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Pilot officer Douglas Cecil Leggo – killed in cold blood? How a Rhodesian WWII pilot may have died during a dogfight over Malta

Pilot officer Douglas Cecil Leggo – killed in cold blood? How a Rhodesian WWII pilot may have died during a dogfight over Malta

Story by Jeffrey Sammut

In picture: Douglas Leggo with Spitfire Eva IV. Eva was Douglas’s wife. The very rude message to Hitler from ‘Jay and Doug’ is in Shona. Photo: Gavin Cooper.

“In my section, we spotted, far away to port, a single Spitfire obviously looking for a mate. As we turned to go to his aid, a lone 109, diving steeply and very fast out of the sun, pulled up unseen, under the Spitfire. From dead astern, the pilot, who plainly knew his business, delivered a short, determined closing burst of cannon and machine-gun fire, sending his victim rolling on to his back and spiralling down to earth or sea. It was a clinical operation. Relieved, we saw a parachute open.

“As we watched the silk canopy floating down in the distance, with the pilot swinging on its end, another single 109, diving down out of broken cloud, made a run at the ’chute, squirting at it as he went and collapsing it with his slipstream as he passed by. The canopy streamed, leaving the pilot without a chance. The next thing we knew, the 109 was diving away for Sicily, with never a hope of catching it.

“When we landed back to base, we found it was Duggie Leggo who had ‘bought it’…”

The letter received by Douglas’s sister confirming that her brother was killed in action.

That is how Flight Lieutenant Laddie Lucas, 249 Squadron, recorded the death of his Rhodesian friend Pilot Officer Douglas Leggo.

However, this is not corroborated by other eyewitness accounts.

In fact, the accident he describes is suspiciously similar to that of Pilot Officer Ken Murray, who was flying the first Supermarine Spitfire to be shot down over Malta.

Murray bailed out from great height after his aircraft was hit by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 but his parachute failed to open completely and he died in hospital of his wounds. Some British pilots claimed that a Bf 109 had purposely flown over the descending pilot, making his canopy collapse and thus causing his death.

So what happened on that fateful day of March 20, 1942? Meticulous research by Leggo’s nephew, Gavin Cooper, who left no stone unturned in researching his uncle’s demise, together with contemporary sources, tell a different story.

The night before the tragic event, Leggo went out with Lucas and some other pilots for supper. Then he spent the rest of the evening with a friend.

The next morning, he arrived at Ta’ Qali airfield wearing his dress uniform and flew in the same, tie and all. On that fateful day, Leggo was not flying with his usual wingman, his friend and fellow Rhodesian Pilot Officer John Plagis. The two used to communicate in the air in Shona, which both were fluent in. This also meant the enemy could not understand their conversation over the radio.7

At 8.09am, the sirens warned of approaching enemy aircraft. Four Spitfires of 249 Squadron, piloted by Leggo, Flt Lt McNair, Flt Lt Laddie Lucas and Flg Off Daddo-Langlois, took off from Ta’ Qali, to provide top cover for 12 Hawker Hurricanes.

While flying at 10,000 feet, six Bf 109s were observed heading towards Filfla. The Spitfires, having the height advantage, dived on them. Flt Lt McNair shot down one of the German fighters, piloted by Uffz Fankhauzer, into the sea off Delimara.

The German pilot was seen by his comrades swimming in a patch of bright green phosphorescent dye, which effectively marked his position for possible rescuers.

The Bf 109 pilots thought that Fankhauzer was picked up by the British. In fact, his body washed up on the coast of Sicily nearly seven weeks later.

Meanwhile, Leggo, in Spitfire AB337, never regained height after the engagement and ended up flying on his own. It was then that either Leutnant Ernst Klager or Leutnant Hermann Neuhoff, who both claimed a Spitfire destroyed, struck.

Lance Bombardier Stan Fraser, of the 4th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment recorded that “one of our Spitfires had one of its tail fins practically shot off and the pilot lost control of the plane. It fell like a falling leaf, describing small circles, with its nose downwards, and several times it seemed as though the pilot had managed to straighten out into a glide, but no, on it came until just over 100 feet from the ground, the pilot bailed out.

