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The Airmen's Stories - Sgt. R H Leyland


Reginald Harry Leyland joined the RAF in October 1936 as an Aircraft-hand (No 535242) and attended the Special Signals School at Martlesham Heath between October 1939 and April 1940.

He was later posted to the Fighter Interception Unit at RAF Tangmere, Sussex operating from Shoreham-on-Sea airport on occasions.

Here he trained as an Aerial Gunner/Radar Operator on Blenheims, making his first flight on the 21st April 1940 in Blenheim L8363 with his pilot, F/O Ashfield. Many calibration tests were made during April and May with the AI equipment on board the aircraft, Sgt. Leyland flying on these tests with F/Lt. Millar, Sgt. Ryalls, Sgt. McRae, P/O Clark and the Commanding Officer W/Cdr. Chamberlain.

On 9th May Tangmere airfield was visited by several 'boffins', amongst them being Mr Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar, to discuss aspects of AI. This was followed up on 29th June by a visit from ACM Sir Hugh Dowding who was given a demonstration of the AI equipment by W/Cdr. Chamberlain in company with Sgt. Leyland.


L to R: Sgt. RH Leyland, Sgt. EW Lesk, P/O GE Morris, F/Lt. G Ashfield, unknown, Sgt. EF Le Conte at FIU Ford.


By the start of July Leyland had completed 86 flights engaged in calibration tests, exercises with Chain Home Low stations and night patrols. On the night of 7th/8th July he completed a two hour flight in Blenheim BL6837, with W/Cdr. Chamberlain, where they attempted to intercept the enemy on four occasions without success.

The Battle of Britain commenced officially two days later, Leyland was to fly regularly with F/O Ashfield in the 11 Group area. During daylight on Monday 22nd July, Leyland flew with F/O Ashfield carrying out AI tests with a captive balloon at Cardington, during these tests Blenheim No L6837 had engine failure and they were forced to land at Cranfield. That same night, Leyland acting as the AI Operator, they took off in Blenheim L6836 with F/O Ashfield again as the pilot and P/O Morris as the Observer.

At 2330hrs W/Cdr. Chamberlain at Tangmere Sector Operations Room ordered F/O Ashfield to fly a vector of 180 degrees from Selsey Bill to look for an unknown aircraft which was showing on the radar at Poling CH Station.

Leyland operated his AI Mk. IV set and confirmed the sighting at a height of 6000ft and 20 miles south of Selsey Bill. F/O Ashfield made corrections and a Do17 was spotted visually by P/O Morris as it was silhouetted by the moon. F/O Ashfield opened fire closing in to about 400 ft, 'the enemy aircraft looking the size of a house with a huge firework display as the bullets made contact', he was later to record in his combat report.

After expending 280 rounds into the Domier, it lurched to starboard and fell out of the sky into the Channel blazing for another five minutes on the water before finally sinking. The whole action that night was witnessed and confirmed by P/O Frank Carey of 43 Squadron. Unfortunately, by Ashfield getting so close to the Dornier during the attack, the perspex of his cabin was completely covered in oil pouring out from the stricken aircraft, resulting in him losing control and flipping the Blenheim onto its back. With great skill and some luck he was able to control the Blenheim which by this time was only 700 ft. from the ground, landing blind at Tangmere just after midnight.

The interception procedure worked out by the FIU at Tangmere had at last brought success, Ashfield and his crew were credited with being the very first to destroy an enemy aircraft by using airborne radar. The Domier 17 had flown from Antwerp and was part of 2 Fliegerkorps / Kampfgeschwader 3 ('Blitz’) piloted by Lt. Kahlfuss who was wounded and rescued from the sea, along with his three NCOs.

For the rest of July and all of August, Leyland was involved in more tests and practice as an Air Gunner, often flying with W/Cdr. Chamberlain in Beaufighter 2059, which had been sent to the squadron for evaluation. On the 7th September Leyland flew with F/O Ashfield in the same Beaufighter on night patrol around Tangmere and made several enemy contacts on the AI, but constant interference from undirected AA and searchlights prevented any success.

On 9th September Leyland was again flying with F/O Ashfield in the Beaufighter when the hood flew off, forcing them to land. In doing so the Beaufighter struck an unlit lorry and Chance Light on the aerodrome, completely wrecking the aircraft. Fortunately, neither Ashfield nor Leyland was injured.

This was to be Leyland's last flight with the FIU. He was rewarded for his long and tireless efforts operating the new AI equipment, culminating with the success of the Dornier interception, by a Mention in Despatches on the 29th September.

He was sent on leave and then posted to 3 Radio School at Prestwick on the 19th February 1941. It was here that he became an AI Instructor, flying in Botha and Blenheim aircraft. His regular pilot was to be Sgt. Kneath. On 19th June 1942, Sgt. Leyland was posted to 62 OTU at Usworth, again as an AI Instructor, this time on Ansons.

On 31st October he was posted to the School of Radio Training, 54 OTU at Charterhall, back flying in Blenheims, this time training as a Navigator and again teaming up with Sgt. Kneath as his pilot. Having completed the course of 44 hours flying as a Navigator, he was posted on 4th January 1943, to 'A' Flight, 151 Squadron Wittering, flying Mosquitos, along with Sgt. Kneath as his pilot.

The Squadron was commanded at this time by another Battle of Britain participant, W/Cdr. Irving Stanley Smith CBE DFC* a New Zealand 'Ace', who was to later claim fame as leading the raid on Amiens Prison with 487 Squadron on 18th February 1944.

In February 151 Squadron began night intruder sorties over France and after moving to Colerne intensified these and commenced daytime 'Rangers'. Sgt. Leyland with his pilot Sgt. Kneath participated in these sorties along with 'scrambles' and various 'Bullseye' exercises (the nearest approach to an actual sortie where targets are attacked and the force is impeded by searchlights and night fighters).

He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 21st March 1943 and promoted to Flying Officer on 21st September whilst his pilot Kneath was made a Warrant Officer.

On 17th October 1943 he was posted to the Defensive Squadron of the Telecommunications Flying Unit at Defford, joining 'A' Flight as a Navigator. This was a little-known unit operating various aircraft in the UK testing new types of radar and communications. His logbook records a flight on the 30th November 1943 in a Blenheim as 'experimental and instructional work'.

His next flight is in a Wellington Mk. XIII to Amiens-Glicy on 5th September 1944, via Brussels and returning to Northolt on 24th October in Dakota MG577. His last flight as a Navigator is shown on 31st May 1945 in a Mosquito with his pilot being W/Cdr. Frostick.

He was Mentioned in Despatches again on 1st January 1946 (for his experimental work) and retired from the RAF later in the year.

©Simon Muggleton 2007

Battle of Britain Monument