Captain William (Bill) Leckie, who died peacefully at home in Enniskerry, in his 101st year, had a remarkable life which included dramatic, high-risk missions with the Royal Air Force in World War II, followed by 25 years as a pilot with Aer Lingus.
One of his wartime operations became the subject of a film starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.
William Thomas Leckie was born in Glasgow on June 23, 1921, but the family moved to the countryside when he was seven, because of his father’s bronchitis. Having worked initially as a cinema projectionist, he joined the RAF in June 1941, starting off as a trainee pilot at Stoke Orchard, near Cheltenham, before being sent to Canada and the US for further training.
Returning to the UK, he expected to be piloting Catalina seaplanes but was assigned instead to Bomber Command where one of his missions involved an attack on a flying-bomb factory in Germany.
In August 1944, he was transferred to a Special Duties squadron based at Brindisi in Italy, bringing his Bomber Command crew with him, and took part in dropping guns, ammunition and food to Polish activists in the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation. For his role in that mission, during which many aircraft were lost, Leckie was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour.
His work at Brindisi also involved providing supplies to anti-Nazi guerrilla fighters in the Balkans. Sometimes special agents, known as “Joes”, were dropped off as well, usually at discreet locations surrounded by hills.
He was also the pilot in a dramatic operation on April 8, 1945, in which four special agents were dropped near the Altaussee salt mine in the Austrian Alps. Their mission was to recover 6,755 of the world’s greatest works of art by Michelangelo, Vermeer and others which the Nazis had confiscated. Adolf Hitler had intended to display them at a Fuhrer-Museum in his Austrian hometown of Linz, if he had won the war. The German plan at this stage was to blow up the entire collection to keep it out of the hands of the Allies.
However, the rescue mission was a success and the treasure trove of art was taken into safe keeping as the Nazi war effort collapsed.
The operation was the subject of The Monuments Men, a 2007 book by Robert M Edsel and Bret Witter which was made into a film of the same title, directed by George Clooney who also starred along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
Leckie was always modest about his wartime service and some of the detail only became known to his family in recent times. After leaving the RAF in September 1946, he returned to his job as a cinema projectionist and later joined the home appliance company Hoover. He then worked for a number of years in civilian pilot training with Airwork Ltd at Scone aerodrome near Perth in Scotland.
Subsequently he moved to Ireland, where he was a pilot with Aer Lingus from 1954 to 1979. People who worked with him have paid tribute to the support and guidance he gave to cadets and other colleagues.
After his retirement, he moved to Troon on the west coast of Scotland but returned to Ireland two years ago and lived in Enniskerry with his son Allan.
Having celebrated his 100th birthday last June, he passed away on October 4 surrounded by his family.
Representatives of the Royal British Legion of UK veterans in the Republic of Ireland attended the funeral service, which took place at St Patrick’s Church, Enniskerry, and was followed by committal at Mount Jerome Crematorium, Harold’s Cross.
His wife Ina died in 2012. His surviving relatives include his son Allan, daughters Irene and Fiona, daughter-in-law Jacinta, sons-in-law Steven and Giovanni, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.