The Airmen's Stories - S/Ldr. J A Leathart
James Anthony Leathart was born in London on 5th January 1915, the son of a surgeon, and educated at St Edwards, Oxford. He graduated from Liverpool University as an electrical engineer.
While there he joined 610 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force on 2nd May 1936 as one of its founder-members. He qualified to a wings and operational standard on Hawker Harts.
Leathart transferred to the RAF on 10th May 1937 with a short service commission and was posted to 3 FTS Grantham, later moving with it to South Cerney.
On 27th November 1937 Leathart joined 54 Squadron, then at Hornchurch. He was appointed ‘A’ Flight Commander on 1st September 1939 as an Acting Flight Lieutenant. Leathart aquired the nickname ‘The Prof’ as his fellow officers were impressed by his technical knowledge.
Over Dunkirk on 21st May Leathart probably destroyed a Ju88 and a He111. The next day he flew an unarmed Miles Magister to Calais-Marck aerodrome to pick up the CO of 74 Squadron, S/Ldr. FL White, who had been shot down and could not get back.
With cover provided by two Spitfires of 54 Squadron, piloted by P/O JL Allen and F/O AC Deere, the very hazardous operation was carried out successfully.
On 24th May Leathart claimed a Me109, on the 25th a probable Me110 and on the 26th two Me110s and a Ju88. On this day he took command of 54 Squadron as an Acting Squadron Leader. On the 27th he shared a Ju88, was awarded the DSO (gazetted 11th June 1940) and on 17th June probably destroyed a Ju88 and shared another.
King George VI visited the Spitfire Wing at Hornchurch to present Leathart with his DSO (below).
On 20th July Leathart damaged a Do17, on the 25th damaged a Me109, on 18th August got a probable Me109 and damaged another, on the 28th destroyed a Do17, on 2nd September destroyed a Me109 and probably another on the 3rd.
Leathart was due to take up a staff appointment on 1st September and relinquish command of 54 Squadron. However S/Ldr. DO Finlay, who had been a supernumerary with the squadron, was wounded in action with 54 and unable to assume command.
Leathart handed over to him on 18th September and was posted to the Air Ministry, to the Deputy Directorate of Air Tactics. Leathart went to HQ Fighter Command on 3rd March 1941 as Ops 2 Night Fighters.
He was loaned to the RCAF on 10th May 1941, to form and command 406 (RCAF) Squadron at Acklington and he did so until the CO post was upgraded to Wing Commander.
On 8th November 1941 Leathart went to HQ RAF Middle East, as Wing Commander Air Tactics. He was given command of 89 Squadron on 16th October 1942. He destroyed a Cant Z1007 on 23rd February 1943.
Leathart returned to the UK on 5th July and was posted to HQ 84 Group to prepare for the invasion of Europe. He was appointed personal Staff Officer and pilot to ACM T Leigh-Mallory, C-in-C Allied European Air Force. On 30th May 1944 Leathart volunteered to transport Light Warning Radar equipment in a Jeep, to control night fighters on D-Day and was landed on J Beach in France at H hour + 5.
Leathart was posted from 85 Group to command 148 Wing, Mosquito night fighters, on 7th March 1945. He went on to the Directing Staff at the RAF Staff College on 10th July 1945.
In the post-war RAF Leathart held a series of appointments and commands.
He served on the Joint Intelligence Staff and from 1957 commanded North Coates, the guided weapons station. He helped to introduce the Bloodhound missile. The next year he was appointed senior air staff officer at Fighter Command's 12 Group.
He was made a CB (gazetted 11th June 1960) and retired, at his own request, on 24th July 1962 as an Air Commodore.
He settled in Gloucestershire and designed and maintained specialist agricultural spraying equipment. He enjoyed fly-fishing and rebuilding motor cars.
Leathart died on 17th November 1998.