James Anthony Leathart was born in London on 5th January 1915, the son of a surgeon, and educated at St Edward's, Oxford. He graduated from Liverpool University as an electrical engineer.
While there he joined 610 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force on 2nd May 1936 as one of its founder-members. He qualified to a wings and operational standard on Hawker Harts. Leathart transferred to the RAF on 10th May 1937 with a short service commission and was posted to 3 FTS Grantham, later moving with it to South Cerney.
On 27th November 1937 Leathart joined 54 Squadron, then at Hornchurch. He was appointed ‘A’ Flight Commander on 1st September 1939 as an Acting Flight Lieutenant. Leathart aquired the nickname ‘The Prof’ as his fellow officers were impressed by his technical knowledge.
Over Dunkirk Leathart probably destroyed a Ju88 and a He111 on 21st May. The next day he flew an unarmed Miles Magister to Calais-Marck aerodrome to pick up the CO of 74 Squadron, S/Ldr. FL White, who had been shot down and could not get back. With cover provided by two Spitfires of 54 Squadron, piloted by P/O JL Allen and F/O AC Deere, the very hazardous operation was carried out successfully. Leathart claimed a Me109 on 24th May; on the 25th a probable Me110; and on the 26th two Me110s and a Ju88. On this day he took command of 54 Squadron as an Acting Squadron Leader. On the 27th he shared a Ju88 and was awarded the DSO (gazetted 11th June 1940). On 17th June he probably destroyed a Ju88 and shared another.
54 Squadron just before Dunkirk, Leathart is seated third from right.
King George VI visited the Spitfire Wing at Hornchurch to present Leathart with his DSO (below).
On 20th July Leathart damaged a Do17, on the 25th damaged a Me109, on 18th August got a probable Me109 and damaged another, on the 28th destroyed a Do17, on 2nd September destroyed a Me109 and probably another on the 3rd.
Leathart was due to take up a staff appointment on 1st September and relinquish command of 54 Squadron. However S/Ldr. DO Finlay, who had been a supernumerary with the squadron, was wounded in action with 54 and unable to assume command.
Leathart handed over to him on 18th September and was posted to the Air Ministry's Deputy Directorate of Air Tactics. Leathart went to HQ Fighter Command on 3rd March 1941 as Ops 2 Night Fighters. He was made a CB (gazetted 11th June 1960) and retired, at his own request, on 24th July 1962 as an Air Commodore.
He settled in Gloucestershire and designed and maintained specialist agricultural spraying equipment. He enjoyed fly-fishing and rebuilding motor cars.
Leathart died on 17th November 1998.
Photo and text courtesy of Battle of Britain Monument website