100 years of the RAF: Bomber Command veteran from Ashorne shares his story
He flew dozens of missions as a co-pilot and flight engineer for RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War.
But 96-year-old Ashorne resident Herbert Leedham does not think he deserves any special praise for the risks he took when taking part in some of the most important air raids over Nazi Germany and occupied Europe in the later years of the conflict.
Looking back on those times, when he was in his early 20s and full of bravado, Mr Leedham says he was always aware of the danger he and other bomber crew members were faced with but that he became “hardened to it”.
He said: “I don’t like to be looked upon as a hero or anything like that.
“We had a job to do and that was it.
“Considering the loss rate at the time I was very lucky to survive.”
Mr Leedham is one of the last survivors from those days of Bomber Command with around 150 former airmen still alive today.
Herbert said that up to 850 bombers could be on a raid at one time and at the worst times loss rates for seven-man crews were about seven per cent - around 400 men who did not return home each time.
Serving with 90 Squadron’s 3 Group and being part of operations from spring 1943, what made the first tour of duty more dangerous for Herbert was that he flew in Stirling heavy bombers which, due to government intervention, had their wingspans reduced to fit into aircraft hangars and other parts were also altered thus “ruining” the aircraft’s performance.
He said: “The result was that the maximum height we could come into bomb was around about 12 to 13,000 ft.
“Lancaster and Halifax bombers were at 22,000ft and unfortunately Stirling crews were often hit by our own bombs coming down from the aircraft above us.
“Our losses were very, very high in our squadron and life expectancy for new crews was never any more than about two to five weeks.”
Often after missions, Herbert and his crew mates were the only ones to return to the bunkhouse which they shared with others.
This gained him the nickname “Lucky Leedham” but made other crews weary of sharing accommodation with him and his six colleagues.
He said: “In the end nobody would move in with us.”
Having finished his first tour, Herbert was later attached to 57 Squadron as a revision instructor brought in to help reduce the number of losses of new and inexperienced crews.
He was now flying Lancaster bombers and described this transition from Stirlings as like “going from driving a Ford Escort to a Rolls Royce”.
In January 1945, Herbert joined 463 Squadron and soon started a second tour as leading flight lieutenant, flying Lancasters on various operations until VE Day.
Over the course of both of his tours he was involved in some of the most dangerous operations including a daylight raid on Essen and the bombing of Hamburg from which he vividly remembers seeing the firestorm which tore through the city.
Herbert was later promoted to acting squadron leader for ‘Tiger Force’ and was awaiting orders to fly long range bombing missions against Japan but was relieved that VJ Day came before this.
He joined the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in December 1945 in what was the start of his varied and successful career as an airline pilot.
It was for BOAC that he conducted the first ever transatlantic flight in a Comet 4 in October 1958.