Squadron Leader Leonard Trent

Text by Divan Muller
"Boldly they rode and well. Into the jaws of Death. Into the mouth of Hell" - From the poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred Tennyson. Although written about a battle which took place during the Crimean War of the 19th century, these words could apply just as well to a bombing raid which took place on 3 May 1943.
Leonard Henry Trent was born in the coastal city of Nelson in New Zealand on 14 April 1915. At the age of seven, an opportunity to fly in a Gypsy Moth light aircraft sparked in him, a tremendous interest in aviation. Dedicating too much time to his other passion, golf, caused Trent to fail matric. However, he completed high school in 1934 and briefly worked as a dental technician, before volunteering for flight training with the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). Trent earned his wings in 1938 in Christchurch. One month later, he was transferred to England to serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Trent flew reconnaissance missions over France in Bristol Blenheims. In December, his unit was moved to England, where its pilots were trained to fly heavier bombers. After six months of training, Trent returned to fly combat sorties over Europe. In July 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for ‘courage and devotion to duty’ shown during the Battle of France. He then returned to England to serve as a flight instructor.

In 1942, Trent saw more combat over continental Europe and was promoted to Squadron Leader. He later became commander of a New Zealand squadron in the RAF, equipped with Lockheed Ventura bombers. Trent and his unit flew many difficult sorties against German targets in the Netherlands, but the most challenging mission took place on 3 May 1943. Trent was tasked to lead a dangerous daylight raid over Holland. The mission was important in that it was intended to encourage the Dutch to increase their resistance against their German occupiers. However, whilst flying over Amsterdam, Trent's Ventura formation encountered heavy flak and dozens of enemy fighters. Before reaching the target, nine of the eleven aircraft in the formation were destroyed, whilst another was badly damaged and had to return to its base. Trent's Ventura was the only aircraft to reach the target and complete a bombing run. His bombs overshot, but still managed to damage the target: a power station. During the bombing run, his gunner managed to shoot down an enemy Messerschmitt Me-109. However, shortly after delivering its bombs, Trent's aircraft was shot to pieces and went into a spin. Miraculously Trent and his navigator managed to bail out and survived, but sadly, Trent’s other two crew members were killed. The two survivors were captured by German soldiers and were incarcerated in Stalag Luft lll Prisoner of War camp near Sagan which is now part of Poland.
For his incredible bravery whilst facing overwhelming odds, Trent was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain's highest military decoration. According to the VC citation, "Heedless of the murderous attacks and of the heavy anti-aircraft fire which was now encountered, Squadron Leader Trent completed an accurate bombing run and even shot down a Messerschmitt at point-blank range. Dropping his bombs in the target area, he turned away." The citation continued, "Immediately afterwards his own aircraft was hit, went into a spin and broke up. Squadron Leader Trent and his navigator were thrown clear and became prisoners of war. The other two members of the crew perished. On this, his 24th sortie, Squadron Leader Trent showed outstanding leadership. Such was the trust placed in this gallant officer that the other pilots followed him unwaveringly. His cool, unflinching courage and devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds rank with the finest examples of these virtues."
Stalag Luft lll was very secure and was dedicated to hold Allied air force personnel. However, in March 1944, South African born Squadron Leader Roger Bushell masterminded the famous 'great escape', in which dozens of prisoners attempted to escape from the camp through tunnels. Trent participated in the escape, but was one of the first escapees to be recaptured, thereby avoiding execution. Instead, he was punished with solitary confinement. After two years of captivity, he was liberated by British troops in 1945 and returned to England to continue serving with the RAF.

After World War II, Trent flew jet aircraft, such as Gloster Meteors and De Havilland Vampires. He served mainly in the RAF's training programme, but saw combat during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Three years later, he was promoted to Group Captain and later worked in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. Trent served as aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II for three years, before retiring from the RAF and moving to Australia. He worked as an airline pilot for MacRobertson Miller Airlines until 1977, when he moved to New Zealand. He died in Auckland on 19 May 1986.
Trent was an exceptional pilot and his VC and DFC were proof of his courage and bravery. The fact that the crews of eleven Ventura bombers followed him in attempting to complete a mission in the face of almost certain death, was proof that he was a respected leader.