our gunners were quite right, what was happening was that this was just before — well, D -Day hadn’t happened but they were getting ready for it and they got such German aircraft as they caught and assembled there, so that pilots could learn to fly them, so that when the invasion took place they could get over and bring German aircraft back to us. But I was so shattered after that I said, ‘I’m so sorry I can’t stand any more after this. I’m going to resign.’ Of course, it wasn’t just me. It was six other aircraft and they were relying upon me and I failed them. So anyway, when we eventually got back to our base at Witchford the following day, um, the station navigation officer went through my work and said, ‘I couldn’t find any mistakes here. It’s just you didn’t have the information that you needed.’ Well, I said, ‘That’s true. I couldn’t get any information on the way back.’ So, we were just lucky and I said, ‘Well, as a navigator or as an old flying O, I was trained as a gunner. I could go and fly with somebody else in the turret. It didn’t worry me. I’d be quite happy to fly in the turret.’ But the crew said, ‘No, we want you as our navigator.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, we went all through the business of laying mines and mines and so on.’ But we stayed together and carried on with Pathfinders.
AM: Crikey.
GR: Wonderful.
FL: That was a very dodgy, that was the most frightening flight I had.
AM: The dodgiest one of the lot.
FL: Sorry?
AM: The dodgiest one of the lot. You just can’t imagine actually that moment of landing and no fuel. Two more minutes, three more minutes and — gosh. I’ll switch back off again then.



Annie Moody, “Interview with Frank Leatherdale,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 18, 2024,

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