25 April 2010

Duty Done: Flight Lieutenant Colin Russell Leith AM DFC

On 22 March 2010 an old boy of The Armidale School with a distinguished war record and a post-war record of community service to match died of cancer in his adopted city of Perth. Some friends suggested to me that I write an obituary to mark his passing and celebrate his life, and I did. 

The more I found out about Russell Leith, the more I came to admire him.  An edited version of what I submitted was published, fittingly, on the eve of Anzac day, in both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. To read it as published in The Age, see Pilot fought for the flag in Normandy here.

Below is the full text of the 1500 word piece I submitted. I think the 870 word version published by the papers is a fine job of compressing the piece without too much loss of information, but it is a tale worth telling in full, so here it is. My principal source is a fine memoir entitled Duty Done, Colin Russell Leith AM DFC, as told to Cyril Ayris, published by Cyril Ayris Freelance, 73 Outram Street West Perth WA 6005. Characteristically, Leith directed that proceeds from sales of the book were to go to the Anglican Homes Foundation to help fund aged care accommodation in Western Australia.  The last time I looked there were a few copies available from AbeBooks.

Duty Done:  Flight Lieutenant Colin Russell Leith AM DFC

In the small military museum known as the Sandilands Room at The Armidale School (TAS) in northern NSW, there is a canopy recovered from a World War II Spitfire. The man who flew that Spitfire into aerial combat over occupied France, as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy, and crash-landed it behind enemy lines, Flight Lieutenant Russell Leith AM DFC, died recently in Perth.

Russell Leith was born at Labasa on the Fijian Island of Vanua Levu, the son of a field officer with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). At the age of eight he went to boarding school, first Suva Boys’ Grammar, and then TAS. At age 15 he was obliged to leave school and start work, as a junior clerk with CSR in Sydney.

In mid-1940, having turned eighteen, he enlisted for war service.  He was accepted into the RAAF, and in 1941, after completing his initial flying training, was sent to Canada to join the Empire Air Training Scheme, following which he and his comrades sailed to England for their advanced and operational flying training.  in July 1942 Russell was posted to 453 RAAF Squadron based at Drem, east of Edinburgh, for further training, but also handily positioned to intercept German aircraft attempting raids from Norway and Denmark.

In September 1942, 453 Squadron was posted to Hornchurch in Essex to join the RAF group closest to enemy occupied France and Belgium.

On 8 October 1943 Russell participated in an early morning 453 Squadron patrol (seven Spitfires) out of Perranporth in Cornwall that encountered a formation of eight German Me-110s over the English Channel. In the ensuing dogfight the Australians shot down five of the German aircraft, with a 6th unconfirmed, for the loss of one of their own. Russell shot down two of the German Me-110s.

453 Squadron participated in the invasion of Normandy from day one, its new role being to harass enemy ground movements and guard the beachhead against fighter and bomber attacks. It moved to France as soon as an airfield could be established on the Normandy beachhead, and was Australia’s only operational unit in France during the Battle of Normandy.

In a tumultuous 48 hours in July Russell experienced seeing his companion Spitfire shot down by a trigger-happy American pilot, and a close colleague misjudge his strafing dive and plunge into the ground during an attack on a line of German trucks.

Later that day he and eleven other Spitfires of 453 Squadron were scrambled to encounter forty Messerschmitt Me-109s in the Lisieux area. In the course of that action Russell shot down an Me-109 over enemy territory, but left himself so short of fuel that he knew he could not make it back to base. He was thirty miles behind enemy lines, and at best could glide twelve miles in the direction of home. Rather than bail out he opted for a “dead stick” belly landing.

He attempted to make his way back to his unit, and was fortunate enough to make contact with the Resistance, who told him he had no hope of crossing the lines without being shot or taken prisoner.  He was delivered to a safe house where Jean and Renee Renoult were already sheltering two American airmen.  There the three airmen were forced to remain until the Renoult’s farm was liberated by Canadian soldiers on 22 August. The last four days of this were spent hiding in the attic, as fleeing German infantry had set up a machine gun post just outside the Renoult’s front door.

Russell resumed operational flying with the Squadron on 11 September 1944, by which time it was based at Douai in Northern France, providing air support to Operation Market Garden, the disastrous attempt to take the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. 

