Pilot Officer HENRY FIDDES LEECH, Auxiliary Air Force

 

'Harry' Leech was a pre-war member of 611 Squadron and detached to RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, for Summer Camp when war was declared (3 September 1939) and the Auxiliary squadrons were immediately called up and incorporated into the regular Royal Air Force.

The Form 540 (official diary) states the Sqn strength at Duxford and names the members of the Training Flight who returned to Speke (Sqn HQ) on 2 Sept with a Battle, two Hinds and four Tutors. It also lists the 13 Spitfire Mk I aircraft with Merlin III engines, including K9985 FY:G, briefly describing the situation at Duxford as they mobilised for war. Harry was one who stayed at Duxford.

On 2 Sept it states '12.25 or thereabouts, Pilot Officer Henry Fiddes Leech was killed in a flying accident to Spitfire K9985 at a point about 5 miles south west of Wattisham aerodrome'. We do not know what the time relates to except perhaps when the Sqn was informed at Duxford.

An additional note of 5 Sept relates to events over the previous few days stating the pilots were rated for day flying only and a battle flight was dispatched daily, if required, from Duxford to Watton, and it was on this flight that Plt Off H F Leech was killed. He took off from Duxford at 10.50 with six other Spitfires, all of whom landed at Watton to await orders at 11.10. There is no mention of a funeral and he is not on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission web site listing, as he died the day before war was declared so no more info can be gleaned from there.

Terry Betchley of the Wattisham Airfield Museum researched the accident and found he was born 8 March 1918, son of Frank and Helen Leech of Ashburnham, 7 Knowsley Road, Cressington Park, Liverpool. He attended Liverpool College where he was head prefect and a corporal in the OTC, on leaving school employed by a Liverpool timber firm then joined his father at Garston Tannery. He was awarded his wings on 21 July 1939 and had a grand total of 163 hours at his death, aged 21 years. The RAF Form 1180 Flying Accident Card states: 'he flew into the ground on coming out of low cloud flying in conditions of very low cloud and visibility. Possibly avoidable if he had been told to formate on section instead of following but may not have been sufficiently experienced for formation.'

Harry Leech (Acting Plt Off) was awarded his flying badge (equivalent to Wings) on 21 July 1939 so his experience was very limited. There is no other reference to him in the documents.

Harry's funeral was at St Peter's Chapel, Liverpool College, Mossley Hill, Liverpool and he was cremated at Anfield Crematorium on 7 September 1939

We know the aircraft was delivered to 611 at Speke on 22 May 1939 but have no record of where it was built or where it was delivered from; a recent Aeromilitaria series on Mk I Spitfires gives no further info except it says he crashed flying into the ground out of cloud on a navex but we do not know where the info came from and it was not a navex but a transiting flight to RAF Watton in Norfolk.

Terry Betchley found several relatives and obtained additional information from them including photographs and Harry's birth certificate - unfortunately his log book has not been found. To commemorate Harry's death Terry arranged a celebration and Wreath Laying Ceremony on the site of his death on 2 September 2011 - 72 years after the tragic event. The site is located at Ladies Walk, adjacent to Bungeon's Farm at Barking in Suffolk.

On Friday 2 September approximately 60 people comprising family travelling from Ludlow, Nottingham, Portsmouth and other parts of the country; Bill Bugg who actually witnessed the crash when he was age 7; local representatives from the Royal British Legion (Peter Down, Chairman Stowmarket & District Chamber of Commerce and RBL Standard Bearer), Rev Canon Vernard Rose, Vicar of Barking, Graeme Steward, Pastor of Barking Chapel, Parish Council, Wattisham Airfield home to 3 Regiment Army Air Corps and 4 Regiment Army Air Corps (Base Commander Colonel Neale Moss OBE, Army Air Corps and base Chaplain), Wattisham Airfield Heritage and other local representatives. Aldon Ferguson represented 611 Squadron.

