The Death of a True British Hero
As the media fawns over pop culture icons, an author remembers the flying ace who introduced her to the Spitfire Girls.
March 30, 2009 - 12:00 am
Bill Leith was cremated on March 13. There will be no front-page story, no spread in OK magazine, and no Max Clifford PR-perpetrated media blitz. Bill lived out his life and career with dignity and professionalism. He was a modest and old-fashioned British hero who never, ever sought the limelight.
Jade Goody died on March 22. Though many people in Britain feel she is a national figure of greatness, I could not help but cringe every time I saw reality television personality Jade’s malevolent minders storming about as the paparazzi snapped away during her battle with cancer. Bill Leith also fought cancer with courage. He had served his country with distinction and worked until cancer and a stroke overtook him.
Goody became a household name in January 2007 because she went berserk on Big Brother when the Indian “Bollywood” actress Shilpa Shetty dared breathe the same air in the confines of the dreaded house. Her hostility to Shetty was breathtaking and her vulgar epithets were regarded by a large swathe of Britain as repugnant. That is how Jade became a national figure.
In its rapid descent into the dumbing-down of a nation that once gave the world true celebrities of the ilk of Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, Britain’s media engaged in a bizarre frenzy when Jade married her fiancé Jack Tweed. He was let out of prison for the occasion. Many found the circus around this private ceremony tawdry and disturbing.
Bill Leith married his longtime love Stroma shortly before he died. Like Jade Goody, he was able to be joined for eternity with the love of his life. The resemblance stops there. To the very end Bill never basked in celebrity culture; his military valor in defense of his country will go unnoticed save for the men who served alongside him.
He was based in Palestine during partition and we had many a heated argument about the right of Israel to defend itself. Bill had never forgiven the Stern Gang and Menachem Begin for their deeds during the last days of the British Mandate. I tried to convey the anguish and anger of Jews who had survived the death camps but Bill saw the suffering of his troops as a betrayal and the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem as an unforgivable tragedy. We agreed to disagree; in my own times of hardship Bill was, to coin a cliché, always there and steadfast in his efforts to attenuate my tribulation. It is a tribute to Bill’s generosity, sincerity, and profound patriotism that despite his views on Israel I, a rabid Zionist, remained an admirer every day of our thirty-year acquaintance.
Serving both his and her majesty’s government in many theaters of war as a pilot and later in special operations, as well as having endured being a POW in Korea, in semi-retirement he became an outstanding aerial photographer, filming from an enormous crane well into his seventies. He would have climbed under a table rather than appear on the cover of OK.