The last of the Blenheim pilots

by admin on January 28, 2017

Len Trevallion 2

By Alison Shaw

The Times, January 17, 2017

For a man born on one of the most inauspicious days Leonard Trevallion proved adept at finding the silver lining in Friday the 13th, turning the unluckiest number of all into his talisman.

In many ways it accounted for his charmed life as a policeman and Second World War pilot in XIII Squadron, where he served for 13 months and his all crew had 13 letters in their names. Later, back in the Metropolitan Police, fate conspired to take him into the realms of both eminent figures such as Winston Churchill and Yuri Gagarin as well as two of the 20th century’s most notorious convicted criminals – the protagonists in the murderous saga of 10 Rillington Place.

Trevallion who, at 102 was the last surviving Bristol Blenheim pilot of the war, met and conversed with both Timothy Evans and John Christie before they went to the gallows during his time as an officer in the Met. He was also privileged to have enjoyed the company of Churchill in his final years when his duties took him to Kensington and the wartime prime minister’s home at 28 Hyde Park Gate.

It was a truly extraordinary life that began just three months after the start of the Great War as the first battle of Ypres raged.  Trevallion, born in Forest Road, Walthamstow, the first child of builder Leonard Trevallion and his wife Bertha, said his earliest memory was of being carried out in his father’s arms to see the zeppelins flying across London’s night sky.

Then a few years later came another significant childhood event when he was scarred for life by a bull terrier as he walked home from Chapel End Elementary School. The dog bit a chunk out of his right thigh, leaving a dreadful gaping wound too big to be stitched, and the schoolboy spent six weeks in hospital. After finishing his education at Sir George Monoux (correct) Grammar School he went into the family’s building business and when it went bankrupt he decided to pursue a career either in the RAF or the Metropolitan Police. Destiny intervened when he just happened to turn up at the Met on a selection day and subsequently joined V Division as officer number 662 in 1935.

Based in Putney, on his very first beat alone he was confronted with a body in the Thames. The following morning he saved the life of a newborn baby whose mother rushed into the street begging him to help the infant who was not breathing. He cleared the baby’s face of mucus and gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – an episode he never forgot.

Other memorable experiences included seeing Edward, Prince of Wales play golf with the Aga Khan at Roehampton and Queen Mary attend Wimbledon. And, after being selected for the police athletics team, he attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he saw Jesse Owens win gold.  That same tumultuous year brought the death of King George V, the abdication crisis of Edward VIII and the succession of George VI.

It was the morning after George VI’s coronation that Trevallion first met Evelyn, the young Scotswoman who would become his bride. They married at Chelsea’s St Columba’s Church of Scotland on September 2, 1939, the day before Britain declared war on Germany.

The couple survived the London Blitz, though not without a few close shaves, including a near miss on their own home and his duties recording bomb falls and unexploded devices, conducted along with Philip Kirby-Green, later of MI5. Then in 1941 Trevallion, who was now a police driver, joined the RAF. He trained in the United States and then began operations training in Britain on aircraft including the Bristol Blenheim. He served with XIII Squadron in North Africa and Italy from 1943-44.  The following year he was posted to 137 Maintenance Unit RAF in Malta and spent the final year of the war in Britain as a flying instructor.

He was reunited with Kirby-Green during one daredevil wartime exploit when he almost ran out of fuel while flying a replacement aircraft to a base in Africa. Atrocious weather forced him to attempt an unscheduled landing on Gibraltar, unaware that minutes earlier another pilot had landed but gone straight over the rock’s edge. Conditions were so dangerous that crew on the ground fired flares to warn Trevallion not to touch down – a futile effort as his engines cut out on approach. Had he flown another 50 yards and he would have crashed into the sea. Against the odds he made it down safely and bumped into Kirby-Green, then working for the security service, who ensured he was re-fuelled and sent on his way. Little wonder Trevallion’s later memoir was titled Policeman, Pilot and Guardian Angel.

He credited his good fortune to a lucky gene and the number 13, explaining that he had flown two tours of operations, one of 52 missions which equated to four times 13, the other of 26 – twice 13.

And he continued to need that luck after he returned to the Metropolitan Police in 1945 when he dodged six bullets aimed at him by London gangsters, one of whom he managed to capture.

By far the most notorious case he was involved with was that surrounding 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, home of serial killer John Reginald Halliday Christie where eight murders were committed and the bodies concealed. Among those to die were the wife and baby daughter of Christie’s upstairs neighbour Timothy Evans. In 1949 Evans was taken into custody at Notting Hill police station, where Trevallion was serving, and charged with murdering them both. Trevallion reported that Evans confessed to the killings but the young man, who was later convicted only of the murder of his daughter, went to the gallows in 1950 maintaining Christie was the culprit.

Three years later, as a result of a petty theft, Trevallion found himself at 10 Rillington Place. Having spotted a man stealing a tin of biscuits he gave chase which ended at the infamous address. Trevallion went in to warn Christie of a thief in the building and later wrote: “As I was telling him about the tenant I noticed an appalling smell.”

It would later transpire that six other women, including Christie’s wife Ethel, had been strangled and their bodies hidden in the garden, behind an alcove and under the floorboards. Trevallion, who said he found a tin of pubic hair clippings during the exhumations in the garden, saw Christie at Putney Police station. On telling him about the discovery of his wife’s body under the floor he said Christie told him: “Yes, now perhaps you realise what that smell was that you were talking about.”

Featuring in a programme on the case, made by Fred Dinenage, Trevallion talked of his theory that Christie   – “a monster” – and his wife had been performing illegal abortions on the women and that he killed her after she found him interfering with the victims.

Christie was tried only for the murder of Ethel and hanged in 1953, although he is said to have confessed to killing six other women over the previous decade but refused to accept responsibility for the Evans’ baby’s murder.

Later Trevallion’s work in security brought him into contact with the first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin whom he looked after when he visited London, and Sir Winston Churchill. While stationed at Kensington he regularly visited Churchill’s nearby London home to chat with the elderly former prime minister who thanked him warmly for his help while serving locally.

Trevallion retired from the Met as an inspector in 1965 and the following year Timothy Evans was posthumously pardoned though controversy still surrounds the killings. Trevallion later worked as a security officer at London’s Royal Garden Hotel where he looked after the Bolshoi Ballet and was involved with the banquet for the 1966 World Cup winning England football team.

After retiring fully he lived at Kingston-upon-Thames and, several years after being widowed, moved to Scotland at the age of 88. He settled in Crieff, Perthshire, living close to his daughter Julia who survives him along with her sister Ann, where he relished not obeying any rules and throwing parties for his 90th, 95th and 100th birthdays.

Leonard John Frank Trevallion, policeman and RAF pilot, was born on November 13, 1914. He died on December 22, 2016, aged 102