Essex Second World War hero recalls secret missions over Nazi-occupied Europe

Leonard as a young pilot

Leonard as a young pilot - Credit: Archant

There can be few people in the country more deserving of the title hero than Leonard Ratcliff. But he won’t hear of it. At 96, he is the only surviving member of the RAF’s 161 Squadron, which led covert moonlight operations into Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War. MICHAEL STEWARD met up with Leonard at his home in Great Chesterford, near Saffron Walden to discuss his remarkable wartime exploits.

Leonard Ratcliff

Leonard Ratcliff - Credit: Archant

This year marks the 75th anniversary since Wing Commander Leonard Fitch Ratcliff, DSO, DFC and Bar, AFC, Legion d’Honneur, C de G, was posted to an initial training unit at Hastings to begin his decorated career in the Royal Air Force. His tenure in the service would see him fly with, and later command one of the most highly secretive squadrons in war history.

The 161 Special Duties Squadron was responsible for dropping secret agents and equipment into Nazi-occupied Europe, all under cover of darkness, to aid resistance movements across the continent.

To begin with, however, an eager to get into the air Leonard was frustrated with life at the Hastings training unit back in February 1940.

He said: “We learned military drill and we marched and marched, and marched. We were an intelligent bunch, remarkably fit and healthy and we resented the useless existence in Hastings. We were desperate to get on with the flying for which we had volunteered,

Leonard Ratcliff at his home in Great Chesterford

Leonard Ratcliff at his home in Great Chesterford - Credit: Archant

“We became more and more frustrated by the failure to advance our training, and had our tea laced with bromide to subdue us.”

Leonard found solace in the sport that took place in the afternoons, and to relieve the boredom, he often went out training with heavyweight boxer Eddy Phillips, who was part of the physical training team.

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“I liked Eddy, and used to join him in early morning training sessions. He was very strict when he was in training and advised me that during this period you should never have sex more than three times a day and never more than eight pints of beer per day. Although I never had the capacity for that quantity of beer, I have by and large stuck to those principles.”

Eventually, Leonard was granted his wish, and in May 1940 he was posted to No.4 Elementary Flying Training School in Brough, Yorkshire, where he was immediately thrust into the cockpit of a Tiger Moth plane.

Leonard with wife Dorothy

Leonard with wife Dorothy - Credit: Archant

“I spent four and a half hours under instruction, before my instructor said ‘You’ll do’. So I started at breakfast and by lunchtime I was a pilot. It was survival of the fittest really.

“Being a keen sportsman, I just took to it, and the Tiger Moth is a lovely little plane to fly. You can waft in and out of the clouds and it was a fun thing to train in.”

After clocking up 51 hours in the Tiger Moths, and further training at No.10 Senior Flying Training School in Ternhill, Shropshire, on the AVRO Anson aircraft, Leonard was awarded his wings and by July 1941, he was skippering his own crew flying Hampden bombers with 49 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire.

Leonard was involved in nightly bombing raids on Germany and tragically, casualties became normality. His first wife, Bet, who died of cancer in 1987, would get together with other wives in the evenings when their husbands were away on operations, waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones.

Leonard recalls one very difficult morning: “It was a night of particularly heavy casualties, and our friend Brenda Wilcox had come to stay at our home while her husband David and I were away on ops. In the morning, the two wives looked out of the window to see the vicar walking up the path.

“That only meant one thing and the two of them looked at each other in horror. David Wilcox was never heard of again.”

“It’s a terrifying experience going up, and if you’re not scared out of your wits, then you jolly well ought to be.”

At the end of his operational tour of 29 missions, Leonard spent time instructing pilots at No.24 Operational Training Unit under Squadron Leader Bob Hodges and from there followed him to 161 Squadron, which was based at RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire in June 1943. Tempsford was one of the most secret bases in Britain during the Second World War and both 161 and 138 Squadron were based there, specialising in dropping Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents into occupied territory.

Leonard took part in more than 70 moonlight missions, and worked extensively with the resistance movements in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium and France flying Halifax’s Havocs, Hudsons and Lysanders for the squadron.

Included in the many agents he dropped behind enemy lines was Yvonne Cormeau – codename Annette – whose work with the French resistance was the basis for the 2001 film Charlotte Grey.

He said: “Each mission consisted of several destinations or dropping zones. Sometimes we found ourselves operating in several different countries on any one night. It was imperative that the crews, who were constantly over occupied territory, should never know the true identity of the men and women they were dropping, to preserve their security in case we got shot down.”

As the Allies began to press home their advantage, Leonard’s stint at Tempsford came to an end, and he was posted to the Air Ministry Intelligence Department in Horseferry Road, central London.

Now appointed Wing Commander, Leonard’s new role consisted of overseeing RAF clandestine activities in liaison with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), SOE and Bletchley Park in approving new operations and dropping zones.

“I received copies of all communications between the world leaders - Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, as well as personally reporting to the Chiefs of Staff in Whitehall.

“It was very interesting to hear the state of the war in all theatres, including the Russian front. I lived in a bed-sit in Lancaster Terrace and from October 1944 to February 1945, I went underground to my office in the dark and reappeared in the evening after dark. So I barely saw daylight for three and a half months.”

Leonard returned to Tempsford as Wing Commander in February 1945, and saw peace declared at the Bedfordshire base. The heavy price of Allied victory was as evident at 161 as it was across the world.

“The total strength of 161 Squadron was about 200, and during the short wartime activities the casualties amounted to 600 - or the whole squadron being wiped out three times. It was a very heavy price, and a very poignant task as the last squadron commander to write to so many parents and families. However, I was satisfied that the squadron had done a good job.”

With such an important and valuable role in the Second World War, Leonard could be excused for celebrating himself once in a while, but he remains remarkably modest about his amazing exploits.

“A hero? Absolutely not. My squadron was a team effort, I’m not one of these people who thinks they won the war on their own. I have always had a great enthusiasm for life, and I’ve always thrown myself into everything I’ve done. I’ve enjoyed my life, and still do.”

Leonard married his second wife Dorothy in 1988, and between them the couple have six children, 17 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. Despite Leonard’s obvious humbleness, 88-year-old Dorothy says she is not afraid to “puff him up”.

She said: “He’s incredibly modest and unassuming about it all and always has been, but he’s a born leader. He’s the most wonderful man I ever met, so handsome, intelligent and funny.”