Leslie Redford CLISBY DFC


CLISBY, Leslie Redford

Service Number: 40043
Enlisted: 1 January 1935
Last Rank: Flying Officer
Last Unit: No. 1 Squadron (RAF)
Born: McLaren Vale, South Australia, 29 June 1914
Home Town: McLaren Vale, Onkaparinga, South Australia
Schooling: Nailsworth Junior Technical School, South Australia
Occupation: Air Force Pilot
Died: Flying Battle, France, 16 May 1940, aged 25 years
Cemetery: Choloy War Cemetery, France
2. G8. Sydney Memorial, Rookwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Memorials: Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
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Non Warlike Service

1 Jan 1935: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force
3 Aug 1937: Transferred Royal Air Force , Pilot Officer, Unspecified British Units

World War 2 Service

14 May 1940: Involvement Royal Air Force , Flying Officer, SN 40043, No. 1 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
14 May 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 40043, No. 1 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45

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Biography contributed by Steve Larkins

Leslie Clisby DFC was Australia's first fighter ace in WW2.  He achieved this feat very early in the war, during what was known as the Battle of France with 1 Squadron RAF in May 1940. Reflecting the commitment with which he took the fight to the enemy, tragically, he became a casualty of the conflict himself having accounted for as many as 19 enemy aircraft (although he is offically attributed with 16).  His accomplishments were a reflection of the intensity of the air combat experienced after the so-called "Phoney War" was abruptly shattered by the German invasion of the Low Countries and France in May 1940.  His exploits were detailed in an excellent account of 1 Squadron RAF's experiences in this period, titled "Fighter Pilot" by Paul Richey, himself a pilot in the same squadron.  The book has become a classic and describes in vivid detail the intensity of the air fighting during the Battle of France

The extract below is from a number of sources, mostly (with permission from) the SA Aviation Musem (www.saam.org.au) website.

Les was born at McLaren Vale, South Australia, on 29 June 1914. Having an aptitude for mechanical engineering, he joined the RAAF as a ground crew member in 1935. He was at Point Cook, Victoria, when he applied for an officer cadet course (Course A) in 1936. He crashed a Gypsy Moth (A7 45) on 26 April 1936, escaping by parachute. Apparently, he was only the second man in Australia to escape using an Irvine parachute, which entitled him to become a member of the Irvine Parachute Caterpillar Club.

He was in the same intake as Robert Wilton Bungey. It was probably at this time that they became great friends and remained so till Les’s death in action in 1940. He graduated from Point Cook on 29 June 1937. After graduation he left for England, in August 1937 having applied for and been accepted for a five-year short service commission in the RAF.

After advanced and conversion training at No.1 FTS (Flying Training School) at Leuchars in Scotland, he was posted to the leading fighter squadron of the day (No.1 Squadron RAF), flying Hawker Hurricane aircraft. When World War II was declared, No.1 Squadron was posted to France, landing at Le Havre on 8 September 1939.

During the phoney war period the squadron flew many patrols and was moving from airfield to airfield. The winter of 1939/40 was a particularly bad one. Little action with the Luftwaffe occurred in January and February, but in March 1940 things started to warm up. On 1 April Les claimed a Me 110 damaged, and on 2 April he hit and severely damaged Major Werner Molders’ (top Luftwaffe fighter ace) Me 109.

By the middle of April the squadron was based at Vassincourt, and it was at this base that Les and his No.1 Squadron colleagues were heavily engaged in battle. May 1940 was when the Luftwaffe came in force in support of their ground attack 'Blitzkreig'. On 12 May, Les was credited with shooting down six enemy aircraft (in that one day) and was awarded the DFC (see 'Personal Stories' bar).

On the 13th May he shot down a Heinkel He 111 and landed his Hurricane beside it and then proceeded to capture the German crew brandishing his revolver.  He returned, in a farmer's cart, to his unit, handing over his PoW.

Described as being "extrovert, profane, perpetually cheerful and addicted to flying", Clisby also had "premature lines" on his face. At twenty-five, and with only a few months of air-to-air combat experience, he was considered a seasoned campaigner and had become No. 1 Squadron's top-scoring ace. He had also become the first Australian-born ace of the war, and was well known for giving vent to patriotic feelings for his homeland in another way. All RAAF personnel who served with the RAF were permitted to continue wearing their original dark-blue Australian uniform until it wore out, after which they were to exchange it for the lighter-coloured British variety. Clisby flatly refused to give up his RAAF uniform, regardless of how shabby it became. When teased about its condition, he would simply respond, "It will see me through".

Clisby was still wearing his RAAF uniform on 15 May (there is confusion about the date - 14th or 15th)  when he went into action with his flight against more than thirty Bf 110s over Reims. Having destroyed two of the German heavy fighters, Clisby's Hurricane was seen going down with its cockpit trailing smoke and flames, evidently hit by cannon fire.  He was initially posted as "missing", along with one of his comrades, Flying Officer Robert Lorimer, whose plane was also seen losing height in the same action. The French later found two burnt-out Hurricanes in the vicinity of Rethel, which were identified as Clisby's and Lorimer's. Clisby died without knowing that he had been awarded the DFC. A fellow pilot later said, "He was an Australian and had thrown himself into the fray with a reckless abandon that was magnificent in its way".

Estimates of Clisby's total number of victories in his short career range from nine to twenty or more, but the most common—and official—score attributed to him is sixteen.

The following days saw intense enemy aircraft attacks as bad, if not worse, than those that occurred at the peak of the Battle of Britain. On 14 May 1940 at 0800 hours Les was engaged in combat with a Messerschmitt Bf 110 formation from I/ZG26. Both he and a close friend, Flying Officer RL Lorimer, failed to return. Les was lost in a Hurricane s/n P2546.

There is a reference to the death of Les Clisby in Twelve Days in May by Cull, Lander and Weiss (1995): ‘The Australian was hit by a cannon shell, and went into a dive with smoke and flames coming from his cockpit. No one actually saw him crash.’

It was thought that Les’ victory tally was 19 aircraft destroyed (confirmed), of which 14 had been destroyed in the 3 days before his death although as stated previously, his offical tally was 16. The CO of No.1 Squadron, Squadron Leader 'Bull' Halahan, considered Les’ total number of enemy aircraft shot down to be over 20.

Postwar investigation found that the French had discovered Les’ body in the burnt out remains of his aircraft and buried him in a temporary grave.  The Hurricane of his colleague Robert Lorrimer was in the same vivinity. Later the War Graves Commission re-buried him in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery at Chuloy, near Nancy, France. Leslie Clisby is remembered on the War Memorial in Adelaide; the Memorial Books in the RAF Church, St Clement Danes, London; and on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.


Compiled by Steve Larkins Feb 2015.  Updated August 2020


P. Richey, Fighter Pilot (Lond, 1941)

Aviation Museum of SA (website)

Australian Dictionary of Biography