Tag Archives: Leslie Edgerton

Leslie Edgerton, 1921 – 2020

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.

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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.

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Andrew writes:
“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.

75 x 2 – Leslie Edgerton, the Armstrong crew and Harry Yates – by David Yates

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Right: Leslie Edgerton, Wireless Operator with the Baines crew, now aged 95.
A bout of German measles meant Leslie had to leave the crew for a stay in hospital, on his return he discovered they had failed to return from their 27th Op. Until Leslie spoke to Harry, some 50 years later, he had held out a hope they might have survived.
Left: The addendum Leslie made to his log-book after speaking to Harry about the fate of his crew .

Many thanks to David, son of Harry Yates, for contributing the following piece. It proves again that there are strange coincidences that time occasionally chooses to reveals to us – something I have experienced many a time while researching the Squadron.

75 x 2

by David Yates

Monday 8th May 1995 is memorable in our household not so much because it was the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, and was marked accordingly with official ceremony all across the West, but because something kept secret from the family for four decades was finally revealed.

Not many days earlier, my wife Geraldine and I had completed a major extension and renovation to the house we then owned, tucked away in a pleasant downland village near Lewes in East Sussex.  I had taken upon myself the task of applying a paint roller to the expanse of brand new render, which would be followed with a fine brush to all the sashes – also new, and there were over thirty of them.  It was a labour of love already turning into just labour.

Anyway, my in-laws were driving over the downs from their home in East Dean to see their grandchild and have lunch with us.  At noon I was still balanced on my ladder at the back of the house, rolling on the second or, perhaps, third coat of emulsion.  From inside the house Geraldine was clattering away with pots and pans.  The smell of a roasting joint wafted through an open window.  Away to my right the crunch of wheels on gravel told me my morning’s work was at an end.  There were female voices, the sound of car doors closing.  A moment or two later my father-in-law Leslie appeared from around the side of the house, hand-in-hand with his infant grand-daughter.

We made the usual greetings and stood talking for a while, probably about not very much. Then, with no particular seriousness, I asked him what he had been doing fifty years ago, on 8th May 1945.  He didn’t seem too sure, “Joan and I were married by then,” he said eventually, “I think we must have been in London.”

Now, I had known for very nearly a quarter of a century, since not long after I started going out with Geraldine, that her dad’s war service had been as a wireless operator on heavy bombers.  My own father had served as a pilot on Lancs, flying alongside some New Zealanders, although he was a North Bucks country boy through and through.  I knew that the whole subject of the war had been handled differently in Leslie’s household than in ours.  My dad didn’t make a great thing out of it.  But his crew were all known to me from the letters and photos which arrived  in the family home (usually) at Christmas time.  Indeed, on one Sunday back in 1975, when we were still single, Geraldine and I waited at table on the whole crew when they – said to be already the last full 75 crew living – came to the house following a squadron reunion at Mepal.  But it wasn’t like that in Leslie’s house.  There, a discrete silence was maintained over the whole topic.  The detail of his own wartime service was unknown to his two sons and two daughters.

It was not that unusual.  I had childhood friends whose fathers wanted, for whatever reason, to close the wartime chapter and keep it closed, leaving their sons high and dry for knowledge.  One accepted that there were histories which were not happy, and men who were quietly haunted by them.  The tremendous will of the people to move on, which erupted so joyously with victory in Europe, gave such men the opening to a new life they needed, and they took it.  If there was no need to revisit the past, it was not revisited.

Still, standing there with Leslie I thought it was worth another question.  “So you weren’t still flying by this point?” I asked.

He wasn’t, having finished his tour in September 1944.

Then, out of nowhere he blurted out, “I didn’t finish with my own crew though.  I was sent to hospital with German measles, you see, and my own crew carried on flying without me.  It was six weeks before the doctor let me go back.  I expected them to still be there, but they weren’t.  I made enquiries.  But nobody seemed to know anything, just that they hadn’t come back from a raid.  The radio operator who had gone in my place was only young, and he’d just married, I think.  Anyway, over the years I’ve tried a few times to find out what happened to them – you know, at the library.  But I still don’t know.  I’ve always hoped one or two of them were made POWs, and got back home to New Zealand eventually.”

“New Zealand?” I retorted.

“Yes, it was a New Zealand squadron, based at Mepal in Cambridgeshire.”

I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.  “Wait a minute, you are saying you flew from Mepal?”

”Yes, that was the airfield.”

”Yes, but that’s the airfield which 75 Squadron flew from.”

”That’s right, 75 squadron.”

“Wait a minute, you are saying you flew from Mepal with 75 Squadron RNZAF?”

”That’s right ….”
“But my father flew with them”.

“No no no” he said, completely certain of his facts.  Well, he had been an accountant in civilian life.  “Your father was a fighter pilot with the New Zealand ‘fighter’ squadron.”

I put him right as gently but firmly as I could.  That evening, after Leslie and Joan had returned home to East Dean, I telephoned my dad to tell him what had come to pass.  I knew that he possessed a well-thumbed copy of Forever Strong, Norman Franks’ history of 75, which I had borrowed and read myself.  Norman and Dad had met or exchanged correspondence at some point and become friendly, and Norman and his wife had visited for dinner.  Norman wrote in Dad’s copy of Forever Strong (which I have in my office at home today):

“To Harry Yates DFC -Who completed a tour of with 75 Sqn
and was seen in the smoke 30 times
Best wishes,
Norman Franks”

Information on the fate of Leslie’s crew had to be in there.  I gave Dad Leslie’s number, and he duly checked and telephoned the next day.  The information was that Leslie’s skipper P/O Armstrong and all his crew were killed on the Dortmund raid of 22/23 May, 1944.  Flt Sgt George Leslie Edgerton – taciturn, stoic man that he was – now knew for certain that he was the only Armstrong crew-member to survive the war.  But at least he had that knowledge, and the long vigil of the heart that he had kept for his crew could be brought to a close at last.

