Tiree’s D-Day heroes

Léonard Revilliod, with his mother Olga and brother Herbert.

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‘The name Léonard Revilliod is distinctly not Czech, but Léonard’s grandfather was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of the newly formed State of Czechoslovakia,’ writes Tom Dolzeal.

‘Tomáš Masaryk was among the first political leaders in Europe to voice concern about the rise to power of Hitler in Germany.’

Léonard was born on July 26, 1922, at Montreux, Switzerland. When Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, their rapid advance concerned his mother, Olga, as Czechoslovakia was now a Reich protectorate.

On the advice of her elder brother, Jan Masaryk, now Foreign Minister for the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, in London, Olga left Geneva by train on May 19, 1940, and managed to travel with her boys through a chaotic war-torn France to reach England.

Léonard studied economics, international law and political science at Edinburgh University and graduated in June 1942. Now aged 20, he wanted to join the RAF but, being a Swiss citizen, the neutral Swiss Embassy in London refused to give him permission, threatening him with prosecution.

But this did not deter Léonard, and he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve. Tom continued: ‘He was posted to 518 Sqn, an RAF meteorological squadron, based at Tiree, and equipped with four-engined Halifax Mk V aircraft.

‘Their role was to fly reconnaissance flights, usually of eight to 10 hours duration, some 700 miles out into the North Atlantic and north-west to Iceland during which the meteorological observer would be taking readings, which were vital weather forecasting aids in planning the strategic air offensive over enemy territory.

‘In June 1944, D-Day – the Allied invasion of Europe – was postponed for 24 hours, as a slight improvement in an incoming weather front had been observed by a 518 Sqn aircraft. Léonard’s role, in the aircraft’s eight man crew, was as a co-pilot flying these patrols.

‘He was killed in a tragic flying accident at the age of 22, on August 16, 1944. Léonard, now at the rank of Flying Officer, was co-pilot of Halifax S, serial number LL296, for a flight test prior to an operational patrol, standing in for the usual co-pilot who was sick.’

The Halifax took off at 1.04pm, captained by P/O Turner, with an experienced crew of four Britons, two Australians, a Canadian and Léonard. Another 518 Sqn Halifax M, serial number LL186, had taken-off from RAF Tiree at 1.04pm, captained by P/O K W Organ, with a crew of six Britons and two Canadians.

‘A miscommunication by Flying Control, RAF Tiree, resulted in both aircraft entering the airspace, over the airfield, at the same time,’ Tom continues. ‘There had been no radio contact with Halifax M for 10 minutes and when contact was received, the aircraft position given was assumed to be a mistake.

‘Halifax S had been given permission to land and was flying along the line of the runway at an altitude of 400 feet. At 1.25 pm, about half a mile from the end of the runway Halifax M broke through the patchy clouds heading directly towards Halifax S.

‘P/O K W Organ desperately attempted evasive action by throwing M violently to starboard. But it was too late and a head-on collision was unavoidable; its starboard wing hit the port wing of Halifax S, causing both aircraft to burst into flames and partially disintegrate prior to crashing to the ground, LL296 by Island House and the surrounding Loch An Eilean and LL186 at Crossapol beach.

‘On impact, both aircraft were immersed in flames with aircraft debris being scattered over a large area. All aboard were killed.

‘Initially, all 16 airmen were interred at Soroby burial ground on August 30, 1944, but after the war nine were re-interred to other burial grounds at the request of the airmen’s families. Léonard is one of those who remained.’

Coincidentally at last month's Tiree show, Dr John Holliday and Mike Hughes, authors of Tiree: War Among the Barley and Brine, were trying to identify a piece of plane wreckage discovered by crofter Colin McKinnon while looking for a lost sheep on the loch shore near island House. They believed it to be a pilot’s control stick or a retractable rear wheel two a Handler Page Halifax, after two of the aircraft collided over Tiree airfield on August 16 1944, killing 16 men.
Coincidentally at last month’s Tiree show, Dr John Holliday and Mike Hughes, authors of Tiree: War Among the Barley and Brine, were trying to identify a piece of plane wreckage discovered by crofter Colin McKinnon while looking for a lost sheep on the loch shore near Island House.
They believed it to be a pilot’s control stick or a retractable rear wheel to a Handler Page Halifax, after two of the aircraft collided over Tiree airfield on August 16, 1944, killing 16 men.