Railway to Runway

ISBN 1-873203-60-8
RAF biography

by Leslie Harris


How the wartime journal of an RAF navigator killed in WW2 revealed a family secret kept hidden for 40 years...

On the night of 28th June 1943 Halifax DK137 MP-R belonging to No 76 Squadron of RAF Bomber Command was shot down over Votten in Belgium, killing every member of its 5-man crew. It was their first operational sortie.

Among those killed was Leslie Harris, the navigator, a young man of just 22 years of age. He left behind a young son and a wife who was pregnant with their second child. Leslie Harris Jnr was born three months later...

Leslie's mother Monica, in common with so many women of her generation who were widowed at a young age,  faced the daunting task of bringing up two sons on her own. Few benefits were available to single mothers and life was a struggle. Perhaps to cope with her own grief, Monica never mentioned her husband and Leslie and his older brother Noel grew up knowing almost nothing about their father.

It wasn't until long after his mother's death in 1976 that Leslie Jr discovered a tin trunk tucked away in a corner of the attic of her house.  Inside were the journals in which his father had carefully recorded his thoughts and feelings during the war, along with bundles of letters he had written home to his young wife whilst training abroad in South Africa to be an RAF airman.

It is not hard to imagine the emotional impact this discovery had on Leslie Jr, who was by now in middle age, for at last he was able to gain an intimate insight into the character of the father he had never known...

The journals and letters contained all kinds of personal details about Leslie Snr and his family and revealed their author to have been a kind, intelligent and affectionate young man who thought the world of his wife and their baby son (tragically, Leslie Jr could not share his discovery with his older brother Noel, who had been killed in a traffic accident in 1967). 

Leslie Snr also wrote in detail about his wartime experiences. At the outbreak of war he was working as a railwayman on the picturesque Isle of Wight steam railway, and during the summer of 1940 he had a grandstand view of the Battle of Britain as it took place over the island. What he saw made him determined to volunteer for the RAF, which he duly did as soon as he was able.  He was sent for training in South Africa and writes in detail about this and of his subsequent return to the UK for operational training before joining an operational squadron.

Perceptive, funny and informative, his observations are as fresh as when they were written all those years ago and provide a fascinating snapshot of the times experessed in the voice of the young man he then was.

Tragically, in common with over 50,000 of his RAF colleagues, he was never to grow old and this book is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by so manyof his generation.