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The Airmen's Stories - S/Ldr. J A Leathart

Air Commodore (Squadron Leader during the Battle) James "The Prof" Leathart, who has died aged 83, was awarded an immediate DSO for pulling off a remarkable rescue while covering the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940. Leathart was leading No 54, a Spitfire squadron, when he saw another Spitfire going down at Marck airfield on the edge of Calais. On returning to base he learned that Squadron Leader Drogo White, the commander of No 74 Squadron, was missing. Leathart at once set off back to Calais in search of him, flying an unarmed Miles Master two-seat trainer, and escorted by his flight commanders, the New Zealander Al Deere and Johnny Allen. After landing Leathart could see no sign of White and so took off to rejoin his escort. He had reached 1,000 feet when Deere yelled "Messerschmitts!". Leathart headed for the safety of the ground and, as soon as he had landed, jumped into a ditch. To his astonishment he almost fell on top off the missing White, who was hiding from some German tanks. The Luftwaffe somehow failed to spot the bright orange Master trainer and after cranking the engine manually, the pair headed home at 6 ft above the Channel.


Shortly afterwards, King George VI visited the Spitfire Wing at Hornchurch to pre-sent Leathart with his DSO. Leathart was thereafter continuously in action and by the end of May had accounted for five enemy aircraft. But as well as leading his squadron into combat, he had to bear the burden of its administration, including breaking in new pilots. He recalled:


Most had done no more than five hours on Spits and had never fired their guns - I'd get on their tail to see if they could shake me off. I knew it was murder to send them off with no training.


Leathart's professionalism paid off as the squadron's score began to mount. By the time he was rested two weeks before the end of the Battle of Britain, his tally had risen to between five and 10 enemy aircraft.


James Anthony Leathart was born on January 5 1915, the son of a distinguished Liverpool surgeon. He was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, and Liverpool University where he read engineering. In 1936, while still a student, he joined No 610 (County of Chester) Auxiliary Air Force Squadron as a founder member. He flew Hart biplane light bombers until, to his family's consternation, he abandoned his university studies for a RAF career. He was posted in November 1937 to No 54 Squadron, equipped with Gladiator biplanes. In March 1939 he collected the squadron's first Spitfire from the Vickers-Supermarine works at Eastleigh, Hampshire.


Tall, studious but possessing a quick and engaging smile, Leathart was soon dubbed "The Prof" by his fellow officers who were impressed by his technical knowledge. In March 1941 he was posted to Fighter Command's night fighter operations staff, moving in May to form No 406, the Royal Canadian Air Force's first night fighter squadron at Acklington. Leathart was then posted as a wing commander to the Middle East, where he was responsible for night fighter tactics. Then in October 1942 he took command of No 89, a highly mobile Desert Air Force Beaufighter night fighter unit.


After adding one more enemy aircraft to his score over Tripoli and having had a successful desert tour, for which he was mentioned in despatches, he returned home. In March 1944 he was appointed personal staff officer and pilot to Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander-in-Chief Allied Air Expeditionary Force. Five hours after the D-Day landings, Leathart took a mobile radar warning jeep ashore on Juno beach to control night fighters. A hand grenade was hurled at him but did not explode.


In March 1945, he received command of No 148, a wing of four Mosquito night fighter squadrons supporting the Allied advance in North-West Europe.


After the war, Leathart 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 No 12 Group. After a short spell at the Air Ministry as Director of Operational Requirements, he retired in 1962 at his own request.


He settled in Gloucestershire, where he designed and maintained specialist agricultural spraying equipment. He enjoyed fly-fishing and rebuilding motor cars. He was appointed CB in 1960.


He married, in 1939, Elaine Radcliffe. She died earlier this year. They had two sons and a daughter.


With acknowledgments to the Daily Telegraph



Battle of Britain Monument