Group Captain L C Slee DSO DFC and Bar.

Group Captain L C Slee DSO DFC and Bar was Station Commander at RAF Dunholme Lodge from 17 May – 1 August 1943.

Early RAF Career

Leonard Cain Slee was appointed to a Short-Service Commission in the RAF on 10 April 1931. At this time, The RAF, unlike the Army and the Navy, was mainly a short-service force both. However, Leonard Slee transferred to a Permanent Commission as a Flying Officer on 10 April 1936. He was promoted to Squadron Leader on 1 December 1938 and to Wing Commander (Temporary) on 1 September 1941. There is a gap in information about Slee’s career from this point until he was appointed to command No 49 Squadron at RAF Scampton on 14 May 1942. He would gain fame a few months later for his role in Operation ROBINSON, a low-level daylight attack by Lancasters against a target in Le Creusot, France.

Operation ROBINSON

Operation ROBINSON was the low-level daylight attack by Lancasters of No 5 Group on the large Schneider armament factory at Le Creusot, situated more than 300 miles inside France. The factory produced heavy guns, railway engines and, it was believed, tanks and armoured cars. A large workers' housing estate was situated at one end of the factory. Bomber Command had been given this as the highest priority target in France for a night attack but only in the most favourable of conditions.

The Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Harris, decided to attack by day, at low level, despite the potential for heavy losses in aircraft and crews. The task was given to No 5 Group and Wing Commander Slee was to lead it. Slee had commanded No 49 Sqn since 14 May 1942 and he considered it to be an elite unit. Three of the Squadron’s pilots were senior non-commissioned officers and they all felt that Slee had little respect for them because they did not hold commissions, even though they were more experienced than some of the junior commissioned pilots on the Sqn. This perception became a talking-point during briefing for the attack when two of the non-commissioned pilots realized that they had been placed in formation on either side of Slee, in the most vulnerable positions for fighter attacks.

The aircraft and crews selected to take part in the attack carried out a series of low-level practice flights over England. Then, following a favourable weather report, the attack was scheduled for the afternoon of 17 October 1942. Around midday, 94 Lancasters from Nos 9, 44, 50, 57, 61, 97, 106 and 207 Squadrons set out. It was planned that 88 aircraft would bomb the Schneider factory itself, while the remaining 6 were to attack a nearby transformer station, which supplied the factory with electricity. On the attack, No 106 Sqn was led by its commanding officer, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson DSO DFC, who would later lead Lancasters of No 617 Sqn in attacking the Ruhr dams in May 1943.

The Lancasters flew in a loose formation over the sea around Brittany, and crossed the coast of France between La Rochelle and St-Nazaire without any fighter escort. For 300 miles the Lancasters flew at tree-top level across France. No German fighters attacked the bombers during this flight. The greatest danger was from birds; 4 aircraft were damaged and 2 men injured in bird strikes.

Flying Officer A S Grant RAAF, Wing Commander Slee's navigator, was responsible for navigating the closely-knit force and he performed outstandingly throughout. There was practically no anti-aircraft fire at the target and bombing took place in clear conditions at heights of between 2500ft and 7500ft. Nearly 140 tons of bombs were dropped. The Lancasters returned home safely as darkness closed in. The only casualty was one aircraft of 61 Squadron, which bombed the nearby transformer power-station at such a low level that it crashed into a building.

The attack had been carried out in daylight to avoid civilian casualties (‘collateral damage’ in modern jargon) but, despite the best efforts of all involved, post-attack aerial photographs revealed that some of the bombs had fallen short and had struck the workers' housing estate near the factory. No accurate figures are available for the number of French civilian casualties, although the Germans claimed at the time that 250 had been killed. Nonetheless, many of the bombs had fallen into the factory area and damage there was fairly extensive.

For their execution of the mission, both Wg Cdr Slee and Fg Off Grant were both awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Part of the citation read:

On 17th October, 1942, Wing Commander Slee and Flying Officer Grant were captain and navigator respectively of the leading aircraft of a large force of Lancaster bombers which attacked the Armament and Locomotive Works at Le Creusot. Much depended on their efforts but each in his respective role displayed superb skill and determination and a large measure of the outstanding success achieved can be attributed to their sterling work.

Wg Cdr Slee flew on 26 operations with No 49 Squadron before being posted to HQ No 5 Group in April 1943. He remained there until 17 May 1943, when he was posted to become the Station Commander at RAF Dunholme Lodge as an Acting Group Captain.

