Leslie Noel Atkinson

This post is the first in a series about the crew of Whitley Bomber Z9362 of 24 Operational Training Unit that crashed into the sea, 2 miles from Saltcoats Harbour.

The research that has been carried out is extensive, involving contributions from many individuals and organisations across the United Kingdom (UK) and in New Zealand. As new information is uncovered, we will provide updates in this blog.

The crew of the aircraft that crashed into the sea off Saltcoats Harbour:

RankNameService NumberRoleOutcome
Flying Officer  John Clifford North-Lewis109536PilotKilled, body recovered
Sergeant    Ernest Jack Beer1600187NavigatorKilled, body recovered
SergeantDonald Ernest Watts1250352Wireless Operator/Air GunnerKilled. Body not recovered
Sergeant    Leslie Noel Atkinson34429 1397005 NZ4310154  Air BomberBaled out. Rescued from sea.
Sergeant    Edward Harold George Dyer1606353Air GunnerBaled out, Landed on land.

In this first blog post we will look at the life of Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson. Extensive research had been carried out by Sandra Colley (London) over a number of years, and this had included making contact with close and distant relatives of Leslie Atkinson. Most of the information and all of the photographs (except where noted) in relation to Leslie have been provided by Sandra.

Leslie Atkinson had three service numbers. This provided a slight challenge during the research, but it was resolved by a researcher accessing a record card in AIR78 at The National Archives (Kew) which pulled together service records showing that they belonged to the same person.

Leslie Atkinson had started World War 2 as a sapper in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He had come over to work in forestry. This was a way in which workers in the UK could be released in order to join the military forces.

He had ambitions to fly, and his wish was granted when he transferred into the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAF VR).

Life in the RAF appeared to suit him well. His thoughts on his transfer have been captured by this photograph..

The following is handwritten on the back of the photograph – ‘Taken in Hampshire August 1941. Carting logs for the war effort. What a job!! Let me tell you the RAF is fun!!’ 

The Auckland Museum On-Line Cenotaph provides an article by Flying Officer Ian Robertson McKenzie Weir who appears to have come over as one of Leslie’s fellow sappers. It was written for a Taumarunui & District Returned Services Association (RSA) publication in 2005. He describes the reasons for them wanting to transfer to flying duties. These include dissatisfaction with the beetroot sandwiches which were being provided for lunch, replacement uniforms using ‘pommy’ material, no access to a radio to find out how the war was progressing, and being turned down for a transfer from England to the Middle East. Nineteen applied and four were accepted.  There was no Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) training available in the UK so all four transferred into the RAF VR. Two of them were subsequently killed in action and two became prisoners of war.  

Leslie was in 24 Operational Training Unit, and was flying as the Air Bomber in Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Z9362 on the night of the incident in which it was lost. He was one of two airmen who baled out successfully before impact. The aircraft crashed into the sea two miles off Saltcoats harbour, and he came down into the water.

People on land heard calls for help, and the police tasked local fisherman David Shedden with carrying out the daring rescue in the middle of the night.

Leslie became a member of the Caterpillar Club. Those eligible for membership must have had their life saved by parachute after bailing out of a stricken aircraft. The location and the circumstances around the incident which led to him becoming a member were not known by Leslie’s family until 2022, when the research on the Saltcoats crash began. Sandra Colley had previously assisted them in seeking a replacement for the Caterpillar Brooch that had been lost.

Leslie went on to get married in December 1943, seven months after he had baled out of Whitley Z9362. His wife Joyce was from Moston, Manchester in England.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s training was completed, and he transferred from RAF VR into the RNZAF and joined 51 Squadron, flying operations over enemy territory along with RAF aircrew.

Leslie in the flying suit that he wore on operations as Air Bomber. 

This is a photo of Leslie with his crew before or after one of their flights. Names were written on the back of the photograph from left to right: Les, Me (Douglas), Roy, Bill, Frank. 

Flight Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson was on the left, Douglas was Pilot Officer Douglas Jackson, Roy was probably Sergeant Wilfred Royston Lewis, Bill is believed to be a nickname for Sergeant John Cameron Harthill. The identity of Frank has not yet been established. 

On 24 February 1944, Leslie (now Flight Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson) was on board Halifax III LV778 C6-B which took off at 18.24hrs on 24 February 1944 from Snaith on an operation to Schweinfurt, Germany.

There was a crew of 8, with representation from the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

The aircraft flying at roughly 19,700 feet over Belstein, near Heilbronn, 30 km NNW Stuttgart, was attacked by a night fighter (piloted by Oberfeldwebel Kurt Karsten 7/NJG6 – 6th combat victory) and shot down at 22:56 hours. All crew members were killed.

Flight Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson was 29 years old at the time of his death. He is buried alongside his fellow crew members in Durnbach War Cemetery in Germany.

Also on board and killed was Sergeant Ronald Jack Colley (Flight Engineer). Ronald is Sandra Colley’s father-in-law. Sandra successfully researched the crew and was able to make contact with family members of them all.

The pilot, Pilot Officer Douglas Jackson was engaged to be married, and his fiancée only knew that he had been killed, but had no other information. It was only when Sandra made contact with her as an elderly lady that she was able to describe the circumstances of his death. Her family later explained to Sandra that it had given her closure before she died.

Sandra has also assisted family, and other people close to Leslie, with information about his life in the armed forces.

The other five fellow crew members who were killed are:

Flight Sergeant FG Langford (Royal Canadian Air Force)

Flying Officer FR Rohrer

Sergeant JF Brown

Flight Sergeant JAL Carmichael (Royal Australian Air Force)

Sergeant JC Harthill

Flight Sergeant Langford had joined the crew to gain operational experience.

Photo courtesy of: Wynrae, at Find a Grave 

These posts were researched and kindly contributed by John & Ian McCallum and Sandra Colley, with support from Flying Officer David McKay of 1138 (Ardrossan) Squadron Air Training Corps and Paul Coffey, President of the Royal British Legion Scotland Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Stevenston Branch.