WEST OF NANCY in the Lorraine Region of France, is the French National Cemetery of Choloy. In the northwest section, are headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.At least one of these dates back to World War One, but most mark the final resting place of Allied servicemen who died in 1939-1945, the majority of them airmen. In all, there are 1,650 French and 461 Allied war graves.
In 1950 the commission relocated some 100 war graves from a number of local churchyards and civil cemeteries to Choloy.There, in Plot 2, Row G, Headstone 8, is the grave of Fg Off Leslie Redford Clisby dfc. Carved on the face of the headstone is the inscription:
“In memory of Leslie Redford Clisby dfc, Flying Officer, Pilot, I Squadron, Royal Air Force, who died on May 14, 1940, aged 25. Son of Albert and Mabel Clisby of North Walkerville, South Australia. ‘Remembered with Honour’.
So, who was Leslie Clisby and how did this young Australian come to be buried so far from home?
At the time of his death, Leslie Clisby was only one month short of his 26th birthday; getting on a bit for a fighter pilot. He was born in McLaren Vale, South Australia on June 29, 1914. He had joined the RAAF as an airman at the age of 21, and after training was posted to the RAAF Academy at Point Cook.
Leslie Clisby graduated with a Permanent Commission on June 29, 1937, his 23rd birthday, and one month later, together with 24 other embryo pilots, left Australia for England.
The reason for such a long-distance move was a well-established procedure. At the time Australia had no modern aircraft — though new machines were on order — so the RAF was used as an advanced training ground for newly-graduated pilots.
With arrival formalities complete, Leslie and some of his companions were posted to I Flying Training School at Leuchars in Scotland. Here they were advised that they were there to prove that they were up to the required standard. In the event, it soon became apparent that the Australians were far more experienced than their British counterparts!
LESLIE BECOMES ‘DIGGER’
In the event, he was posted to I Squadron on December 19, 1937 when the unit was based at Tangmere near Chichester, Sussex. Despite joining the RAF, Leslie persisted in wearing his dark blue RAAF uniform, even though it was showing signs of hard wear and tear.
As was inevitable, with his pronounced accent and typical Australian attitude to formality, he was nicknamed ‘Digger’ by his fellow pilots. (And we shall refer to him as such from now on — ed.)
At the time he joined the squadron, it was still equipped with Hawker Fury I biplanes, but these were soon replaced by Gloster Gladiator Is; yet more biplanes. No. I’s pilots were a cosmopolitan bunch and among their number were Canadian Fit Lt ‘Hilly’ Brown and South African Caesar Hull as well as ‘Digger’.The British contingent included Johnny Walker and Peter Prosser Hanks.
In October 1938 the squadron re-equipped with the Hawker Hurricane I; the fifth unit to receive the type.‘Digger’, still wearing his dark blue RAAF uniform, sported a wiry moustache which, together with his lined forehead, made him look older than his 24 years.
A popular, if individualistic member the squadron, he was extrovert, cheerfully profane and loved flying, at which he excelled. Above all, as he was to prove in the months to come,‘Digger’ was a warrior.
When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced the state of war on the morning of September 3, 1939, I Squadron was still based at Tangmere. On August 30 a Special Advance Party and 16 aircraft had been placed on one-hour notice to move to France.
And this it did on September 4 under the command of Sqn Ldr DA Pemberton.Three days later the unit’s commander, Sqn Ldr P J H ‘Bull’ Halahan, crossed to France and five days after the declaration of war, on September 8, together with 73,85 and 87 Squadrons, No. I completed its move to France.
The squadron departed in two flights, with ‘Digger’ at the controls of Hurricane I LI693. No. I’s pre-war code of ‘NA’ had been changed to ‘JX’, though most photographs of Hurricanes in France during this period have either had the code letters censored, leaving only the individual letter visible, or were pictured from such an angle as to obscure the code.
The unit quickly settled in at Octeville and its commander had all ranks out and about the next morning digging slit trenches. His reasons were two-fold. Firstly, personnel had spent much of the previous evening celebrating their arrival in France in numerous local hostelries and needed some energetic labours to cure their hangovers.
Secondly,‘Bull’ felt that in the event of a surprise aerial attack by the Luftwaffe, with no shelters available, slit trenches were the best available protection.The morning’s excavations over,‘Bull’ led the squadron in formation flying and the standard stereotyped attacks of Fighter Command, plus assorted other aerial manoeuvres. Landing in time for a late lunch, the pilots were soon back to digging.
Three weeks later No. I moved to Norrent-Fontes, becoming part of 67 Fighter Wing Servicing Unit when a higher authority decided to attach I and 73 Squadrons to the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) as its assigned fighter element.
