Tributes to wartime pilot hero from Great Chesterford who helped save Halstead Hospital

Leonard Ratcliff

Leonard Ratcliff - Credit: Archant

A highly decorated World War Two pilot who led covert missions into Nazi-occupied Europe under cover of darkness has died age 96.

World War Two pilot Leonard

World War Two pilot Leonard - Credit: Archant

Leonard Fitch Ratcliff, of Great Chesterford, passed away on Friday, April 1, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Mr Ratcliff, who took part in 71 moonlight missions across the continent, was awarded the Legion D’Honneur and the Croix De Guerre by the French for his work in aiding resistance movements during the Second World War.

Leading the highly secretive 161 Squadron at RAF Tempsford, Mr Ratcliffe dropped Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents behind enemy lines, and was the last squadron commander at the Bedfordshire base.

Mr Ratcliff’s 161 squadron was wiped out three times - around 600 men - and he was tasked with writing to the parents and families of those who lost their lives in battle.

Leonard with wife Dorothy

Leonard with wife Dorothy - Credit: Archant

After the war, Mr Ratcliff threw himself into civilian life, running a successful agricultural business in Halstead, as well as spending time as a public servant and fundraiser.

He is credited with saving Halstead Hospital, after managing to secure £100,000 worth of funding to open a 20-bed ward unit in 1993.

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Mr Ratcliff also pioneered a birthing unit for the hospital, which was built in 1997, and a rehabilitation centre, which opened in 2012 and was renamed after him three years later.

Jacqueline Pell, chairman of Halstead Hospital League of Friends, said: “Leonard was a true gentleman. It’s because of people like him that we have our freedom today.

“During his time with the League of Friends, he led us through the successful bid to build our own hospital, aided funding and created a birthing unit. The rehabilitation centre, which is now named after him, serves Halstead and surrounding areas.

“It’s very sad, he was such a kind man who devoted so much to the area. If it wasn’t for him, Halstead would not have a hospital today.”

Mr Ratcliff’s first wife, Bet, died in 1987, but he promised her we would fulfil his year-long duties as High Sheriff of Essex in 1988/89.

He remarried in 1989, after being set up with second wife Dorothy on a blind date at a function.

Mrs Ratcliff said: “He was such a proud and modest man, and had a truly remarkable life. We had such a deep love for one another and enjoyed 27 wonderful years of marriage.

“He was so kind and was always thinking of other people. His work after the war with the hospital was typical of the type of man he was. He always wanted to give, give, give.

“I shall miss him terribly, as will everyone who knew him.”

Mr Ratcliff is survived by his wife and four children - Rupert, Tessa, Clive and Robin - nine grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren, and pre-deceased by first wife, Bet.

The private family funeral will take place at Great Chesterford, with a memorial service at St Mary’s Church in Saffron Walden to follow at a later date.