07 August 2011

RNZAF Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent and his Victoria Cross Mission

Sqn Ldr Leonard H. Trent
With the drums of war building in Europe in 1939, the Royal Air Force asked Lockheed for a twin-engine bomber to be used for anti-submarine and coastal patrols. Based on the RAF's own experience with the Hudson which was based on the Lockheed 14 Electra airliner, Lockheed offered a bomber version of the Model 18 Lodestar transport as the Ventura. First flying on 31 July 1941, the British were suitably impressed with the Ventura's performance to order 650 of the Ventura I and 487 of the upgraded Ventura II aircraft. Though the bulk of the Venturas were diverted to US forces following Pearl Harbor, a significant number did reach the RAF who needed the Ventura as a replacement for the Bristol Blenheim as a fast, low-level, bomber. Though there were more suitable aircraft for the role, at the time, only the Ventura was available in the numbers needed. In Norfolk, the RAF equipped No. 21 Squadron with the Venturas and co-located were two Commonwealth squadrons also assigned the Ventura- Australian-manned No. 464 Squadron and New Zealander-manned No. 487 Squadron. The three units were tasked with coastal targets in occupied Europe. Despite a high number of accidents and technical issues, the three units pressed ahead in committing the Ventura to combat, being assigned industrial targets primarily in Holland. As the war progressed, the RAF would team up the Ventura units with squadrons flying the faster Mosquito and Douglas Boston (RAF version of the A-20 Havoc) bombers. 

The pilots of No. 487 Sqn and one of their Venturas
On 3 May 1943 the Kiwis of No. 487 Squadron were assigned a diversionary raid against a power station in Amsterdam while an RAF squadron flying Bostons would attack the Royal Dutch Steel Works at low level. Opposition was expected to be heavy but the Venturas despite their poor reliability could absorb a considerable amount of damage and still fly home. The pilots of No. 487 Squadron were encouraged to do what they could to hit the target and complete the mission as a means of boosting the morale of the Dutch population and resistance. Leading the twelve Venturas would be Sqn Ldr Leonard H. Trent. 

As poor luck would have it, that same day the German military governor of Holland would be visiting the area and the Luftwaffe had placed a large number of its fighters on alert. To make matters worse, a squadron of RAF Spitfires assigned to escort No. 487 Squadron arrived at the rendezvous point off the coast half an hour too soon. Not only did this trigger the Luftwaffe alert, but when the Venturas arrived at the rendezvous point, the Spitfires were low on fuel and had to return to base, leaving the Kiwis to hit the power station unescorted in broad daylight. Crossing the Dutch coast at 12,000 feet, the twelve Venturas were in two formations of six and were bounced by seventy Luftwaffe fighters. Trent's second-in-command took hits and had to turn back to return to England- his aircraft would be the only one of the twelve to make it home. As the Venturas fought off the Germans, the fighters savaged the formation, leaving only three aircraft led by Sqn Ldr Trent to complete the mission. Six Venturas were shot down in less than four minutes. As they neared the target, another two Venturas were shot down, leaving Trent and his crew as the only remaining aircraft. Approaching the target and his gunner managing to shoot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, Trent pressed home his attack and just as his bombs hit the power station, accurate flak destroyed his aircraft with Trent and his navigator being thrown clear of the shattered aircraft. The rest of his crew failed to escape and Trent and his navigator parachuted down and were captured. 

RAF Ventura over its target

After his capture, Trent was sent to the Stalag Luft III POW camp where he participated in the "Great Escape" in March 1944. He avoided getting shot by surrendering right outside of the camp gates. The Gestapo executed fifty escaped prisoners, but Trent only got solitary confinement because of his early capture. On his repatriation did the circumstances of the disastrous Amsterdam raid become known and on 1 March 1946 he was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honor, for his leadership on the raid that claimed 11 of the 12 Venturas sent to hit the power plant. The squadron was virtually wiped out after that raid and the RAF questioned the continued use of the Ventura as a daylight attack bomber. King George VI himself and his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II, visited No. 487 Squadron at their base only days later to offer their condolences. 

After the war, Trent remained with the Royal Air Force and in January 1956 he became the first commanding officer of No. 214 Squadron at RAF Marham which was the first to become operational with the Vickers Valiant, the first of the RAF V-bombers that formed Britain's nuclear deterrent until the arrival of the Polaris SLBM with the Royal Navy. He retired in 1965 when the Valiant fleet was retired due to wing spar structural failures and returned to New Zealand where he passed away in 1986. His biography, Venturer Courageous, was published in 1984 and authored by James Sanders and Laddie Lucas.

Source: PV Ventura/Harpoon Units of World War 2 (Osprey Combat Aircraft No. 34) by Alan C. Carey. Osprey Publishing, 2002, p17-19. Photos: Royal Air Force, United States Navy.

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