‘Bull’ was a no-nonsense, dynamic leader.
On his own initiative he had instigated the reharmonisation of the Hurricanes’ guns from Fighter Command’s standard of 400 to 250 yards to ensure greater hitting power at a more realistic range. He also successfully bludgeoned higher authority to get seat armour for his squadron’s aircraft.
Backing him up were two experienced Flight Commanders.‘A’ Flight was led by Fit Lt P R Johnny Walker, while ‘B’ Flight came under Fit Lt Peter Prosser Hanks, better known by his middle name of Prosser, though his nickname was variously ‘Ducks’ or ‘Dux’.
IN THE THICK OF IT
No. I Squadron had been at Norrent-Fontes for just over a week when it moved again, this time to Vassincourt, on October 9.Three weeks later the unit achieved its, and indeed the RAF’s, first Hurricane victory. On October 30, Pit Off ‘Boy’ Mould shot down Dornier Do I7P 4144 which crashed with no survivors. Squadron members retrieved a machine-gun, a spinner, a fuselage panel with the unit crest emblazoned on it and an oxygen bottle with a bullet hole in it as trophies. For this action ‘Boy’ Mould was awarded the DFC.
Just under one month later, on November 24, the squadron scored two more victories, both of which were Do 17s.The pilot of one of them, Unteroffizier Arno Frankenberger, was entertained to dinner by the pilots of I Squadron.
Arno had created a favourable impression during the combat when, as ‘Pussy’ Palmer closed alongside to check the bomber out, he throttled back, slid behind Palmer’s Hurricane and hit it with a burst of fire from the single forward-firing machine-gun.
Palmer was extremely lucky, as one of the bullets came through the back of his seat, narrowly missing his head.With his Hurricane’s hydraulic system damaged, Palmer had to force-land his aircraft, as had Frankenberger.
The dinner was a great success but ‘Bull’ later felt that it had been a mistake; to let his pilots see the human side of their enemy.The idea was not repeated.
As a result of this action,‘Bull’ acquired some armour plating from a wrecked Fairey Battle and had it fitted in one of the squadron’s Hurricanes. Having test flown the modified fighter,‘Hilly’ Brown was despatched to England to demonstrate that it did not, as was the informed opinion in higher headquarters, adversely affect the Hurricane’s centre of gravity. Faced with irrefutable proof, the Air Ministry instituted the fitting of armour plating in all Hurricanes.
At a conference at Air Headquarters on October 22, the Wing OC,Wg Cdr Walter, had allocated primary tasks to I and 73 Squadrons.Their main, common role, was to escort bombers of the AASF and to fly combat patrols to counter any incoming enemy raids.
No. I was assigned to defend the area between Nancy and Metz, while 73 was to defend the area between Verdun and Thionville.These first months of the war became known as the ‘Phoney War’ as little happened either in the air or on the ground.
Possibly the highlight was the visit by King George VI to Villeneuve on December 7. No. I was represented by the CO, four officers, two Warrant Officers, one Sergeant and two airmen. Squadron pilots maintained a standing patrol over Villeneuve throughout the royal visit.
That winter was one of the coldest on record and proved to be a trying time for the frontline troops and the air and ground crews of the RAF stationed in France. In addition to patrol activity, pilots carried out practice attacks on the Battles, and it was generally agreed that both sides benefited from the exercises.
In December/Boy’ Mould intercepted a Heinkel He INK, but without success as he experienced problems with ‘deteriorated ammunition’. As the spring weather improved, both sides commenced reconnaissance flights.
At about this time, I Squadron was visited by TV Fairbairn, the Australian Minister for Air, together with a party of staff officers, among which was Gp Capt Frank MacNamara vc RAAF.At one point, Mr Fairbairn took ‘Digger’ to one side, told him that when the first RAAF fighter squadron was formed in England, he would be posted to it as a Flight Commander.
On March 20, 1940 the squadron diarist recorded the following in the war diary:
“It is observed that new pilots sent out from England are insufficiently trained and have too few hours on type to be familiar with [the Hurricane’s] limitations.They also appear to have had little or no R/T practice and to have never used oxygen.
«This means time is taken from squadron duties to give these pilots the necessary training for active service, and also adds to the very precious aircraft hours to allow them to do non-operational flying.”
Five days after this entry, the pilots of I Squadron encountered Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf I I Os for the first time. AM Sir Arthur Barratt, the AOC-in-C British Air Forces in France, promised a dinner in Paris to the first pilot to shoot one down.
