Colin, or Rusty as he was known as by his friends, was born at Labasa in Fiji, on the 5th May 1922, the son of a field officer with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. At age of eight, he went to boarding school, first at Suva Boys Grammar, and then The Armidale School. At 15, he left school and started work as a junior clerk with CSR in Sydney.
At 18, Rusty enlisted in the RAAF in Sydney on the 25th May 1941. After completing his initial flying training in Australia and Canada, he embarked for England in July 1942 for advanced training. Then he joined 453 RAAF Squadron, which had just been reformed at Drem, east of Edinburgh, flying Spitfires. In September 1942, the Squadron was moved to Hornchurch in Essex, and on the 8th October 1943, Rusty shot down two of the five Messerschmitt Bf-110s that his Squadron had destroyed that day.
In July 1944, during the Battle of Normandy, he and 11 other Spitfires of 453 Squadron were scrambled to intercept 40 Messerschmitt Bf-109s in the Lisieux area. Rusty shared in shooting down one of them over enemy territory, but short on fuel, he opted to make a belly landing behind enemy lines rather than bale out. He was picked up by the Resistance and taken to a safe house where Jean and Renee Renoult were already sheltering two American airmen. The three remained hidden in an attic at the farmhouse until it was liberated by Canadian soldiers on the 22nd August.
Rusty resumed operational flying on the 11th September 1944, by which time the Squadron was based at Douai in northern France, providing air support for Operation Market Garden, the disastrous attempt to take the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. On the 27th September, Rusty was flying one of six Spitfires that chased 50 Bf-109s, and he made his final ”kill” of the war. It was also the Squadron’s last dogfight; two days later it was relocated to the RAF station at Coltishall in Norfolk.
By this time, the main threat was from V-2 rockets launched from Holland. The squadron was the first to be equipped with Mark XVI Spitfires and they were configured as dive bombers, with clipped wings and bomb racks under the wings. On the 15th January 1945, Rusty was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and 10 days later he was informed that he had been awarded the DFC, which he received from King George VI at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on the 10th July 1945. The Squadron’s last raid on V-2s was on the 30th March 1945, and early the following month they moved to Lympne in east Kent, to begin bomber escort duties in daylight over Germany.
On the 25th April 1945, Rusty led 453 Squadron on its last offensive operation in the European theatre of war, on the East Frisian island of Wangerooge. He was discharged on the 15th October 945. After the war, he returned to work at CSR in Sydney, and in December 1945 married Meg William, who worked for the same company.
In July 1949, Rusty was diagnosed with mild tuberculosis, and spent the next 16 months in hospital and then a sanatorium in Turramurra. He put the time to good use, completing an accounting degree.
In January 1970, he was appointed CSR’s regional manager in Perth. When he retired in 1979, Rusty plunged into the community service roles that had already characterised his professional life. This was recognised in 1994, when he was made a Member in the Order of Australia. He served on several boards and also played an active role in worker safety. In 1990, he became federal president of the National Safety Council of Australia.
The Spitfire Mark XVI that he flew on the last raid against the V-2 rocket sites at Leiden is now part of the Temora Aviation Museum. The canopy of the aircraft he crash-landed in France was recovered in 2000 after having sheltered a farmer’s tomato plants for 50 years, and is on display at The Armidale School.
The following part of Rusty’s obituary is of interest: Flight Lieutenant Colin Leith, a World War II fighter pilot, later waged another seven-year battle to have Australia’s participation in the Battle of Normandy officially recognised by French authorities. Leith, who has died of cancer in Perth at age 87, flew 286 operational sorties in Europe with RAAF 453 Squadron and was credited with shooting down 3.5 German combat aircraft.
He was on leave in England when his squadron participated in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, harassing enemy movements and guarding the skies above the beachhead against attacks by the Luftwaffe. He rejoined his unit in France on July 2 after the squadron had moved across the Channel to a forward airfield. It was the only Australian operational unit in France during the Battle of Normandy.
The copy of the document at the bottom of this page shows a moving insight into Rusty’s determination to remain with his mates and his Squadron when he returned to England after being shot down over France. The photo is of 453 Squadron Spitfires, which are painted in black and white stripes, the invasion markings for the Battle of Normandy.
So it was with some dismay that he noticed on a visit to the Museum of Peace at Caen, France, in November 1988 that there was no Australian flag among those of 13 countries acknowledged as participating in the campaign. Some time after his return, Leith launched his own offensive that lasted seven years before Australian and French bureaucratic inertia was overcome and the Australian flag was finally raised at the Museum for Peace on May 1, 1998.”
Rusty is survived by his daughter Margaret, son David, four grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and his brother Ian.
Paul Barratt and our thanks to The Sydney Morning Herald
Updated by Vince Conant
The Spitfire Association