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“DFM Killed in Exploding Spitfire 20th September 1948”.

F/O. Leonard Alfred “Smithy” Smith D.F.M.

14-04-1920 to 18-09-1948

Born 1920, brother Len was 7 years my senior. His was an ideal age for service at the outbreak of war, whilst I was impressionable. Very althlectic and mad keen on flying, he had already established his credentials by belonging to the Civil Air Guard from 1939.

Returning from Moose jaw-Canada in 1941 with pilot’s wings, it was not long before Leonard Alfred Smith became one of the many flying Smiths to be affectionately known as Smithy. Like all pilots, especially fighter pilots, Len was a bit of a daredevil, and so it was on the morning of the 27th November 1941. Having carried out air to sea firing exercises off the coast at Selsey Bill with another trainee pilot, both spitfires headed towards their base at Heston, It was Len’s suggestion as a diversion they fly low over a big white building “Known locally as a Lido” not far from the sea shore at Littlehampton, unfortunately a tall flagpole protruded from the top of the Lido, and synchronizing through the arc of Len’s propeller embedded its top knob in his port wing resulting in a further 8 ft plummeting through a glass section of the roof.

Our widowed Father working for the Greater London Council had been seconded to this particular building to assist in the care of evacuated children from the London bombings, which proved Len’s undoing at his court-martial when poor dad had to act as a prosecution witness. They do say that had he been an officer he may never have flown again, so maybe his lowly education to the age of only 14 years in a London Borough of Bow saved him. As it was his sentence was six months grounding, three months loss of rank, and two weeks in Chatham Detention Barracks. Any reprimand in the R.A.F. is quantified as a Black and depending on its severity could be a minor Black or much worse, Len’s particular Black was a Major Black to say the least and would virtually wipe out any chance of further promotion.

Being a passable artist the R.A.F. utilised his non-flying time by having him paint murals of Allied and German aircraft in various scenario’s of war , which satisfied Lens talents admirably. My brother returned to flying duties in June 1942 and soon joined 165 Ceylon Squadron at Gravesend and later Tangmere escorting Flying Fortress’s carrying out bombing raids over France. By the year’s end he was on embarkation leave before sailing to Algiers and eventually catching up with 152 Hyderabad Squadron at Souk-El-Kemis in March 1943. Here the Squadron became the first spitfire bombing sqdn, carrying two 250Ib bombs slung one beneath each wing. At the end of the campaign he managed to survive a lorry crash where he was thrown through the windscreen, whilst three of his comrades were fatally injured, from Malta 152 were involved in the invasion of Sicily and from there the invasion of Italy then rested at Gioia-del-Colle before eventually sailing to Egypt.
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Selected along the with 81 sqdn to collect spitfire mk8’s from Cairo West airport, Len’s third C/O S/Ldr.Bruce Ingram D.F.C. led them in thirteen hops to India and across that continent to Baigachi near Calcutta.” Len said they were making history, by Christmas 1943 Smithy had become the most senior NCO in the squadron and now held the exalted rank of Flight Sergeant. He had also shot down sufficient enemy aircraft to be recognised as an Ace pilot, with his aptitude for art he also became the main instigator of the Black Panther emblem painted on the side of 152’s spits. This was a large reproduction of the cat leaping over the port roundel. After serving throughout the Arakan and later inside the Imphal box to assist our beleaguered Fourteenth Army they became the first Squadron to re-enter Burma at Ttamu, immediately they became known as the Black panther of Burma. On the morning of November 5th 1944 soon after their return to Burma they were up scouting for the Nips after receiving reports of enemy aircraft Len’s flight was lucky sighting twelve plus Zero’s and immediately mixing it, his bag was one down and one damaged. Now one of only two R.A.F. pilots to ever succeed in destroying all three of our enemies, German, Italian, and Japanese the other pilot being S/Ldr. Whittamore. D.F.C.
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Around the time of this encounter two other things happened to Smithy he received his well-deserved D.F.M. and a commission came through the Air Min had finally relented and buried the flagpole incident. So delayed had his commission been that his P/O ranking lasted for a mere two weeks before being promoted to F/O, “boy! he wrote even the AOC calls me Smithy now. Major Harry Hoffe had been his C/O then, the first South African to command a spitfire Sqdn, after poor S/Ldr Bruce Ingram had unfortunately died from tetanus poisoning after crash landing and severely damaging his nose, by the turn of the year it was Major Hoffe’s turn to be repatriated and command became transferred to S/Ldr Garry Kerr D.F.C. .

Then one day in February 1945 Lord Louis Mountbatten “Supremo of South East Asia Command” came calling, and later sent a telegram to Garry asking him to convey a special word of thanks to Flying Officer Smith and the other pilots who flew with him, the Japanese were well and truly on the run now and just before the fall of Mandalay Smithy was withdrawn from 152 sqdn. S/Ldr wrote a farewell message in his logbook at the end of March 1945, just two years and two weeks from his date of joining the Squadron, after a posting to Peshawar in Northwest India to take up test pilot duties and then a fighter leaders course at Armada Rd, the other end of India Smithy returned home a Flight Lieutenant in the spring of 1946.
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In 1947 I saw him lead the Battle of Britain display in a MkXVI spitfire from Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, the following year he would lead in a Mk XIX from his new posting at Leuchars in Fife, because unfortunately another pilot had made a heavy landing in his beloved Mk XVI.

Smithy was due to be married having finally succumbed to a Scottish lass from St. Andrews just across the bay. One the day, as he pulled from a dive at 300 ft above his Fiancee’s head prior to entering a rocket loop the spitfire was seen to belch black smoke, before swiftly breaking up with one wing slicing into the tail section and remainder diving into a wood on the far side of the aerodrome. The accident would make front-page news in the Daily Mirror on the following Monday 20th Sept 1948, depicting his fiancée “Mary” as well as Smithy. Although the R.A.F. wished him to be buried in Scotland the family would insist he be brought home to Romford in Essex where my eldest sister Ciss had set up home with her husband before the war, and thus established a headquarters for Len and I, He would receive a full military funeral with R.A.F. band and gun salute.

Traveling with two of his brother officers escorting Len’s coffin, Mary and I were able to meet for the very first time. It was a time of great sadness and each of us found consolation in each other.

Invited to return for Christmas and New year ,Mary managed to rearrange her life and stay longer as gradually we fell in love ,finally to be married in the following spring. This year was our fifty-fourth anniversary, with two fine sons and six wonderful grandchildren we feel we owe quite a lot to SMITHY.

Presented By : William S. Smith

Many Thanks to Bill & Mary and Family. 19-10-2003.

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Photos above added on 26.04.2011

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© 152 (Hyderabad) F Squadron 1939-1967. All Rights Reserved.