The prize was claimed on March 31 when Fit Lt ‘Johnny Walker, Fg Off Stratten and Sgt Clowes shared in the destruction of a Bf I lO. The AOC sent his personal aircraft to take the victorious trio to Paris.
‘Digger opened his score on March 31 when he too claimed a Bf I 10. For good or ill, this twin-engined German fighter arrived in France with a formidable reputation, but one that was soon shown to be over-rated.
The following day,April I,the 22nd anniversary of the formation of the RAF,‘Digger’ was on patrol led by ‘Prosser Hanks and was flying with his friend Robert ‘Lawrie’ Lorimer, together with ‘Killy’ Kilmartin and ’Pussy’ Palmer, when Allied anti-aircraft fire drew their attention to a highflying twin near the border with Luxembourg. Early experience had taught the RAF pilots to use a ‘weaver’, better known as ‘Arse-End Charlie’, to criss-cross the rear of a formation to watch out for enemy fighters trying to ‘bounce’ them.
On this occasion, the ‘weaver’ was Palmer, who spotted a group of nine Bf 109s waiting in ambush. His warning call came in time for the Hurricanes to break off their pursuit and turn into the enemy fighters.‘Digger and ‘Killy’ subsequently claimed a Bf 109 apiece.
‘Pussy’ fell to the guns of the German ‘ace’ Hauptmann Werner Molders flying with III/JG53. This was Molders eighth victory of the war, though he had earlier scored 14 victories while flying with the Condor Legion in Spain. Having set Palmer’s Hurricane alight, Molders broke away to the left and dived.
Seeing this,‘Digger’ dived after him, closing to 250 yards before opening fire.The Messerschmitt’s dive steepened and it emitted a cloud of white smoke, followed by black which streamed back from Molders aircraft as it dived almost vertically.
As the enemy fighter disappeared into the cloud tops,‘Digger’ broke off his pursuit and set about trying to determine his location. It was unfortunate for the RAF that the Australian had not managed to put an end to Molders career. He went on to become the first German pilot to claim 100 victories. In all he was credited with I 15 ‘kills’ before his death in a flying accident in November 1941. Fortunately, ‘Pussy’ had been able to bale out of his burning Hurricane, and returned to the squadron.
All three Hurricane pilots saw ‘Digger’s’ first victim spiralling down in flames.
The next day ‘Digger’ claimed another Bf 109.
The pilots of I Squadron acknowledged his skill as a fighter pilot, but they were already becoming concerned about his aggressive approach. He would press on into the attack quite regardless of the odds against him, at the same time getting in close to make sure of a ‘kill’.
While applauding his determination to attack and win, they counselled him to be less reckless, though between themselves they knew ‘Digger’ would pay little heed to their warnings.To a man, they felt that with his attitude to combat, together with his penchant for going off alone looking for a fight, it could only be a matter of time before he was lost.
This phase of the war was relatively quiet for I Squadron; possibly because the Luftwaffe was building up its strength. On May 6 the well-known cartoonist ’Mel’ of the Tatler magazine visited the unit and sketched a selection of its personalities.
If there was little activity in the air, the powers-that-be kept the unit occupied. On April I I,it moved from Vassincourt to Berry-au-Bac near Reims; eight days later returning to Vassincourt. Then on May 10 the squadron moved back to Berry-au-Bac.
It was here that it was visited by the BBC’s war correspondent Charles Gardner. In his book, Gardner recorded:
“…I found to my horror that the Hurricanes of I Squadron were of the oldest type, with fixed pitch airscrews and non-ejector exhausts. No.73 were no better off either, and neither had any armoured machines.”
ONE FOR THE LOGBOOK
Before the move to Berry-au-Bac, six I Squadron pilots were called to Amiens to I examine captured Bf 109E-3 1304 White I that had fallen intact into Allied 1 hands. Once they had all l studied the machine and its characteristics,‘Hilly’ Brown climbed in and . (carefully!) took it into the air.
After familiarising himself with its flying characteristics he was joined in the air by Prosser Hanks flying one of the squadron Hurricanes.The two pilots then engaged in a mock ‘dogfight’.The outcome gave the Hurricane pilots food for thought.The unit’s diarist recorded the following entry in the war diary:
“Fg Off M H Brown ‘diced’ to some purpose, and having gotten used to its vagaries, had a practice skirmish with Hanks. One gathers that the spectators were considerably more shaken than the pilots concerned.”
The Hurricane, even the old Mk.l,was more manoeuvrable at all heights and at low level was slightly faster than the Bf 109. However, at their usual operational height, the Bf 109 was faster. Brown’s report included reference to the fact that the pilot of a Bf 109 had an excellent view to the rear; not a feature of the Hurricane.