A reception was held in Barking Village Hall where we all met and then drove to a point near the place of the crash and walked the last 500m to the actual site. On our arrival a Sea King from B Flight No 22 Squadron, RAF flew by in tribute. Aldon opened the proceedings with an address setting the scene and giving a short overview of Harry's life and the circumstances leading up to his death. This was followed by a short service conducted by Rev Bernard Rose and an address by Pastor Graeme Steward. Four wreaths/floral tributes were laid at the actual spot of the crash, followed by the playing of the Last Post and the lowering of the British Legion Standard by Peter Down. We stood in silence for two minutes reflecting the tragic events at this very spot 72 years earlier and the silence was broken by a Hurricane from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby with flew directly overhead and continued with three more passes. The last one was a very low pass from behind the trees and a gentle climb away waggling his wings - a wonderful sight and sound. A Spitfire had been requested as it was a Spitfire that Harry was flying when he crashed but we gratefully accepted the Hurricane and support of the Flight.

Photos followed, some of which are attached to this release. We then returned to the Village Hall for a buffet lunch and the opportunity to discuss Harry and his tragedy and for the family to get together again. Unfortunately Harry's sister was not well enough to attend.

The crash site is located at Grid reference TM 074 539. Please note that it is private land and the permission of the land owner should be sought prior to attempting to find the site. There is no marker as the site is not located on or near to a public footpath and at this time there is no intention to provide one.

Sincere thanks is due to Terry Betchley, MBE who researched the crash and found details and family and put the day and ceremony together. Thanks also to his wife for her support, the ladies who prepared to lunch and drinks and the support from the local churches, Parish Council, British Legion, Army Air Corps, B Flight, No 22 Squadron RAF and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Wattisham Airfield Heritage.

Dedication read by Aldon Ferguson at service on site of the crash on Friday 2 Sept 2011:

Harry was from Liverpool being born there on 8 March 1918.
He attended Liverpool College where he was head prefect and a keen sportsman, both excellent attributes leading to him gaining a commission in the Auxiliary Air Force and becoming a fighter pilot.
He joined 611 Squadron at Speke airport in 1938 as a volunteer reservist and was taught to fly on the Squadron in Avro Tutors, Hawker Hinds; converted onto Fairey Battles and then onto Spitfires. 611 was the first Auxiliary Squadron to receive Spitfires with the first arriving in May 1939 so no one had much experience flying them.
He gained his wings on 21 July 1939
The Squadron attended summer camp at Duxford in Cambridgeshire in the summer of 1939 to accelerate their training and expertise flying the Spitfire. War was looming and the Squadron never returned to Liverpool as it was mobilised on 26 August and embodied into the regular Royal Air Force.
Anticipating sudden bombing raids by the Germans the Squadron sent a battle flight of Spitfires to Watton in Norfolk each day to be nearer the threat and , hopefully, repel it.
Harry was part of one of these battle flights and was flying to Watton in a loose formation on the morning of 2 September 1939. The weather was bad and as they came out of cloud it is believed that Harry had difficulty staying in formation, lost control and crashed at this spot dying in the resultant tragedy.
His grand total flying experience was only 163 hours with only 30 hours flying Spitfires which were much more advanced and sophisticated than the biplane types he had initially been trained on.
Although the Squadron was mobilised and war was imminent it is very sad that Harry was not officially recognised as a casualty of WWII and as such is not recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission nor is he remembered on any war memorial as far as we know. Hopefully today goes some way to rectifying this omission and error.
Harry was only 21 years old when he died on this spot 72 years ago today - may he rest in peace and never be forgotten.

IMG_8367r IMG_8367r 611-Duxford-1939 Bill-Bugg-at-crash-site-2-Sept-2011 Bill-Bugg-with-Terry-Betchley-2-Sept-2011 File1518r Harry-Leech-Accident-Record2 Harry-Leech-Accident-Record1 Harry-Leech-at-school Harry-Leech-memorial-2 Harry-Leech-Memorial-Hurricane-fly-past Harrys-closest-family Harrys-family-clergy-and-organisers order-of-service Sea-King-flypast The-floral-Tributes Those-who-attnded