Story: Trent, Leonard Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Trent, Leonard Henry

1915–1986

Military aviator and leader, prisoner of war

This biography was written by Joel Hayward and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Leonard Henry (registered as Henry Leonard) Trent was born in Nelson on 14 April 1915, the son of Leonard Noel Trent, a dentist, and his wife, Irene Violet Everett. In 1919 the family moved to Takaka, where, three years later, after taking a short ride in a Gipsy Moth aircraft, young Leonard became captivated by flight. From 1928 to 1934 he was a boarder at Nelson College and took up another lifelong passion: golf.

Devoting more effort to mastering golf than his school subjects, he failed matriculation at his first attempt. He passed the following year, but only after his golf clubs were consigned to the attic. Their return during his sixth form year resulted in his victory in the Nelson Golf Club senior championship. It later proved a strong point in his favour when he faced the Royal New Zealand Air Force selection board.

After leaving school, Trent worked briefly in a freezing works, then as a dental technician, saving part of his salary so that he might achieve his goal of becoming a pilot. After a short stint of introductory instruction at Taieri, near Dunedin, he undertook RNZAF flight training in Christchurch, gaining his wings on 12 May 1938. A month later he sailed for Britain to join the RAF.

When war was declared in September 1939 he was in France as part of No 15 Squadron, and he flew high-level photo-reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. The squadron returned to England in December to begin flight training in heavier bombers. Six months of intensive training readied Trent for combat missions after Germany invaded the Low Countries and France in May and June 1940.

In July he received the DFC for his outstanding contribution to the battle of Flanders. Trent possessed personal qualities that gained him steady promotion; the courage and stamina to endure many sorties; and the luck to survive those that claimed the lives of numerous fellow squadron members. During a less dangerous stint, as a training instructor, he married Ursula Elizabeth Woolhouse on 7 August 1940 at Holborn, London. They were to have three children.

Trent returned to combat duties in March 1942 and was promoted to squadron leader in June. He spent six months in Headquarters No 2 Group before assuming command of B Flight in No 487 (NZ) Squadron, equipped with Ventura bombers flown primarily by New Zealanders. He conducted many difficult raids on German targets in Holland during the last months of 1942 and the beginning of 1943.

Heavy flak destroyed virtually his entire formation – including his own aircraft – near Amsterdam on 3 May 1943. After being thrown clear of his disintegrating plane and falling by parachute, he suffered only flesh wounds. He was captured and incarcerated in Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner-of-war camp later depicted in the Hollywood film The great escape. In March 1944 many inmates crawled out through tunnels they had dug. The Gestapo executed 50 recaptured prisoners, but Trent received solitary confinement because of his immediate surrender outside the camp. In January and February 1945 he lost much weight and many fellow prisoners died during a cruel forced march to another camp.

Trent’s liberation by the British on 2 May 1945 ended two years of captivity. He returned to his family in England and promptly recommenced RAF service, learning that his outstanding and courageous leadership during his last combat mission had earned him the Victoria Cross. Quiet and unassuming, Trent disliked the fuss this award caused, especially when receiving it at Buckingham Palace on 12 April 1946, and he never felt comfortable with his renown as a hero. He always stressed the vital contribution of his aircrew and, after accepting a permanent commission in the RAF, visited relatives of those killed in action.

Warfare did not diminish Trent’s enthusiasm for flying. He held several important command positions in the RAF’s training programme and saw combat during the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1962, three years after his promotion to group captain, he became bomber command representative in the British Embassy in Washington DC, and also aide-de-camp to Queen Elizabeth II, posts he held for three years before retiring from the RAF.

Trent returned to New Zealand, eventually settling north of Auckland at Mathesons Bay. He died at North Shore Hospital on 19 May 1986, survived by his wife, Ursula, and a daughter and son. Despite spending much of his life overseas, Trent always considered himself a New Zealander and remained proud that he had earned his Victoria Cross as a member of a New Zealand squadron. His outstanding career and high awards place him in the first rank of the nation’s military figures and earn him a hero’s reputation.