Later, escorted by three Bristol Blenheims and one Lockheed Hudson, Brown flew the Bf 109 to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire via Chartres and Tangmere for more detailed evaluation.
The German offensive, the ‘blitzkrieg’, began on May 10, during which ‘Digger’ claimed two Do 17s, and was later fired on by French anti-aircraft fire. During the combat he had become disorientated and, seeing a French airfield, decided to land to establish his position, and it was while on the approach that he was shot at. Fortunately the gunners’ aim was poor and he later returned to the squadron at Berry-au-Bac.
As it soon became apparent that the Luftwaffe was concentrating its attacks on aerodromes and transportation targets, I Squadron moved from Vassincourt to Berry-au-Bac. It had been assumed that the Germans were well aware of the squadron’s presence at Vassincourt, so a move away seemed like a good precaution. A sound plan — pity it did not work.
Within 30 minutes of arriving at Berry-au-Bac the aerodrome was attacked. Pilots were standing around, as a formation of German bombers approached, passed overhead, then one of them broke off and headed for the airfield. Paul Richey thought that he recognised a bombing run and called out a warning.
‘Digger’ disagreed, adding that he wasn’t going to move even if the bombs fell close by, pointing to a spot some 30 yards away. In no time at all they could hear the distinctive whistle of falling bombs, and all threw themselves flat, as a stick of 14 anti-personnel bombs headed in their direction. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour,‘Digger’ was flat on his face with the rest of them.
The following day, at 14:45 hours, five Hurricanes of ‘B’ Flight, led by Prosser’ Hanks, were tasked with escorting a group of Battles to a target northeast of Rethel.As they neared the target area they observed a group of Bf I 10s being attacked by unidentified Hurricanes (probably from 73 and/or 501 Squadrons).
Prosser’ selected a group of three and attacked out of the sun.‘Digger’ and ‘Boy’ attacked a second machine and observed it force land west of Chemery; the crew members were taken prisoner.
Then the trio went for another of the twin-engined fighters, which crashed southeast of Rethel. With ammunition remaining, ‘Digger’ turned his attention to the one damaged by Hanks, which was last seen in a dive with the starboard engine and wing in flames.
BATTLES AGAINST BRIDGES
On May 12 six Battle crews of 12 Squadron all volunteered to attack two bridges over the Albert Canal which had been captured intact by the Germans.The bombers were split into two sections; one going for the bridge at Vroenhoven, while the other was targeted against Veld wezelt.
Eight Hurricanes of I Squadron were tasked to act as escort. Led by their CO,‘Bull’ Halahan they prepared to take-off from Berry-au-Bac at 08:20, but only five managed to get airborne.They were to carry out a sweep of the target area ahead of the bombers.
As they approached Maastricht at 09:15 they observed 16 Bf 109s of 2/JG 27 stepped up at varying heights.The Hurricane pilots immediately engaged the enemy, and ‘Digger’ later reported seeing a ‘ 109 crash after it had been attacked by Sgt Soper.
Flying in Hurricane N2326, ‘Digger’ then attacked another Bf 109, which he saw crash.
The Hurricane flown by Pit Off Lewis (LI688) was seen to go down in flames, but both Clisby and Soper reported that Lewis had baled out.
ALONE IN THE SKY
As was quite common in air combat, Clisby found himself alone in the sky and decided to return to base. Descending, he broke cloud at 3,000ft and sighted what he reported as a group of seven Arado biplanes.
As Arado did not produce a biplane for the Luftwaffe, these were probably Henschel Hs 123s close support aircraft.‘Digger’ attacked the biplanes and claimed to have destroyed two of them. One of the other I Squadron pilots reported that he heard the Aussie ’whooping with delight’ as he proceeded to attack. It was for his success in destroying three enemy aircraft in a single sortie, that ‘Digger’ was recommended for the award of the DFC.
Later that day, he was interviewed by the Daily Mail war correspondent Noel Monks. After brushing aside his congratulations,‘Digger’ is recorded as saying:
“It gave me goose-pimples watching the bombers dive right down the muzzles of 100 anti-aircraft guns.»
On the third day of the German blitzkrieg, five Hurricanes of I Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight took off at 06:40. Southeast of Vouziers they encountered a formation of 30 He I I I Ps of KG 55, which were being escorted by Bf I 10s.‘Digger’ singled out one of the escorts and sent it down in flames.
In his subsequent combat report he stated:
“I attacked one of the Messerschmitt escorts first and saw it crash in flames. I then attacked a He I I I which gave out white smoke from both engines, but I then had to break off on account of an attack by a French Potez 63. On my return home I sighted an He I I I below me and made an attack, which used up all my remaining ammunition.
