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Local History

“It’s never too late to come back” just 300 of them

A photo in an old copy of the NZ Listener caught my eye. The photo was of a silver medal about the size of a fifty-cent coin and depicted a single aircrew flying boot with wings.
 |  Scott Lee  | 

Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Leslie Lee.

I knew I had seen one in my deceased mother’s jewellery box and after a quick search I had it in my hand. A Google search later and a cross reference with Dad’s service record and his remarkable story unfolded.

Dad’s story: Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Leslie LEE – 41916

Dad, a customs officer from Tuakau, near Auckland, enlisted in February 1941, aged 19. In July he embarked for flight training school in Canada, gaining his wings as an RAF Pilot Officer later that year. After three more months of operational training in the U.K. he was sent to Egypt and Malta with 229 squadron arriving in March 1942.

Malta was under siege and enduring constant bombardment from the Italian Airforce based in Sicily. Armed with aging Hurricanes, 229’s mission was to defend Malta at all costs, a seemingly impossible task since the island was short of fuel, ammunition and spare parts. At one stage 229 squadron were down to seven serviceable Hurricanes.

The old Hurricanes were a bit slow. As a boy I remember asking Dad if he had killed any Germans. “I hope not son, but we sure scared a few.”

After three months of intense action, Dad, along with other members of 229 were sent to Cairo. Nearing the North African coast several of the group peeled off and headed for land. As they were under strict radio silence, no explanation was given, and it wasn’t until later that their plight was obvious. The fuel had been stolen from the tanks at the airfield. Someone had helped themselves.

Approaching the coast, Dad was concentrating on finding a spot to land when he was jumped by a Stuka dive bomber that sprayed him before continuing on its way, not wanting to engage.

Dad knew his position would have been reported by the Stuka so he flew on as long as he could before crashing with only a few bruises.

Taken prisoner

After two nights walking in the desert, he was befriended by a group of Arabs who fed him and gave him a place to sleep in a hut in their village. Thinking he may actually get back to friendly forces, he was more than disappointed to be woken by an Italian patrol who had been contacted by those hospitable Arabs. He even saw money changing hands as the group were rewarded for an Allied pilot.

Now a P.O.W., Dad was transferred to Campo 47 in Modena Italy, a guest of Mussolini for the next eighteen months (including his 21st birthday).

Dad once spoke of his time as a P.O.W. – the gnawing hunger of the first few weeks until your stomach shrank, the flea ridden socks and barracks and the bitter cold in the winter. He also spoke of the strength of spirit among his fellow inmates, the importance of hope and a sense of humour and the endless escape plans.

Escape

By September ’43 dad and his fellow prisoners were getting restless. The Germans were retreating through Italy and they knew the camp would soon be under German guard. They may even be taken to Germany.

The day before the camp was due to change hands, Dad and his South African friend, Alan Flederman, hid in the roof of the barracks in a pre-prepared cavity. The following night after 30 very uncomfortable hours in the roof, they lifted the roof tiles and escaped across the fence without a guard in sight. The Germans were late arriving but the Italians had taken off anyway. :

Dressed in peasant clothing they had swapped with Italians working in the prison and using maps hand drawn from an atlas, they headed north. After a few days hiding in rural Modena, they were discovered by the Italian resistance (the Partisans). At first the Partisans didn’t trust Dad and wanted to shoot him. His youthful appearance (he was still 21) and the rank of flight lieutenant seemed suspicious. After months in an Italian P.O.W., Dad could speak Italian perfectly and his detailed explanations finally convinced them.

Dad spent three months with various Partisan families as he made his way up to Switzerland, traveling by rail and a lot on foot. Dad described the Partisan families as some of the bravest people he had ever met. Under the threat of death for their entire families, they continued to hide escaped P.O.W’s for weeks at a time.

Dad crossed the border into Switzerland – once again with the help of Partisans. Switzerland was neutral but it was land locked and there was no way back to the U.K. Dad spent 9 months in Switzerland keeping fit by hiking, climbing and skiing. Fed up with waiting to be repatriated, he crossed the border into German occupied Italy and made his way south to meet the U.S forces advancing through Italy. The Americans shipped him back to the U.K. where he arrived in November 1944.

Dad crashed in North Africa in May 1942 and returned to the U.K. in November 1944. It took 2½ years and involved a journey of some 5000 miles to get back to London.

His flying boot medal was well earned, certainly lived up to the motto of the Late Arrivals Club, “It’s never too late to come back.”

Dad returned to NZ, married a war widow and had a long and successful career, with NZ Airforce and later with Civil Aviation. He retired to Turangi and skied most fine days until he was 80. “The only good thing to come out of that bloody war,” he says. He never went back to Italy but corresponded with the Partisan families and his fellow escapee Alan Flederman every Xmas until his passing.

He was an officer and a gentleman, a man of dignity, integrity and principles – one of the old school.

LATE ARRIVALS CLUB

During WW2 Allied soldiers formed exclusive clubs honouring service men and women who survived despite seemingly impossible odds. These unofficial groups boosted morale, built camaraderie and offered hope to those enduring severe hardship.

One such club was” The Late Arrivals Club”, the members of which were awarded the Flying Boot medal.

To qualify you had to be an RAF pilot, be shot down over enemy territory in North Africa and make your own way back to the U.K. With such strict criteria, it is no wonder only 300 were ever awarded.