Tuesday, 10 September 2013

RAF Bomber Command hits Brest

On 24 July there took place one of the most daring raids of the war, certainly it was the one that earned Bomber Command more medals than any other single action. A total of five Distinguished Service Orders (DSO), 26 Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) and 20 Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM) were awarded for an action that lasted less than an hour.

At this stage in the war, Atlantic convoys were being hit often and severely by German U-boats. Even worse, from the Royal Navy’s point of view, was the threat posed by Germany’s big surface warships. Any one of these ships were so powerful that they could sink an entire convoy in less than half an hour. The mere fact that one was at sea was enough to cancel all convoys in the area.

In June 1941 reconnaissance aircraft photographed three warships – Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen – in the occupied French port of Brest. At the request of the Navy, Bomber Command made an effort to bomb the ships at night. Pilot Officer Arthur Ashworth of 75 Squadron later said of this mission:
“On the 18th of June we took off for another attack on Brest, this time trying to hit the 'Scharnhorst’. We spent a considerable time over the target area and finally established, by the light of one of our flares, that the Scharnhorst was not berthed where we had been briefed to find her. However, there was another large ship in the harbour and this we attacked. On the way home we got ourselves lost by misidentifying our landfall. As a consequence we flew through the balloon barrage at Bristol. It was just breaking daylight when this happened and there was quite a bit of anxiety in that aircraft until we were clear. My log book records only that we were lost and came through the balloon barrages, but for this particular flight I was awarded the D.F.C.”

Ashworth was being modest. The contemporary account in the London Gazette reads

“Although the target was obscured, Pilot Officer Ashworth flew over the area for a considerable time finally dropping flares immediately both north and south of the target, which enabled him to see and attack his objective. He also aimed one bomb at an unidentified vessel of 10,000 tons which was observed to be entering the docks. Pilot Officer Ashworth made eight surveying runs, at times at an extremely low altitude and in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire. He displayed outstanding skill, courage and infinite care in his efforts to bomb accurately.”

from "RAF Heroes of Bomber Command, Norfolk" by Rupert Matthews.

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