Extraordinarily, Geraldine and I were in the nineteenth year of our marriage when he had finally spoken of his sorrow that day in our garden, and the coincidence of our respective dad’s war service came to light.

The event only spurred my dad on in a plan he was quietly hatching to research, write and publish the story of his flying years, centred on five hard months at Mepal.  At the time I knew nothing about this.  I was aware that, always a reader of history, he had become focussed on RAF history and had amassed quite a comprehensive book collection.  I also knew he had been to the Public Records Office at Kew and acquired a large pile of yellow sheets logging 75 operations for the period of his service.  I thought it was just a surfeit of nostalgia.

Harry at about the time he was planning Luck and Lancaster

Harry at about the time he was planning Luck and Lancaster
supplied by David Yates

It was my mother who finally told me that dad had quite forsaken her company in the evenings to disappear upstairs and start tapping on his 1970s IBM golf-ball typewriter.  Apparently, he had been hammering away at the keyboard for a year or more.  When I asked him about it he showed me a sheath of close-typed A4 sheets, the front one of which read:

“Luck and a Lancaster by Harry Yates DFC”

It was a pretty chaotic presentation, it must be said, with passages long and short crossed out everywhere and re-typed, and lengths of type stuck with sellotape on top of other lengths, or across the whole of the top or bottom of the sheet.  But there was the unmistakable voice of my dad talking quite naturally about events in his life I had little or no idea had ever taken place.  For his part, he was very unsure about the quality of the thing, which was obviously why he had kept quiet about it.  Did I think anyone would publish it, he asked.  I had no idea. “Let me take it home and read it properly,” I said.

I began reading that night, sitting up in bed.  A few pages in I turned to my wife and said, “Some of this is beautiful.”

My judgement on the manuscript was that it had to be worth sending off to publishers, but not in that condition.  So dad bought himself a modern electronic machine and re-typed the whole thing, which at that point ran up to his release from the eye hospital at Littleport.  But he had lost his creative impetus in the laborious typing process.  I suggested that he send what he had to some publishers anyway, and if one of them was interested he could return to writing, and finish the thing.

The first manuscript went, for some reason known only to dad, to Haynes, the technical manual publisher.  Unsurprisingly, it bounced back with a rejection slip within a month or two.  He then posted a copy to (the now defunct) Airlife Publishing, who were a much more likely prospect.  But weeks of silence turned into months.  I urged dad to find another publisher to try.  But he had become disheartened, quietly concluding that he had probably miscalculated, and there wasn’t really any interest in a septuagenarian heavy bomber pilot with only half his story told.

The whole project was put away in a chest of drawers, and he returned to mum’s company in the evenings.  Then, right out of the blue in the early summer of 1999, fully a year after shipping off the manuscript, he received a letter from Airlife’s managing editor.  “Dear Mr Yates,” it began, “Thank you very much for sending me the manuscript for your memoir, Luck and a Lancaster.  I sincerely apologise that I had rather a lot of submissions to read before I could get to yours.  But I have now read it with much interest, and would be very pleased indeed to publish the finished manuscript for you if you are still seeking a publisher.”

Still seeking a publisher!  Dad was electrified.  A standard authors contract was received, signed and shot back within a few days.  The only thing was that Airlife wanted to have the book available for its Christmas list, which meant finishing the whole manuscript in three months.  Everything came out of the chest of drawers and Dad threw himself back into his writing.  He made the deadline, but he wasn’t entirely happy about having to work so fast.  He felt that something was lost that perhaps did not return until the very last chapter and the epilogue.  I know there were two small factual mistakes that made it into print, and they always annoyed him.  But when I read the new material I thought it worked in rather well, given that this was the hard-grind of the tour from which all naivety had been drained by his hospitalisation.

Today, in one form or another, <em>Luck and a Lancaster</em> has probably sold getting on for 45,000 copies.  The response of readers has been incredibly generous and kind.  Hundreds of people, some of them fellow aircrew, many more of them relatives of aircrew, wrote often touching letters to dad.  He was very grateful and answered all he could until, over the final six years of his life, illness drained him too much.

He passed away in Hastings Conquest hospital on 20th November 2011, two months short of his 90th birthday.  He had lived a wonderful, satisfying life, which was what he deserved, and a life which is very much caught and held in aspic as the memory of a young flyer by his much older self.

One of the things Dad had done in his research period was to visit Barry Aldridge’s museum at Witchford, and sign the visitors book.  In the summer of 2001, I took Leslie up to Cambridgeshire to re-connect with his own past.  We visited Ely and the Cathedral, and we went to the old airfield, of course, and to the village green at Mepal.  Then we went on to Barry’s museum.  Leslie wandered through the exhibits and breathed in the pungent perfume of that Hercules power-plant which fills the place.  But some private regret, that will obviously never be expunged, stopped him from signing the visitors book.

Leslie had his 95th birthday dinner with Geraldine and I on St George’s Day this year.  He is still surprisingly hale and very determined to remain independent as long as possible.