Leslie Valentine, born in the East End of Glasgow, was believed to be the last survivor of the dozen RAF light-bomber pilots who swooped only yards above the beaches of Normandy on D-Day to drop smoke canisters as cover for the invading British and allied forces. The boys on the ground said later that the Boston light-bombers flew so low – roughly the height of a single-story building – that the troops hit the water or sand for fear of being decapitated.
In fact, in the confusion of the beach landings, Valentine, at the time with the rank of Flying Officer, along with his navigator John Mackenzie and the rest of the unit, found themselves shot at not only by German small arms, artillery and anti-aircraft fire but also by Allied infantrymen on the beach and by the big guns from British and American warships just offshore.
One Scottish infantryman later recalled aiming his rifle at one of the low-flying planes until he saw it was a Boston – “E-Easy” – and realised it was “one of ours”. In fact, that plane was Valentine’s. He himself could relate to that infantryman. Valentine had enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI), trained at Maryhill barracks in his native Glasgow and fought in France before applying successfully to join the RAF.
It will never be known how many lives Valentine and his flying comrades saved on that morning of 6 June 1944, D-Day – probably hundreds, possibly thousands – by providing a smoke screen against the German defenders for whom the Allied landing force would otherwise have been sitting ducks. Two of Valentine’s team were shot down but he and nine of the other planes and crews made it back to their base at RAF Hartford Bridge in Hampshire.
“I’d anticipated that it was going to be a little hairy,” he said years later with his characteristic modesty. I had just 46 seconds to let off four canisters of smoke. The Germans were only half a mile back off the beach. The noise of the shells was deafening.
“Not only was there the chance of being hit in the crossfire but, as the UK forces on the ground were unsure who the aircraft flying so low above them were, they also let fly with small arms fire. I was flying at 250mph at only 50ft.
“I had to hold it very steady – at that speed and height if I’d even sneezed that would have been it. After a while, you felt you had become lucky.”
Valentine’s D-Day actions were later immortalised in a painting by aviation artist Michael Turner, titled Friendly Smoke and signed by both Valentine and his navigator Mackenzie.
In all, Valentine and his American-built Douglas Boston 111A light-bomber flew 60 combat missions as part of RAF 88 Squadron, 2nd Tactical Air Force, Bomber Command. Most of those missions were aimed at disrupting German supply lines, bombing roads, bridges, railway marshalling yards, submarine bases and V1 rocket-launching sites which threatened southern UK cities.
On one mission, his plane took a direct hit. “Flak (anti-aircraft fire) hit my engine and the navigator was injured. I had to come back with one engine. I needed the navigator to get home and so, while flying, I was instructing him on how to put on a tourniquet with a handkerchief and a pencil to stop the blood flowing. We made it.”
Once his contribution to the liberation of France was recognised, Valentine was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), with a Silver Star by the French government. He went on to become a UK sales manager for a major pharmaceutical company, retiring to the Bicester region of Oxfordshire where he had trained and been based during much of the war.
Because he had left the HLI to train as an RAF pilot, he never got his Defence Medal for his service as a Second World War infantryman. After a radio programme made this fact known, Prime Minister David Cameron personally handed Valentine the Defence Medal in November 2012, when the war veteran was already 94.
During his visit to London, he was given VIP treatment, including a chauffeured limousine, a tour of 10 Downing Street and a visit to the Bomber Command memorial in London’s Green Park.
Leslie Valentine was born in Dennistoun, north of the Clyde in the East End of Glasgow, on 14 May, 1918, while the Great War was still raging, to Dr Leslie Valentine and his wife Katherine. He attended the High School of Glasgow in Old Anniesland, west Glasgow, at the time a boys-only school. While still at school, he met Vera Ward at the Whitecraigs Lawn Tennis and Sports club in Giffnock, and they married on 17 May, 1938. It was a marriage that would last for 74 years until Vera’s death. Following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Glasgow in the autumn of 1938 but the shadow of Hitler was already looming.
In September 1939, with war declared, he signed up with the HLI – nicknamed “the Glesga Keelies” – and fought with their 2nd Battalion in France until the Dunkirk evacuation.
He reckoned that beating Hitler and liberating France would be best accomplished from the air and so applied for the RAF, undergoing training at Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada, and later in Blenheim and Boston bombers at RAF Bicester and RAF Finmere, on the border between Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, as part of RAF 13 Operational Unit.
By chance, he would retire almost 50 years later to a village of Hethe, Oxfordshire, not far from both those old airfields, where he spent most of the rest of his life.
His son Dudley said his father rarely talked about the war until Vera died two years ago. Dudley later took his father back to the Normandy beaches, where the veteran was feted by locals and fellow vets for his brief but vital role in the liberation of France.
“He was a very proud but a very private man who did not show his emotions at all,” his son said. “The trip to Normandy hit him quite hard. He always said, ‘I just did the job I was asked to do,’ and that was it.”
After the war, Valentine returned to his beloved Glasgow to continue his university education. Dudley was born there in 1942.
From general medicine, he focused on physiotherapy and worked in that profession for ten years before being employed by the pharmaceutical firm Abbott Laboratories, first as a salesman, later area manager. He went on to work for GD Searle, now known as Monsato, until his retirement at the age of 65 and his settlement in Oxfordshire.
His son Dudley, who lives in England but considers himself very much Scottish, said after his father’s death: “I have a million words running through my head, but the one thing to say is that I am just very, very proud to call him my father.”
For the final four months of his life, Leslie Valentine was cared for in Fewcott House Nursing Home in Fewcott, Oxfordshire, where he died. His wife of 74 years, Vera, died in 2012. He is survived by his son Dudley, daughter Una and grandchildren David and Alistair.