For the crews of Bomber Command, that Sunday might not have been a stand-out day but it was hardly a day of rest and contemplation. More than 150 bombers were readied and, as daylight faded, despatched to attack industrial, transportation and anti-invasion targets across Germany and along the Channel coast. Frustratingly, conditions over the Reich were far from good and five Whitleys from 77 and 58 Squadrons, for example, failed to find their targets in the capital and had to opt for alternatives. The rest of 58 Squadron fared little better over Hamburg where Sgt. Crossland made several passes over the heavily defended port at just 3,000ft but to no avail. On his return flight, he located Cuxhaven in driving rain and came under sustained fire, which destroyed the front turret and holed much of the cockpit area. In spite of this, Crossland held steady and released his bombs over his target. Some of 61 Squadrons Hampdens had been assigned the busy Dortmund-Ems canal as their target and Stan Harrison managed to catch sight of it twice before it disappeared into the murk. Dropping down to below 4,000ft, after 15 minutes he managed to pick it up again and as the road and rail bridges at Rheine came into sight, released his four 500lb bombs while he could see something worth attacking.
Conditions were better over the Channel ports, although this proved to be a double edged sword, enabling the alert gunners to unleash fearsome and accurate defensive fire. It was enough to force Plt Off Andy Dunn, who had come under heavy fire at 6,000ft while bombing the invasion barges at Ostend, to push the nose of his unwieldy Whitley down and keep it down, levelling at just 100ft to streak across the harbour with his gunners blazing away and making the most of this hair-raising and unorthodox opportunity. Well over 50 lighter Blenheims and obsolescent Battles, supported by a number of Wellingtons and Hampdens, made their contribution to the crucial ‘Battle of the Barges’ that night.
Guy Gibson, later of Dambuster fame, flying with 83 Squadron over Antwerp that night reported clearly seeing countless heavily loaded barges and came away convinced that the invasion was imminent. As he made his way home to RAF Scampton, he flew for some time alongside a Hampden trailing flames and sparks. It was 83 Squadron’s Canadian Plt Off Arthur Connor’s P1335. Bathed in moonlight, Connor and his crew had no difficulty in picking out the massed rows of barges and had begun his run-in, when a shell burst directly beneath the starboard wing, blasting the bomber violently to port. Undeterred, Connor turned the lightly damaged Hampden around for a second run, coming under heavy fire throughout. The bomber ploughed on to complete its attack more or less unscathed until a shell scored a direct hit on the partially closed bomb doors and ignited an inferno, fanned by the slipstream. Able to see the reflection of the leaping flames on his windscreen, Connor gave the order to bail out while there was still time to do so.
Two of his crew did so at once but 18 year old wireless operator/air gunner Sgt. John Hannah did not and set about tackling the blaze, initially with his gloved hands and log book. Realising more was needed, Hannah made his way through the flames, yanked open the fire door, buckled with the heat, and grasped the fire extinguishers. When these ran out, burnt and with his clothes smouldering, half blinded by the flames, amid the stifling heat and in constant danger of becoming trapped in the wreckage or falling through the gaping holes in the fuselage, he continued to beat the flames with his hands and feet. After ten minutes of Herculean effort, he calmly reported to his pilot that the fire was out and gathered up any maps and charts he could to pass on to Connor and stood behind him helping to navigate the bomber home. Hannah was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous actions and Connor the DFC. Sadly, the Canadian was lost on a raid on Kiel in November 1940 and Hannah never fully recovered from his injuries, dying on 7th June 1947, still only 25 years of age.
Their story is exceptional but the tenacity and courage shown by the young men of Bomber Command, facing the perils of both enemy action and the elements, night after night were remarkable and, while the decisive actions of ‘The Few’ should indeed be remembered on this and every Battle of Britain day, those of ‘The Many’ should not be overlooked.
By Paul Tweddle