by David Yates
My father-in-law Leslie Edgerton passed away in Conquest Hospital, Hastings in the early hours of Tuesday 14th January. Another 75 man, and another of the dwindling band of Bomber Command veterans, has quit us.
Leslie photographed on the occasion of his 98th birthday on 23rd April – St George’s Day – 2019.
Leslie volunteered for RAF service in the autumn of 1942 hoping, as they all did, to be a pilot. It wasn’t until spring of 1943, as the Battle for Berlin was hitting the headlines, that things began to get going for him. A reserved, unassuming, and thoughtful man, Leslie was not selected for pilot training but was sent to No2 Radio School, Yatesbury. He gained his first air experience on 6th April 1943. He was then sent on a gunnery course at RAF Manby, and on to AFU at Millom.
A transfer to No.11 OTU Westcott followed, and after an ab initio course in which he was subjected to the usual night vision and decompression tests, he had his first taste of crewing a medium bomber. On 3rd September 1943 he flew for the first time with F/S C.E. Armstrong, with whom he had crewed up. The fateful eight-month journey to Dortmund had begun. The Armstrong crew was signed off on 24th October 1943 and despatched to Wratting Common for conversion to Stirlings. After little more than 40 hours flying and then two-weeks’ leave the Amstrong crew mustered at Mepal for operational duty with 75 RNZAF Squadron, Mepal. They had arrived on the front line.
They had a good initial run, starting on 14th January 1943 with laying six mines in the Fresians area. The squadron was untroubled by losses until 24th February 1943. But then on their seventh op, laying mines in Kiel Bay, Stirling EH984 captained by PO H.H. Bruhns crew went down. They were all killed. Leslie and the Armstrong boys came safe home.
The next day Leslie was asked to fill in for the absent w/op of the Willis crew, who were down for mine-laying in Copenhagen Bay. Their Stirling was attacked head-on by a flight of six JU88s. The aircraft was riddled with canon-fire, and Leslie later reported actually seeing the tracers scorching by him as he sat at his station. Everyone survived and the aircraft landed safely back at Mepal.
No doubt gratefully, Leslie returned to his crew mates. A couple of quiet mine-laying ops followed and then on 4th March they were sent on a special French op where another Stirling was lost, captained by the New Zealander PO S.L. Watson. The Mid-Upper was taken prisoner. Watson and the other crew members were killed. But the ops, either mine-laying or targets in France, continued to tick quietly by for Leslie. Then, suddenly, the great change finally came to 3 Group and Mepal, and the conversion from Stirlings to Lancasters was begun. The Armstrong crew were among the first shipped off to Feltwell for conversion, followed back at Mepal by a series of preparation flights in the beautiful, shining new machines. Then on the evening of 9th April their first 75 op was mounted. The Armstrong crew were given ND768 F-Freddie. In the words of my father Harry:
“Eleven of them were sent to attack the railway yards at Villeneuve St.Georges. They had all bombed successfully in clear weather, though one had been damaged by friendly bombing and landed at Ford, a fighter station conveniently situated on the coast across from Selsey Bill.”
After the Villeneuve raid the crew flew three ops to Germany – first Karlsruhe, then Essen, then Friedrichshaven; and it was on the latter that another loss occurred. FO R.W. Herron and his crew were all killed.
By this point Leslie had flown 22 ops and would not have been blamed for beginning to look forward to the end of his tour. But in early May he began to feel unwell and was diagnosed with a contagious childhood disease most unwelcome at the advanced age of 22. He was whisked off to the Princess of Wales Hospital in Ely and put in isolation. It quite likely saved his life. On 22nd May, Armstrong and his boys, with Sgt C.A. Warburton replacing Leslie, flew F-Freddie to Dortmund and never came back.
Again in my father’s words:
“Knowing nothing of this, a fully recovered F/Sgt Edgerton returned to Mepal resigned to the fact that his crew mates would have completed their tour, but nevertheless hopeful of hearing something of them. In fact, nothing was offered. He managed to discover that they were logged FTR, but that was all. As a pool w/op he went dicing with scratch crews to the end of his tour,”
I have told the story, on this site, of how Harry was able to inform Leslie of the fate of his crew, and how that came to happen fifty years after the event itself, and anyone who would like to read about that can do so here:
Leslie went into the pool, and flew seven more ops with the Crawford, Adolph, and Lethbridge crews. His last but one op was to Bremen on the night of 18th August 1944, when Harry’s crew were given such a fiery time; and his finale was to the Kamen refinery in daylight on 11th September 1944, when Harry’s R-Roger lost its nose and Harry himself was consigned to Littleport Eye Hospital for seven weeks.
Tour-expired and with other things on his mind, Leslie married Joan Underwood, a Red Cross nurse, on 21st September 1944 at St Mary’s Church, Sanderstead. The church had been damaged at some point by a stray bomb, and workmen on ladders stopped their repairs and took off their caps to peer benignly down, the most earthly of angels, while the ceremony proceeded. The couple would have four children over the ensuing ten or so years, the third of them my wife Geraldine. Leslie worked as an accountant in the post-war years, and did pretty well for himself, living a life of respectable, quiet prosperity in Purley, Surrey and, in retirement, on the south coast near Eastbourne. But I don’t think he was ever free from the sense of guilt and loss which consumed him that day he returned to Mepal to find his crew mates missing.
Leslie and Joan’s elder daughter Helen and her husband Andrew McGillivray have kindly forwarded me photographs of the crew’s graves, including that of Sgt Warburton, which we hope will serve as an on-line memoir of those brave boys as long as this website is active.
“In 2012, on one of Helen’s visits to Seaford, Leslie had mentioned that the name of the wireless operator who stood in for him on the Dortmund trip was Warburton. Out of interest I visited the Commonwealth Graves Commission website and found that he and the other members of the crew were buried in a large military cemetery in Germany, close to the Dutch border. As it happened, we had been invited to a 60th birthday party in a town close by and we decided whilst we were there to visit Arnhem and the cemetery on the same trip. As with all of the Commonwealth Grave cemeteries that I have visited it is beautifully maintained and very moving when you see the perfectly aligned white headstones stretching out in all directions. What makes it all the more saddening is the ages of these young men most of which were in their early twenties. The entire crew are buried beside one another including Leslie’s replacement.”
In old age Leslie, who kept his wits about him till the end, thought more and more about those times at Mepal. He was the lucky one. Now he is gone one wonders how many others are still with us.