Monday, 23 August 2010
The RAF Bomb Brest July 1941
One of several raids on Brest at this time was carried out by no.104 Squadron flying Wellingtons. The bombing was carried out from low level, the bombers having flown right around Brittany far out to sea in an effort to avoid alerting the defences. The ruse proved successful and only the permanently manned defences were in operation as the Wellingtons went in to the attack at 3.30pm. Those defences were strong enough and several of the bombers were damaged, others having their aim spoiled by the heavy flak.
With the Germans alerted, the safest route home was to climb for height while heading directly north across France toward Cornwall. The German fighters arrived with unusual speed, and a force of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters came diving down as the Wellingtons were struggling for height. The Wellington piloted by Squadron Leader H. Budden DFC was leading the third section and came in for savage punishment. A spray of incendiary bullets riddled the fuselage behind the wings, setting it ablaze.
Rear gunner Sergeant John Armstrong had received a bullet through his shin during the attack, but despite the wounds he scrambled out of his turret to tackle the blaze. Having doused the flames, Armstrong returned to his guns to find the Germans launching a renewed assault on the bomber formation. Armstrong opened fire, but a spray of German shot shattered the turret perspex and ruptured an oil line, coating Armstrong liberally in the sticky black fluid. A third attack saw a bullet hit Armstrong in the thigh while his turret seized up completely and a fresh fire burst out in the fuselage.
Unable to fire back, Armstrong decided to tackle the new blaze. This second fire was worse than the first and had a firm grip of the aircraft. Sergeant Smalley came back to help and between them the two men put out the fire, at which point Armstrong collapsed. Only then did Smalley realise that Armstrong was twice wounded. He dragged the unconscious man up the fuselage to apply dressings. Armstrong then demanded a pencil and paper so that he could write a note to the pilot outlining the damage suffered by the aircraft.
The Wellington was, indeed, badly damaged. Budden made for Exeter and executed a hair-raising belly landing that put the bomber beyond repair, but did get the men down safely. Medical orderlies and the station padre carefully placed Armstrong on a stretcher and were carrying him off to receive proper treatment when Armstrong stopped them. He demanded to be carried to the debriefing room where Budden was writing out his report. It was a key part of a tail gunner’s job to note the fall of bombs and report these to his pilot so that the information could be included in the combat report. Only once that duty had been done would Armstrong allow himself to be cared for.
This is an extract from RAF Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews.