b. 14/04/1915 Nelson, New Zealand. d. 19/05/1986 Auckland, New Zealand.
Leonard Henry “Len” Trent (1915-1986) was born in Nelson, New Zealand on 14th April 1915, the son of a dentist. In 1919 the family moved to Takaka, where three years later, after taking a short ride in a Gipsy Moth aircraft, Trent became captivated by flying. Educated principally at Nelson College, he matriculated in 1933 and began employment in commerce. In January 1937, however, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force, a Service which though bearing this title since 1934, only became a separate entity from Army administration and control on 1st April 1937. Thus Trent was amongst the first batch of future pilots for the RNZAF; trained at Wigram – one of only two air stations then existing – on Vickers Vildebeest biplane bombers.
The first Chief of Staff for the new service was an RAF officer “on loan”, Group Captain Ralph Cochrane, later to achieve fame as Commander of RAF Bomber Command’s 5 Group during World War Two; and his appointment reflected the close liaison between the two air Services. In 1926, it had been agreed that RAF and RNZAF officers could be attached to each other’s Service for extended training and experience; and under this “exchange” Trent was attached to the RAF in England in July 1938.
By the outbreak of war Trent was serving with 15 Squadron, flying Fairey Battle bombers and on 2nd September 1939 was one of the pilots who flew to France under Operation Panther – the transfer of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) intended as a deterrent to German air assault on France. Based initially at Bethenville, 15 Squadron flew its first mission, a reconnaissance, on 6th September, and five days later took up “residence” at Vraux, near Chalons. Trent flew just one sortie in France – an armed reconnaissance of the Siegfried Line of fortifications from 20,000 feet – during which he and his crew became anoxic through a lack of oxygen and eventually had to abandon the sortie. By 10th December 1939 the squadron had returned to England where, based at Wyton, it exchanged its out-dated Battles for Bristol Blenheim IV bombers and commenced conversion training. By May 1940, when German forces invaded the Low Countries and instigated their blitzkrieg advance through Belgium, Holland and France, the squadron was on permanent standby for bombing operations.
Duing the next two months, the Blenheim crews, including Trent, played their full part in the hopeless attempts to stem the German advance, lost most of their aircraft and crews and some of the replacements. By late June, and collapse of France, 15 Squadron began raids on German occupied airfields and strategic targets in Germany; but Trent left the squadron on 1st July with an appointment as a flying instructor at 17 OTU, Upwood. Later that month, he was awarded the DFC for his tour of operations with 15 Squadron. He married Ursula Elizabeth Woolhouse on 7th August 1940 at Holborn, London.
Completing his tour as an instructor, Trent was promoted to Squadron Leader and, on 9th March 1942, posted to HQ No 2 Group, Bomber Command as Operations Officer; but his wish to return to actual operational flying was granted five months later when, on 20th August, he joined 487 Squadron at Feltwell, Norfolk with the appointment as B Flight Commander. In September the squadron received its first Ventura bombers.
Its first major operation came on 6th December 1942, when the squadron’s Venturas formed part of nearly 100 Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitos sent to bomb the Philips Radio factory at Eindhoven. The operation was successful, but the intensive groundfire led to the loss of 14 aircraft. For the following three weeks bad weather stopped operations, and it was not until 22nd January 1943 that 487 Squadron re-commenced bombing sorties over Europe. By the beginning of May Trent had completed a total of 23 operational sorties, and had been offered the chance to attend a Staff College course; a necessary step for further promotion. Trent declined the offer, and stayed with 487 Squadron.
On 3rd May 1943 the squadron was ordered on a Ramrod diversionary bombing attack on the power station in Amsterdam, (the code Ramrod meant a bomber raid escorted by fighters aimed at destruction of a specific target in daylight). No.s 118 Sqn, 167 and 504 Squadrons of the Coltishall Wing were to escort the Venturas, and were to be met by further squadrons of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command over the Dutch coast. The Venturas were to cross the coast at sea level so as not to alert German radar, then climb.
Unfortunately, the 11 Gp Mk IXs flying Rodeo 212 ahead of the Venturas arrived early and crossed the coast high—being anxious to gain a height advantage—alerting the German defences. They ran low on fuel before the Venturas arrived and had to leave. The Luftwaffe scrambled some 70 fighters in four formations, with Focke-Wulf Fw 190s to deal with the escort and Messerschmitt Bf 109s the bombers. The escort Wing Leader, Wg Cdr Blatchford, vainly attempted to recall the bombers but they were soon hemmed in by fighters. Under constant attack by II Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 1, 487 Squadron continued on to its target, the few surviving aircraft completing bombing runs before being shot down. The Squadron was virtually wiped out. Trent shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with the forward machine guns of his plane. Immediately afterwards, his own aircraft (Ventura AJ209) was hit, went into a spin and broke up. Squadron Leader Trent and his navigator were thrown clear at 7,000 feet and became prisoners. Trent, whose leadership was instrumental in ensuring the bombing run was completed, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Trent had been captured with a minor scalp wound, and was the only survivor along with the navigator of his crew. After several weeks of interrogation, including two weeks in solitary confinement, he was eventually transferred to a regular officers’ POW camp; going to Stalag Luft III, a camp for aircrew prisoners. Not content to just “sit out the war”, he joined the prisoners’ master organisation for escaping, and when, under the leadership of Roger Bushell, plans were in place for a mass escape from Stalag Luft III by tunnels under the perimeter wire fences, Trent became one of the helpers and took responsibility for all security matters.
Then, on the night of 24th March 1944, the mass escape commenced. Just before 5am the following morning Trent emerged from the tunnel exit hole, and crawled clear and was about to dash for the nearby shelter of trees, when a German sentry on his patrol beat appeared. Lying still in the snow, Trent was stepped over by the sentry, but the escape was uncovered, and Trent was taken into custody. Ironically, his capture may have saved his life, because of the 76 men who escaped that night, all but three were soon recaptured and, of these, 50 were deliberately murdered by the Germans on a direct order from Hitler.
Officially transferred back to the RNZAF in June 1944, Trent was eventually repatriated to England after the German surrender in May 1945. Only then did the full story of the disastrous Ventura bombing raid of May 1943 became known, and on 1st March 1946, Leonard Trent was awarded a VC for his leadership and devotion to duty. Granted a permanent commission in the postwar RAF, he pursued a normal career series of postings and appointments; being Chief Flying Instructor at Oakington in the early 1950s, and becoming commander of the re-formed 214 Squadron at Marham in March 1956, flying Vickers Valiant V-bombers, which participated in the Suez Crisis operations later that year. On 1st-2nd September 1956 he piloted a Valiant non-stop from Lowring Base, Maine to RAF Marham – the first non-stop Atlantic flight by a V-Bomber.
On 1st July 1959, he was promoted to Group Captain and became station commander at RAF Wittering; was appointed ADC to HM The Queen in 1962; and during the next three years was attached to the British Defence Staff in the USA, and the British Embassy in Washington, USA. Finally, in April 1965, he retired from the RAF and returned to his native New Zealand. He died on 19th May 1986 in Auckland, New Zealand and was cremated at North Shore Crematorium. His medals group is held by the RNZAF Museum at Wigram, New Zealand.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: RNZAF MUSEUM, WIGRAM, NEW ZEALAND.
BURIAL PLACE: NORTH SHORE CREMATORIUM, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND.
Nelson Airport, Nelson, NZ
St Clements Danes Church, Aldwych
Images courtesy of Matthew O'Sullivan (Air Forces NZ Museum)