“He was too late; his parachute just billowed until the chords were taut, when he reached the ground about the same time as the plane which just pancakes in the next field only a couple of hundred yards from our camp. When we picked the pilot up, he was grasping the harness of the parachute with both hands – dead; we placed him on a stretcher covering him up with the parachute, and carried him into our M.I. room. I thought at the time of his family in Rhodesia somewhere, just having breakfast maybe, oblivious of the horrible shock which awaited them, depriving them of the pride which they felt in having a son so young, in his early twenties, and a pilot officer in the RAF.” Other gunners from the same HAA battery corroborated what Fraser wrote.

Gavin Cooper is convinced his uncle had been trying to save his Spitfire by stalling it so it would belly flop downwards into one of the small terraced fields. As the aircraft would be flying very low, the pilot would hang on for dear life to the radio antenna while standing on the wing, deploy the parachute, wait for the canopy to open and then get jerked off the aircraft and alight to the ground. This manoeuvre was referred to by a Hurricane pilot as “nine seconds on the brolly”. Leggo may have released his grip on the radio antenna a split second too early, not giving enough time for his parachute to open fully.

Leggo may have released his grip on the radio antenna a split second too early, not giving enough time for his parachute to open fully.

Neuhoff, an ace with 40 aircraft to his credit, including four over Malta, was himself shot down on April 10, 1942. Flt Sgt Garth Horricks and Flg Off Buck Buchanan both claimed to have downed the German pilot, although the kill was credited to Buchanan. On the other hand, Neuhoff and other pilots of 6./JG 53 stated that Neuhoff had been shot down by one of their own, Leutnant Werner Schöw, by mistake. Neuhoff bailed out and landed safely near Luqa Airfield. When Plagis heard that Neuhoff had been shot down and hospitalised, he had to be restrained and disarmed, as he was bent on getting to the hospital and shooting him dead to avenge his friend Leggo.

Douglas Leggo was born on July 12, 1919, and raised in Portuguese East Africa where his father was employed on the Beira Mashonaland Railway. As a boy, Douglas became enthralled with Malta when he read a book about the Great Siege. Little did he know that he would, one day, end up fighting during Malta’s Second Siege. When World War II was declared, Leggo volunteered for the RAF and got his wings at Cranborne, Rhodesia. Then he and his friend Plagis were posted to 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron in England.

On March 7, 1942, they joined 14 other pilots who flew Spitfires off HMS Eagle to reinforce the beleaguered island of Malta. Less than a fortnight later, 22-year-old Leggo would lose his life in a small field at Qrendi. Incidentally, a woman has visited his grave every year on the anniversary of his passing. She was seen various times paying her respects by the caretaker of Kalkara Naval Cemetery.

There was actually at least one occasion when parachutes were deliberately collapsed using an aircraft slipstream. On May 12, 1942, four Italians, part of the crew of a Savoia-Marchetti S.84, were seen descending by parachute. Australian Sergeant John ‘Slim’ Yarra flew his aircraft over the Italian parachutes, making them collapse for a few metres and then billow again.

Yarra himself wrote about the incident in third person: “The Italians took a rather poor view of Sgt Yarra’s efforts to amuse them. These efforts took the form of placing the parachute canopy in the slipstream of a Spitfire. The canopy promptly collapses and the type has to fall a few hundred feet until the chute opens again.”

The Italians ended up in the sea off Dingli. They managed to clamber onto a ledge beneath the high cliffs and there waited for rescue. Members of the Royal Tank Regiment did try to help the Italian airmen: “Attempted rescue of parachutists off Dingli but could not get to them.”

According to Flt Lt Dennis Barnham, 601 Squadron, the Italians were murdered: “No attempt had been made to rescue them for several days. On a ledge they had been, but all that had been found was blood. The Maltese are believed to have pushed rocks over the edge of the cliffs to drop on them.”

The police reported that “One of the crew was found dead in the vicinity of the wrecked bomber. Four other members were seen baling out, two of whom were last seen clinging to the rocks at Ta’ Żuta”. A day later, they could only note that “the two airmen reported to be clinging to the rocks at Ta’ Żuta are not there and no trace of them could be found”.

What happened to them, no one really knows.

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