Flight Sergeant (Pilot) Leonard Joseph Burke
Leonard was born at Alma, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1918. He joined the RCAF in August 1940, and was posted overseas to England in May 1941.
In July, he joined his first squadron, No.131, and three months later, was posted to No.602 squadron at Kenley.
The weather was clear over Kenley airfield on the morning of 23rd November, 1941. In the absence of ‘Al’ Deere, Flight Lieutenant John W. R. Kempe, “B” Flight’ s leader, was in charge of 602 Squadron. With 6/10ths blue sky, and 4/10ths cumulus cloud at medium height, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to practice cloud formation flying, and Kempe had two young Canadian pilots who would benefit from it. Sgt. Leonard Joseph Burke had been operational for a month and was practicing to become a section leader, and Sgt. Ross Alexander MacKay was yet to fly his first sortie. The pair took off from Kenley at 1010hrs with Kempe’s permission for a one hour flight – Burke flying Spitfire VB, AD251, in the lead, and MacKay in AD256. Their Flight Mechanics, LAC George Outch and AC2 Sydney Turner, were happy that the aircraft were serviceable and the pilots were properly secured in their cockpits when they took off.
At 1040hrs, Mr. Bertram Lewis, a roadman employed by Godstone Rural District Council, was cycling down Titsey Hill when he heard the noise of approaching aircraft, but unsurprisingly he could remember nothing about what happened next..
Luckily for him, another gentleman was driving down the hill in the mist – Doctor Horace W. Hay ran into a heap of wreckage and saw Bertram Lewis lying in the road – he had been hit by flying debris and was seriously injured, but alive and not bleeding heavily. Other men began to arrive on the scene and helped Dr. Hay to get Lewis into his car, before clearing the wreckage and pine trees from the road, so he could drive him to Oxted Cottage Hospital.
Private Harry Hawkings, from the Camp Military Police, at BBC Tatsfield and Sgt Windsor of the Tatsfield searchlight section, were two of the first on the scene and saw the wreckage of one Spitfire burning and the body of a pilot dead, with his clothes alight.
At 1050hrs, Biggin Hill reported that there had been a crash to the North-east of their airfield, at Titsey Hill, near the BBC station at Tatsfield. They alerted 401 Squadron’s Medical Officer, Flight Lieutenant John Jacob Porter, who headed for the scene in an ambulance, with a Sergeant and a Medical Orderly. They arrived at 1125hrs, and F/Lt. Porter found a body about 10 yards from the road, which he identified as Sgt. Burke from his personal effects. He had suffered multiple injuries, but no burns. Forty yards down the road, he found Sgt. MacKay, who had suffered head injuries and minor burns. The bodies were taken by ambulance to Kenley’s mortuary.
Kenley’s Wing Commander Flying, John R. A. Peel, also visited the crash site in the immediate aftermath, accompanied by the station Engineering Officer, F/Lt. William G. Bates. They found that two separate “lanes” had been cut into the trees just below the brow of the hill where the two Spitfires had crashed at high speed, scattering wreckage over a wide area. From their appearance, it seemed that the aircraft had been in formation, and not diving to any appreciable extent. The cockpit of one of the Spitfires had caught fire after impact. The weather was clear at midday, but an army sentry who was on the scene said that visibility had been 20 yards at the time of the accident – the morning fog in the valleys having risen to obscure the high ground. The enquiry into the accident found that, tragically, Sergeants Burke and MacKay had flown into this low cloud, not realising the danger that lurked beneath.
Flight Sergeant Burke was the son of Peter Burke and his wife Gertrude (nee Aylwood) of Tignish, Prince Edward Island, Canada.
He was laid to rest in St. Luke’s churchyard, Whyteleafe, on 27th November, 1941.
Rest in peace Sir and thank you for your service.