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MP launches search for relatives of brave World War II pilots from Preston

Posted on - 9th January, 2023 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Campaigns, History, Preston News, Proud Preston
This campaign is commemorating those who served in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit
This campaign is commemorating those who served in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit

Preston MP Sir Mark Hendrick has launched a search to track down the relatives of three Second World War pilots from Preston, as part of a wider campaign to commemorate the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU).

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Leopold Moody, Thomas Ball, and David Howarth all served in the PRU and originally hailed from Preston.

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Sir Mark is working with members of the Spitfire AA810 Project to locate relatives or descendants of these individuals in order to recognise their bravery and service. 

There is currently no national memorial to the PRU and work is underway to establish a special tribute in central London.

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Sir Mark Hendrick said the three men served admirably under exceptionally difficult conditions
Sir Mark Hendrick said the three men served admirably under exceptionally difficult conditions

The purpose of the PRU was to provide up-to-date intelligence to strategically plan the Allied actions in the war.

Flying Spitfires and Mosquitos, the intelligence gathered was used by all armed forces, giving same-day intelligence on enemy activity. 

One of the lost Spitfires was recovered in Norway, in July 2018 and is being rebuilt to flying condition, so that the stories of the men who flew it can be told.

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The PRU was formed on 24 September 1939
The PRU was formed on 24 September 1939

The PRU was formed in September 1939 and throughout the Second World War it conducted highly dangerous, clandestine photographic reconnaissance operations, capturing more than 26 million images of enemy actions and installations during the war.

Due to the clandestine nature of their operations – the pilots flew solo operations, unarmed and unarmoured – the death rate was nearly fifty percent. 

Despite having one of the lowest survival rates of the war – life expectancy in the PRU was around two and a half months.

Flying Officer Leopold Moody

Born the son of Leopold and Margaret Moody, Leopold Moody was the husband of Winifred and was living in Preston at the time of his service in the PRU.

Joining the Royal Air Force, he trained as a navigator,and after operational conversion onto Mosquito aircraft, he joined 540 Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron. 

The 32-year-old would fly operationally for some time, but misfortune meant this was not to last.

On 10 May 1944, he and his pilot, 21-year-old Jack Hector Irwin (nephew of former Preston Mayor, Mr & Mrs Llewellyn Jones of High Street, Preston) took off from RAF Benson at 7.30am for a reconnaissance mission to Munich.

Their brief was to land in Italy at around 12 pm to refuel before returning home to RAF Benson. 

Unfortunately, at the same time a large USAAF formation of bombers had been sent on a raid against Wiener Neustadt and large numbers of German fighters were scrambled to intercept this large raiding force. 

Mission completed, the Reconnaissance Mosquito accidentally crossed the battle area just as the Germans were intercepting the USAAF raiding force. Caught up in the air war, Leopold’s Mosquito was shot down, the aircraft crashing near Aspang, some 75km from Vienna. 

The impact was so disruptive and spread over such alarge area that whilst Jack was found the same day, it would be a further three months before Leopold would be found and buried. 

Today both men lay in a civil cemetery in Aspangberg-Sankt Peter.

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Warrant Officer Thomas Ball

Thomas Ball was born in Preston, and joined the RAF where he found himself picked for one Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. 

Ball was tasked with a mission to Bremerhaven on 12 April 1942. For reasons unknown, either technical or due to enemy action, he had to ditch his Spitfire in the sea off the coast of Heligoland.

He was then picked up by boat and spent the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War.

Flight Sergeant David Norman Howarth

Born the son of David and Elisabeth Howarth of Preston, David joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and trained as a pilot.

Qualifying on Mosquito aircraft, he transferred from the Operational Training Unit to the 544 Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron based at RAF Benson. 

On 7 April 1944, David and his navigator Flight Sergeant Stanley Kelley were tasked with a mission to Peenemunde, where the V1 and V2 bombs were launched, to monitor the rebuilding of the site following the bombing that had taken place there as part of Operation Crossbow some months previously. 

Neither the aircraft nor the crew were ever seen again, and it is believed they were lost in the North Sea.

The intelligence provided by the PRU was used in the Cabinet War Rooms – now the ‘Churchill War Rooms’ located underneath the Treasury – and was instrumental in the planning of major operations, such as D-Day and the Dambusters Raid, the monitoring of major shipping movements such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz, and the locating of the site of the V1 and V2 rocket launching site at Peenemünde.

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What is found of the plane
What was found of the plane

In support of the campaign, Sir Mark, said: “I am delighted to support this fantastic campaign to commemorate those who served in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, especially the three men from Preston, Leopold Moody, Thomas Ball and David Howarth.

“These three men served admirably under exceptionally difficult conditions, and two of whom ultimately gave their lives in service of our country.

“I look forward to working with the Spitfire AA810 Project to establish this memorial and I look forward to being able to pay my respects there once it is completed.”

If there is anyone related to Leopold Moody, Thomas Ball and David Howarth, or if anyone knows someone who served in the PRU during the war, go the Spitfire AA810 Project website or get in touch with Tony Hoskins at Tony@spitfireaa810.co.uk.

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