New Zealand Bomber Command Association



Leonard Trent VC

Group Captain Leonard Henry Trent
(Credit: National Library of New Zealand)

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest British Commonwealth military decoration awarded for ‘valour in the face of the enemy.’ Introduced in 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War, a total of 23 VCs have been awarded to New Zealand military personnel, including two won by Charles Upham.

In World War II, nine VCs were awarded to New Zealanders, including Upham. Of these, three were awarded to airmen, James (Jimmy) Ward, Leonard (Len) Trent and Lloyd Trigg.

Nelson-born Len Trent was just seven years old when he had his first flight, a short ride in a Gypsy Moth in 1922. Captivated by the flight, it was an experience that was to set the chart for his life as a pilot.

Trent attended Nelson Boys College as a border. Here he was a roommate with both his first cousin (and later Squadron Leader) Ian Richmond and Mick Shand from Masterton who went on fly Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.

Leaving school, Trent set out to earn enough that he might achieve his goal of becoming a pilot. Working briefly in a freezing works and then as a dental technician, he was able to undertake basic flight training at the Tairei Aero Club.

From there he joined the RNZAF at Wigram in November 1937. After receiving his wings on May 12, 1938, Trent sailed to England to join the RAF a month later.

When war was declared in September 1939 he was already in France as part of No 15 Squadron. There he flew high-level photo-reconnaissance missions over enemy territory in Fairey Battles.

The squadron returned to England in December that year to begin flight training in bombers, equipped first with Bristol Blenheims and later Vickers Wellingtons.

Returning to operations in Europe, Trent received the DFC for his outstanding contribution to the Battle of France.

He then went on to be a training instructor. It was during this time that he married Ursula Woolhouse, in August 1940 at Holborn, London. They were to have three children.

Trent returned to combat duties in March 1942 and was promoted to squadron leader in June.

He spent six months in Headquarters No 2 Group before assuming command of B Flight in No 487 (NZ) Squadron, equipped with Ventura bombers flown primarily by Kiwis. Here he conducted many difficult raids on German targets in Holland during the last months of 1942 and the beginning of 1943.

On the morning of Monday May 3, 1943, the crews of twelve Lockheed Ventura of 487 Squadron were briefed for Ramrod 16, a raid that they were to undertake later than afternoon on the Papawerweg power station on the northern outskirts of Amsterdam.

Fighter protection for the 12 light bombers was to be provided by three squadrons of Spitfire Mark Vs flying as close support with another two squadrons of Spitfire Mark IXs flying as top cover.

The plan involved maintaining an element of surprise, crossing the North Sea at just 100 feet to keep beneath German radar until they were 10 minutes from the Dutch coast when they were to climb to 10,000 feet and head to their targets.

The Venturas took off from RAF Methwold at 16.43 hours in sunshine, with Squadron Leader Trent flying AJ209 EG-V on his 24th sortie, leading the first six bombers in a tight box formation.

The plan may have been feasible, but so much conspired against the bombers that day. The Spitfires flying as top cover took off too early and climbed too soon. With not enough fuel to wait for the bombers they had to be recalled, but the Germans had been alerted and immediately acted.

In addition and unbeknown to the RAF, the Nazi governor of Holland had chosen to make a formal visit to Haarlem that day and was being provided with fighter cover. And to complete the peril for the bombers, an elite group of Germany’s most experienced fighter pilots were gathering with their fighters at Schiphol Airport for a conference.

By the time the Venturas were approaching the Dutch coast, no less than 69 Focke Wulfe Fw190 and Messerschmitt Me109 fighters had been scrambled. While the Fw190s of 11./JG1 dealt with the escort, the Me109s of 2./JG27 went for the bombers.

In the first four minutes six Venturas were brought down. Another two, badly damaged, managed to turn around, but the four remaining bombers led by Trent continued through fierce anti-aircraft fire towards their target.

As one Messerschmitt passed in front of him, Trent opened fire at point blank with his nose mounted machine guns and shot the fighter down.

Approaching the target Trent saw his wingman shot down. The other two Venturas were also brought down and crashed in the Oostzaan district, north of Amsterdam.

Trent doggedly pressed on towards the target and flying at 7000 feet released his bombs. But just as he turned for home his aircraft was hit, went into a spin and broke up.

Trent and his navigator Vivian Phillips were both thrown clear and parachuted to the ground, but the other two crew failed to escape and perished in the crash. The bombs dropped by Trent’s Ventura did not score direct hits but succeeded in causing some blast damage.

Captured, Trent was interned as a POW in Stalag Luft III POW Camp at Sagan in German occupied Poland in 1943. Here he was one of the 240 prisoners selected to escape through the tunnels dug as part of ‘The Great Escape’.

His escape unsuccessful (for more details see next page), Trent remained a POW until the war in Europe ended. He returned to England on 7 May.

After considering Trent’s report on the Ramrod 16 raid and other evidence collected by the Air Ministry, the commander of No. 2 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embry, recommended Trent for the Victoria Cross (VC). The award was publicly announced on 1 March 1946.

Thanks to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand

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