“I followed the enemy aircraft until I saw it crash-land with wheels up. I then landed alongside and secured five prisoners — the entire crew — and handed them over to the French at Bourcq.” ‘Digger’s’ Hurricane (N2326) was damaged in the landing in the field and had to be abandoned. Clisby actually returned to Berry-au-Bac aboard a cart with a French refugee family.
That evening, while in conversation with his CO, ‘Bull’ Halahan,with whom he had a particularly close rapport,‘Digger’ estimated that he had either destroyed or probably destroyed 19 enemy aircraft — 14 of those in the past three days/Bull’ agreed with this figure, adding at least one more after the Australian’s death. Regrettably, most of the records of those days did not survive the retreats and subsequent withdrawal from France.
END OF THE ROAD
That evening,‘Digger’ was the dinner guest of the Daily Mail’s Noel Monks, who had interviewed him previously. In his report, published some days later, Noel went on to say:
“On his last night he was my guest at dinner — a keen, hard youngster of 23 [sic], in a tattered RAAF Flying Officer’s uniform…That RAAF uniform! It was falling to bits. I knew that regulations allowed him to wear it for as long as it held together, but I did venture to suggest that perhaps it was now about worn out ‘Brother’, he answered quietly, leaning across the table,‘These old rags’ll see me through’. They saw him through. Early next morning he was seen shot down in flames… his Hurricane was reported as having landed amid the wreckage of the two German machines he had just destroyed.”
This report was couched in the language of the times and to modern eyes may appear rather histrionic, but it contains the essence of the man and the meeting.
The next day, May 14, began at 07:45 for I Squadron’s pilots, when a large formation of Bf I I Os passed over Barry-au-Bac at about 15,000ft. It is believed that they were the escort for a group of bombers carrying out an attack on Laon.
Led by OC‘B’ Flight,Prosser’ Hanks, six Hurricanes were scrambled, but had insufficient speed to intercept until the German fighters altered course. With Prosser’ leading, the Hurricanes got above the Bf I I Os of I/ZG26 and dived to the attack. It was reported that ‘Digger’, flying in Hurricane P2546, destroyed two of the enemy before being shot down and killed.
The report of this action included the comment that his aircraft was hit by cannon fire and was last seen in a dive with smoke and flames coming from the cockpit, though he was not seen to crash. Later, French troops found the wreck of his Hurricane south of Sedan.
‘ACE’ IN EVERYWAY
All told, Clisby was credited with 16 victories, though post-war researchers consider that eleven would be nearer the mark.Whatever his actual score, Leslie Clisby was an ‘ace’ in every way, and who knows what he might have achieved had he survived the Battle of France.
Leslie Clisby’s DFC was well earned, but was not promulgated in the London Gazette until after his death. Normally, this would have meant that the decoration would not have been awarded, as the rule was that only the VC could be awarded posthumously.
For whatever reason, for once the ‘powers that be’ used their common sense.This made ‘Digger’s’ DFC one of only two that were awarded posthumously during World War Two.The citation appeared in the London Gazette of June 14, 1940: «One day in April 1940, this officer was the pilot of one of three Hurricanes which attacked nine Messerschmitt 109s, one of which he shot down.The following day he destroyed another Messerschmitt 109.
“In May 1940, this officer was engaged in six combats against the enemy, in which he shot down eight enemy aircraft. Flying Officer Clisby has displayed great courage on all occasions.”
After arrival in England,‘Bull’ Halahan wrote a letter to Clisby’s mother in which he said:“Your son, Leslie, was not only one of the finest officers I’ve ever met, but was my greatest friend on the squadron… and we flew together a great deal… Leslie was involved in quite a number of combats before the German push… and had been concerned in the destruction of six enemy aircraft before that date.
“From May 10 he was in the thick of the fray anc before he was reported missing he was personally responsible for the destruction of a further eight enemy aircraft. On May 12, he was a member of a patrol of eight Hurricanes… on his return from this trip, when his aircraft was damaged and short of ammunition, he attacked and destroyed two enemy dive-bombers.
“During the four days following May 10, Leslie was involved in at least six combats, and in each one he displayed that brand of courage and determination which I have grown to associate with Australians serving in the RAF.
“Leslie’s endurance was an example to us all, and at times when some nerves were a bit frayed, his sense of humour was a Godsend. It was perhaps his ability to see the funny side of everything, as much as anything, that endeared him to the whole squadron.
“As I say, Leslie was my greatest friend in the squadron, a unit which was always more a family than a squadron.”