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Library Reference Number: 158

No. 148 (Special Duties) Squadron, R.A.F.

Bill Leckie, AEM, KW, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Following flying training at Pensacola, USA, Bill Leckie served as a pilot with 77, 148, 216 & 78 RAF Squadrons. Being a member of so many different squadrons, flying duties were many and varied, but following the more orthodox bombing missions, Bill Leckie proceeded to take part in special duties. In the following account, Bill recalls two of those more unusual flying operations in which he was personally involved

The first one relates to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, which occurred after five years of Warsaw's occupation by the Germans, an occupation unprecedented in terms of its ferocity and cruelty. The Uprising began as Soviet troops were attacking German positions in the vicinity of the city. While many aspects of world-war-two are vividly brought to mind and remembered, Bill Leckie shares the view that the Warsaw Uprising and Airlift for various reasons were not well reported, not even at the time, although it was one of the major battles of the war.

On October 5, 1939, Hitler held a victory parade in Warsaw. A few weeks earlier, on August 23, he had told his commanders: "The destruction of Poland is our goal. The first objective is to liquidate the enemy forces. Be brutal, not merciful. Might is right. Hence, I've ordered my SS units to kill Polish men, women and children without hesitation." August 1 at 5:00 p.m., and in some areas earlier, Warsaw entered into a battle with the German enemy. The attitude of the population is described in the dispatch sent on August 4. 1944, to the Government-in-Exile in London by Gen. Bor: "The civilian population have made common cause with the soldiers, building barricades against the enemy's tanks. On all captured positions and on the houses in areas controlled by the insurgents, Polish flags have been hoisted spontaneously. A constant concern is ammunition, the supplies of which are dwindling by the hour, and the scarcity of weapons which is preventing the participation in the battle of the masses of volunteers." These statements may give a hint on how the RAF became involved in this situation.

The August 4, 1944, entry in the war diary of the German 9th Army reads: "No change in the situation in Warsaw. The centre of the city is completely controlled by the insurgents." This was the point where Bill Leckie and his crew became part of the 'Warsaw Airlift.' At 1:OOa.m. on the night of August 5, British "Halifax" planes flying from Italy made the first Allied air drops of weapons, awaited since the first hours of the Uprising. At 7:00 a.m. the same day the Germans launched a counter-attack in the Wola district. Artillery, heavy machine guns, battle tanks, and air raids were used. At 2:00 p.m. SS troops stormed into the Wola Hospital. shot the staff of 60 and the 300 sick and wounded patients. On Saturday over 30,000 civilians were murdered and burned in the Wola suburb. This was the situation which Bill Leckie and his crew found themselves in their efforts to airlift supplies where urgently required.

The expected support from Russia did not materialise and the Uprising ended in defeat. However, for his efforts in air-dropping supplies during this period, Bill Leckie was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour (KW) for undertaking Special Duties in flying supplies into Warsaw.

The second of the two unusual flying operations, in which Bill Leckie was involved, relates to the massive collection of works of art looted by the Nazis from occupied European countries, some of which had been stockpiled in a salt mine located deep in the Austrian Alps. Intended to be recovered post-war for personal gain, the most valuable treasure and works of art were hidden in this mine at Alt Aussee, near the town of Bad Aussee. With Allied forces advancing closer to this enormous collection of loot, Hitler had given orders that it was to be destroyed rather than fall into Allied hands. Horrified at the loss of irreplaceable works of art, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force had given firm orders that everything must be done to avoid this mindless destruction.

Bill Leckie states "At this time we had absolutely no previous idea of our role in this situation concerning the German threat to destroy Nazi loot. Security at that time was 100% efficient with no indication of what was about to take place other than fulfilling our own particular task to the best of our ability. As pilot and captain of a Halifax aircraft about to embark on an SD operation, I was fully briefed with the exception of a previous meeting or learning any details of four persons we had been instructed to drop over a specific dropping zone (DZ). To ensure maximum security in line with SD practice, there was no communication between aircrew and SOE agents, other than the dispatcher making them familiar with dropping procedures."

Little did Bill Leckie know, at that time the important part his 'passengers' were about to play in perhaps the most significant SOE operation mounted to save the stolen works of art. The four persons he had been detailed to drop were all Austrian, highly trained special agents who were prepared to embark on this highly dangerous mission in a race against time before the contents of the salt mine had been totally destroyed by the retreating Germans.

"We took off in Halifax `T' for Tommy at 23.45 hours in bright moonlight on Sunday 8t' April 1945, from our base at Brindisi in southern Italy. My crew consisted of self (Pilot Officer Bill Leckie) Pilot; Navigator W/O Tom Ryden; Bomb Aimer F/Sgt Jim Douglas; Flight Engineer F/Sgt David Pithie; Wireless Operator F/Sgt Jack Pointer; Rear Gunner F/Sgt Charlie Leslie; and dispatcher FISgt John Lennox. Also on board were the four SOE agents, our only remit being to drop them in a precise spot; unaware at the time we were involved in Operation Ebensburg. It was a lovely clear night and I flew in a north-west direction, flying parallel to Italy's northern coastline, then turning northwards off the port of Ascona and heading between Venice to the west and Trieste to the east.

