Remembered: The brave WW2 pilot who became one of Portsmouth’s best loved actors

Len Russell from Portsmouth, who was in the RAF during the Second World War and was a founding member of the Southsea Shakespeare Actors
Len Russell from Portsmouth, who was in the RAF during the Second World War and was a founding member of the Southsea Shakespeare Actors
Top, from left: Kevin Griffin, George Rees and Paul McAdam'Bottom, from left: Sean Musson and Thomas Smither

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A WARTIME pilot and pioneer of city theatre culture will be laid to rest on Friday after a battle with cancer.

Former RAF flight lieutenant and honorary lifetime member of the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, Leonard Russell, died aged 94 on February 19, 2018.

Born into a working class family in Somers Town in 1923, Leonard began his career as a clerk at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

But when the city was blitzed by enemy air raids in 1940, he became determined to ‘fight the good fight’ – embarking on RAF pilot training in South Africa.

Instead of returning home to Europe he was posted to the Far East, where he flew a Consolidated B-24 Liberator in raids over Burma and a Dakota C-47 – assisting the liberation of the Pacific Islands from Japan.

It was these missions that saw flight lieutenant Russell appointed an army liaison officer in Thailand, earning him presence on the ground when Japanese officers gave up their swords in ceremony.

Until his death, just shy of his 95th birthday, he treasured an RAF flag flown above the parade on that day.

After the Second World War Leonard married Jean – who would go on to be his wife of 68 years, before she died in 2014 – and he trained as a teacher at King Alfred’s College in Winchester.

In 1951 he kick-started a life-spanning association with the Southsea Shakespeare Actors – going on to play a catalogue of leading roles as he performed every one of the playwright’s works at least once.

This feat earned him trusteeship of the company and honorary life membership, alongside the spoils of keeping the group alive to this day.

In a later act of reconciliation, Leonard’s first-hand experiences of war later saw him join the twinning initiative linking Portsmouth and Duisburg in Germany – taking regular productions to the city after founding the Portsmouth Youth Theatre with his wife.

Alongside friends, he also founded the Arena Players in the 1960s and joined the Dickens Fellowship.

Survived by a son, a granddaughter and a great grandson, Leonard’s funeral will take place tomorrow at 2pm, at the Sustainability Centre in East Meon.