It was the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies above Kent and the entire country was in turmoil when the war came crashing into the lives of those on the ground and left a lasting mark on a Tunbridge Wells school.
Among the 3,000 pilots who fought to repel the German aerial attack was Flight Sergeant Leslie Pidd, fighting for his country while his fiancée Marjorie Noble waited patiently in their home town of Dunwell, Yorkshire, hoping to marry when he next returned on leave.
The 22-year-old pilot was already an accomplished flier, having followed his father into the armed services. George Pidd had served in the Merchant Navy in the First World War and was decorated for his gallantry at sea. By the time the RAF faced its biggest test against the might of the Luftwaffe, Leslie Pidd had already fought in the battle for France and taken part in the evacuation at Dunkirk.
As members of the 238 Squadron, Flt Sgt Pidd and his colleagues were based at Middle Wallop in Hampshire. With south east England under heavy attack from the German air force in a prelude to a planned land invasion, the task faced by British, Commonwealth and Allied aircrew was of monumental importance.
On Sunday September 15 – the date now widely acknowledged as the Battle’s peak – Flt Sgt Pidd and his colleagues were strapped into their low wing, single seat Hurricanes, each with a 40ft wingspan and an impressive top speed of 330mph. With German aircraft taking just six minutes to cross the English Channel, the Allied response had to be fast and efficient if they were to see off the threat from the Heinkel bombers and Messerschmitt fighters. In the second of three Luftwaffe attacks that day, the fighting intensified over Kent and by 3pm, three of the 238 Squadron planes had suffered such damage they were forced to abandon the fray, leaving Flt Sgt Pidd to continue the battle.
Under relentless attack, he flew out of the firing line but when the pursuit continued, Flt Sgt Pidd was forced to bale out over Tunbridge Wells. As he descended, an enemy fighter pilot opened up and shot him dead. The Hurricane crashed into a tree in the grounds of Kent College Girls’ School in Pembury and the sergeant’s body fell nearby, still attached to his parachute.
Colleagues from his squadron were devastated at the loss and Flt Sgt Eric Bann wrote a letter to his parents, voicing his regret and anger at the incident.
“We’re all just mad for revenge. Never again shall any one of us give any mercy for our poor flight commander and yesterday Sgt Pidd fell victim to the swines, machine-gunning while he came down by parachute.”
Sgt Pidd was buried with full military honours in Woodmansey, East Yorkshire. There is some debate over whether he was in fact still inside the Hurricane when it crashed in the school grounds. But whatever really happened, his tragic death has not been forgotten by Kent College. Thirteen-year-old student Victoria Vizard, whose father rebuilds Spitfires and Hurricanes for a living, came across the young pilot’s story and began her own research, resulting in the installation of a mosaic plaque and memorial at the school to ensure that Flt Sgt Pidd would never be forgotten.
In 2010 the plaque was unveiled at precisely 3pm on the 70th Anniversary of his death, with about 30 of Flt Sgt Pidd’s relatives in attendance. The ceremony ended in spectacular style with a Hurricane fly past, providing an unforgettable lesson for the younger generation about the tremendous sacrifices made by The Few.
Written by Philippa Park