Operation BELLICOSE - The First ‘Shuttle’ Mission

Slee did not have much time undertake the ‘normal’ command duties of a Station Commander in the few weeks that he was at RAF Dunholme Lodge, as he was called upon to pioneer the new role of ‘Master Bomber’ being developed by Bomber Commmand. An excellent example of British understatement is displayed by an entry in the RAF Dunholme Lodge Operational Record Book (RAF Form 540) in July 1943:

W/Cdr (A/G/Capt) L C Slee DSO DFC proceeded to North Africa by air on 20.6.43…on tempy. duty. Returned 28.6.43.

This disguises the fact that HQ No 5 Group made Slee the ‘Master Bomber’ for Operation BELLICOSE, Bomber Command’s first ‘shuttle’ mission to attack targets in south Germany and Italy, despite the fact that he was by now the Station Commander at RAF Dunholme Lodge. His selection probably owed much to his experience of leading the Le Creusot raid.

Shuttle missions involved aircraft attacking distant targets and then flying on to Allied bases in other countries, rather than returning to the UK. These missions allowed targets to be attacked at a greater distance from the UK than if the aircraft had to return to the UK; they also denied enemy fighters the opportunity of attacking the bombers on expected return flights to the UK. In addition, the bombers could be refuelled and rearmed to attack more targets during their return flight to the UK. In this case, the target selected for the outbound flight would be the Zeppelin Works at Friedrichshafen in south Germany, where vital radar components were being manufactured in the former airship construction sheds, and the Lancasters would then fly on to airfields in North Africa, located in areas that the Allies had recaptured from the enemy. Having been refuelled and rearmed, the Lancasters would attack oil and armament storage facilities at the Italian naval base of La Spezia on their return flight to the UK.

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson had pioneered the use of VHF radio to control bombers over a target, when he circled the Ruhr dams in May 1943 and gave instructions to his crews attacking the dams. This tactical innovation led to further experiments with designating a ‘Master Bomber’ to control attacks and this was to be Gp Capt Slee’s role during Op BELLICOSE. The Deputy Master Bomber would be Wg Cdr Cosme Gomm, the Commanding Officer of No 467 Sqn, Royal Australian Air Force.

For BELLICOSE, Slee was to fly again with No 49 Sqn, in the same Lancaster that he used to fly when he had commanded the Squadron earlier in the year. For this mission, Slee’s crew was made up of hand-picked, highly experienced individuals. Slee would not be piloting the aircraft but undertake his role of Master Bomber from the seat normally occupied by the aircraft’s flight engineer. On this flight, Slee would take up the position normally reserved for the Flight Engineer.

During the outbound flight, Slee’s Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft fire near Cologne and one of its engines was put out of action. Slee decided to hand over the role of Master Bomber to the Deputy Master Bomber, Wg Cdr Gomm, whose corrections broadcast during the attack helped ensure that a considerable amount of damage was inflicted on the target. Unwittingly, damage was also inflicted on V2 rocket production facilities, which were also sited at the Zeppelin Works, although Allied intelligence was not aware of the existence of these facilities at the time. Following this attack, the V2 production facilities were moved to an underground location in the Harz mountains in central Germany, where they would be impervious to air attack.

Although the damaged engine prevented Slee from carrying out his Master Bomber role, it did not prevent him flying on as planned to North Africa. However, Slee did not participate in the attack on La Spezia during the return leg of the shuttle mission on 27 June. Instead, he commandeered one of the serviceable 49 Sqn Lancasters from its crew and flew back to the UK via Gibraltar, forcing the Lancaster’s original crew to be split up and carried as passengers in the remaining Squadron aircraft on the La Spezia attack.

Slee was not in post as Station Commander at RAF Dunholme Lodge for very long. The Operational Record Book (RAF Form 540) of RAF Dunholme Lodge states that he was posted to No 97 Squadron on 1 August 1943. At that time, No 97 Sqn was based at RAF Bourn in Cambridgeshire flying Lancasters, and it belonged to No 8 (Pathfinder Force) Group, whose squadrons flew in the lead of the main force of bombers to locate and mark the targets for them.

Group Captain Leonard Slee survived the war and retired from the RAF at his own request on 1 October 1953. He died in Hove, Sussex, on 10 March 1979.

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