Bomber Command’s first Victoria Cross

An earlier RAF photo reconnaissance photograph of the Dortmund Ems canal with the aqueduct that passes over a river. Barges can clearly be seen passing along the canal.

The Dortmund Ems canal had been attacked several times by the RAF. It was regarded as a high priority target in the campaign to disrupt the German build up to a possible invasion. Other reconnaissance flights were already monitoring the gathering of river barges from throughout Europe in channel ports. The spot where the canal ran over an aqueduct was an obvious target. However ‘precision bombing’ was an art that the RAF were still practising at this stage in the war.

The operation called for a carefully planned attack that would come in at low level and use time delayed bombs that would not explode under the aircraft releasing the them. The following aircraft had to drop their bombs at intervals in order to avoid the blast of the bombs dropped by the aircraft preceding them. Accuracy called for the approach to be made along a predetermined line along the canal. The low level, staggered approach of aircraft along a predicted route made for a hazardous operation. This was especially the case on a target that had previously been attacked, where the Germans were known to be improving their Anti-Aircraft defences.

The Handley Page Hampden bomber used by Bomber Command until 1942. Of 1400 aircraft built, half were lost on operations.

No. 49 Squadron flying Hampden aircraft had develop some expertise in low flying operations whilst laying anti shipping mines at sea. They had also previously attacked this target so knew what to expect.

Flt Lt Roderick Learoyd of 49 Squadron

Acting Flight Lieutenant Learoyd was the pilot of the fifth aircraft scheduled to make the attack, which were organised in a predetermined sequence. Whilst circling waiting to attack, avoiding the flak as far as practicable, he was watching as two of the preceding aircraft were destroyed.

His citation reads:

This officer, as first pilot of a Hampden aircraft, has repeatedly shown the highest conception of his duty and complete indifference to personal danger in making attacks at the lowest altitudes regardless of opposition.

On the night of 12th August, 1940, he was detailed to attack a special objective on the Dortmund Ems Canal. He had attacked this objective on a previous occasion and was well aware of the risks entailed.

To achieve success it was necessary to approach from a direction well known to the enemy, through a lane of especially disposed anti-aircraft defences, and in the face of the most intense point-blank fire from guns of all calibres. The reception of the preceding aircraft might well have deterred the stoutest heart, all being hit and two lost.

Flight Lieutenant Learoyd nevertheless made his attack at 150 feet, his aircraft being repeatedly hit and large pieces of the main plane torn away. He was almost blinded by the glare of many searchlights at close range, but pressed home this attack with the greatest resolution and skill.

He subsequently brought his wrecked aircraft home and, as the landing flaps were inoperative and the undercarriage indicators out of action, waited for dawn in the vicinity of his aerodrome before landing, which he accomplished without causing injury to his crew or further damage to the aircraft.

The high courage, skill and determination, which this officer has invariably displayed on many occasions in the face of the enemy sets an example which is unsurpassed.

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