I now wonder what my feelings would have been then, if I had known one of my 'passengers' was a former Luftwaffe paymaster who had defected to the French Resistance. He was a native of the area to which we were now heading, and had discovered from relatives, the Nazi plan to conceal massive collections of art treasures in this area which was well known to him from childhood. Albecht Gaiswinkler, in addition to informing the Allies of the location of this huge repository, seemed to be the ideal person to receive specialist training in England to become one of the four special agents I was now transporting to the site of this clandestine operation."

Gaiswinkler was posted to SOE Special Training School in Dorking, Surrey, and several other highly specialised Special Operational Executive training units (SOE) where he met up with two other Austrians who were to become part of the four-man group. The fourth member (also Austrian) had been a member of the Werhmacht and while serving, had become an expert radio operator. Like the other members of the group he was strongly opposed to the Nazi regime, he defected from the German army while serving in Greece, and joining the Partisans, had already received guerrilla training, then decided to throw in his lot with the Allies. Part of the comprehensive training included parachute exercises which were carried out at Ringway Airfield, Manchester.

Although unknown to the crew of Halifax `T' for Tommy, the primary task of the four agents was to find out the situation at Alt Aussee salt mine, organise local resistance groups and report all information back to HQ code name `Maryland' and the time was now approaching for the drop. At 02.50 hours, 30 minutes before the designated time, Dispatcher F/Sgt John Lennox indicated to the four Austrians it was now time to prepare for the drop. This came almost as a relief, as they were suffering from cold and stiffness due to the cramped condition in the unheated fuselage. Securing all personal weapons and equipment, all four reported readiness for the drop.

Soon afterwards, the Halifax banked gently and started its run at 800 feet to drop the containers. They were watched by rear gunner F/Sgt Leslie floating down by parachute on to the DZ. The four Austrians followed on the second run in, all reported to have dropped on the precise area of the dropping zone as briefed. It was discovered later that all containers except one had sunk into deep snow. The only one retrieved, contained the vital radio but was found to have been damaged in the drop. The group had to hurriedly leave the area, as the sound of the Halifax engines had initiated a mountain search by German troops. Linking up with local resistance groups later, a replacement radio was 'acquired' which was essential to retaining contact with HQ. It transpired that the new radio had been taken from the office of Himmler's second-in-command, who had fled on the advance by Allied troops. Large supplies of Nazi loot were still arriving at the salt-mine depository, and the agents' surveillance of this situation was made much easier by discovering that the man in charge of the mine repository was a communist, and a secret member of the local Resistance Organisation.

Following close continuous surveillance organised by the four Austrian agents, it was eventually discovered that among the art treasures arriving, six mysterious crates had been placed in the mine. By resistance workers breaking in to examine those, it was discovered the crates contained 500 Ib aircraft bombs, all set ready to be set off at any given time, in order to completely destroy the stolen priceless valuables and irreplaceable works of art.

When the German troops charged with guarding the mine and its valuables decided to desert their charges on the approach of Allied Forces, agent Gaiswinkler became increasingly worried about anyone arriving to trigger off the bombs inside the mine. It was arranged that the bombs were defused, and a minor explosion was arranged to seal off the entrance to the vast number of chambers containing the Nazi loot. Gaiswinkler then sent off two men to try to contact US Forces, to convince them of the urgency required to take over custody of the mine's contents. As luck would have it the two men were captured by German troops, and Gaiswinkler organised a raid to recapture his two men. It was to the immense relief of Gaiswinkler, when the 80th US Infantry Division arrived at Alt Aussee, and realising the importance of the situation, immediately occupied the area and secured the mine and contents.

Although secret agent Gaiswinkler and three other Austrians dropped by Bill Leckie, saved 6,755 of the world's greatest works of art, including paintings by Titian, Goya, Rubens, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and numerous others, they subsequently received little public recognition. Albrecht Gaiswinkler was apparently nominated for the King's Medal, a personal gift from the sovereign, the honour was apparently turned down. It is reassuring however, that persons of such high ideals and values are recognised in some publications. The magazine 'Military Illustrated' dated April 2002, provides a great deal more information on the Special Duty carried out by 148 Squadron, with Halifax 'T' for Tommy flown by Bill Leckie. Peter Harclerode covers this subject in an interesting and informative manner, his account of `Op Ebensburg' is highly recommended to those interested in this subject.

"I ponder these days, that perhaps it was just as well that security was so strict during WW2 and we did not know exactly what was in front of us. At least we were then able to concentrate completely on our own area of expertise, and allow others to continue with theirs. The saying goes that 'Ignorance is bliss' but in special operations the ignorance of others to know what you are up to is sometimes essential."

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