On 27 September six Spitfires of the squadron, including Russell, gave chase to a fleet of fifty Me-109s, and Russell made his final “kill” of the war. It was the Squadron’s last dogfight.

On 29 September 1944 the Squadron was relocated to the RAF station at Coltishall in Norfolk.  By this time the principal threat was the V-2 rockets that were now being launched from Holland. Being in populated areas the launch sites had to be bombed with high precision, and the squadron commander persuaded the British that Spitfires adapted for dive bombing would provide the solution.  The Squadron was the first to be equipped with the Mark XVI Spitfire, which in their case had clipped wings fitted with bomb racks. 

On 15 January 1945 Russell was promoted to Flight Lieutenant.  Ten days later he received the news that he had been awarded the DFC, which he received from George VI at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 10 July 1945. 

The Squadron’s last raid on V-2s was on 30 March 1945. At the beginning of April the Squadron moved to Lympne in East Kent, from where it began bomber escort duties in daylight over Germany.

On 25 April Russell led 453 Squadron on its last offensive operation in the European theatre of war, on the East Fresian island of Wangerooge.  By this time he had flown 286 operational sorties.

On returning to Sydney Russell returned to work at CSR, and in December 1945 married Meg Gwilliam, who had worked on the same floor of CSR as Russell before the war, whom he had been taking out before he joined up, and with whom he maintained a regular correspondence during his long absence. 

In July 1949 disaster struck. Russell was diagnosed with “mild” tuberculosis, and forced to spend the next 16 months in hospital and then a sanatorium at Turramurra, a period during which he was unable to have contact with his daughter Margaret and his baby son David, who was born after he was admitted.  Characteristically, he put the time to good use, completing an accounting degree.

In 1969 CSR’s regional manager for Perth retired, and on 1 January 1970 Russell was appointed to take his place. 

On retirement from CSR in 1979 Russell plunged into the community service roles which had already characterised his professional life, which was recognised in 1994 when he was made a Member in the Order of Australia.  

He served on the Board of Perth Diocesan Trustees, later becoming chairman, the Board of the Wittenoom Trust, became Chairman of the WA Potato Marketing Board, Chairman of the government’s Consultative Committee on Prison Industries, a board member of the WA Art Gallery, and Chairman of Anglican Homes.  He played a very active role on worker safety, helping to found the Industrial Foundation for Accident Prevention (IFAP), and in 1990 became Federal President of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA).

Russell Leith demonstrated throughout his life strong senses of duty and loyalty, and an acceptance of whatever hand life dealt him.  He was a man for whom family was all-important, and friendships were for life.  He remained in touch throughout his life with school friends from Suva and Armidale, with the Canadian family who had billeted him when he was on leave in Toronto, with his wartime comrades from 453 Squadron, and with the American flyers who had sheltered with him in the Renoult’s farm.

In 1977 he returned to Normandy, where he caught up with the niece of the farm family that had sheltered him in the safe house and the Resistance figure who had delivered him there, and made a visit to the safe house.

Russell Leith’s final battle was yet to come.  On a visit to Normandy in 1988 he visited the Museum for Peace in Caen, at which there is a large concourse where there were the flags of thirteen countries that participated in the Battle of Normandy. Russell noticed that there was no Australian flag, and on return to Australia began the long campaign to have Australia recognised as one of the participating nations, on the basis that 453 Squadron had participated directly in the battle from day one, had been on the ground at the Normandy beachhead, and had suffered serious casualties. It was a seven year battle with Australian and French bureaucratic inertia, but on 1 May 1998, the Australian flag was raised at the Museum for Peace.

Russell’s last wartime aircraft was the Spitfire Mark XVI, serial number TB 863, with identification FU-P, which he flew on a 30 March raid against the V-2 rocket sites at Leiden. Some years ago it was restored to flying condition and it is now part of the Temora Aviation Museum.

The canopy of the aircraft he crashed in France was recovered in 2000, after having sheltered a French farmer’s tomato plants for 50 years, and is now on display at The Armidale School.

A kind and gentle man whose community service stands alongside his wartime achievements, Russell Leith belonged to an honourable and gallant generation.  He is survived by his brother Ian, his two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Paul Barratt AO is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence.

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