Almost 70 years after departing from RAF Leeming in a Halifax II bomber at the height of World War II, a lion statuette has been returned home to take pride of place at the Station Historical Training Facility.
In the early hours of October 5 1943, a Halifax II bomber from 429 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, then based at RAF Leeming, crashed and burnt out at Heathfield Park in Sussex. It was returning from operations over Frankfurt, where it had been badly hit by a night fighter, and had limped back as far as it could. Six of the eight-man crew baled out but two were killed.
Details of the following hours are sketchy, but it is known that children playing near the wreckage of the plane the next day found a lion statuette, still warm from the previous night’s fire. One of them kept hold of it, and it was tucked away from years until it came to the attention of Eric White, a black cab driver from Northwood in Middlesex. He said: “It was originally recovered from the plane by my friend’s mum and she had it for years.”
When Mr White heard the lion’s tale, he was determined to trace its origins, and perhaps even return it to its rightful owner. The trail eventually led to RAF Leeming, where 429 Squadron were based but which were, ironically, known as the Bison Squadron. The Lion was actually associated with 427 Sqn – also based at RAF Leeming for much of World War II.
Flight Lieutenant Alfie Hall, who runs the Historical Training Facility, explains how he thinks the lion could have ended up on his unexpected journey. “Air crews were notorious for playing practical jokes on each other. 427 Sqn had a room known as ‘the lion’s den’. Chances are that this was a treasured “Lion” Squadron mascot that the boys from 429 took on a raid as a practical joke, which gives an idea that their sense of humour was very similar to our own today.”
The Halifax was one of more than 300 aircraft lost by RAF Leeming alone in the course of the Second World War – along with many of the crews. Alfie feels that the lion provides a priceless link with the past. He said: “To have this personal artefact gives you a closer bond with those young men and what it was like to serve here 70 years ago.”
The lion, adorned with the motto ‘le pouvoi’ – which literally translates as ‘the power’, will now take his place in RAF Leeming’s historical training facility, where he will be seen by a range of visitors young and old. Eric said: “I think it’s a fantastic story, and it’s quite emotional for me to see him coming back to RAF Leeming. I hope that, one day, somebody comes to visit who knows him.”