Kenneth Campbell attacks the Gneisenau

The Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber used by RAF Coastal Command.

After the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau arrived in the port of Brest the RAF had mounted a series of bombing attacks, none of which brought conclusive results. Coastal Command now ordered an “at all costs” attack using three aircraft carrying mines to first breach the expected torpedo nets and to silence the flak ships. Following this wave were to be three torpedo bombers who would then attack the Gneisenau.

Bad weather caused the six aircraft in the raid to become separated. Kenneth Campbell arrived at the grouping point off the harbour alone and no other aircraft joined him. He then launched a single aircraft attack against the target knowing that the defences had not been eliminated. He flew directly into one of the most heavily defended targets in the whole of Europe, encircled with up to one thousand anti-aircraft and other guns.

Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell was the pilot of a Beaufort aircraft detailed to attack an enemy battle cruiser in Brest Harbour at first light on the morning of the 6th April, 1941. The ship was in a position protected by a stone mole bending round it, and rising ground behind on which stood batteries of guns.

Other batteries clustered thickly round the two arms of land which encircled the outer harbour, while three heavily armed anti-aircraft ships moored nearby guarded the cruiser. Even if an aircraft penetrated these formidable defences it would be almost impossible, after attacking at low level, to avoid crashing into the rising ground beyond.

Knowing all this, Flying Officer Campbell ran the gauntlet of the defences and launched a torpedo at point blank range, severely damaging the battle cruiser below water line, so that she was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before. By pressing home the attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire, on a course fraught with extreme peril, this officer displayed valour of the highest order.

London Gazette, 13th March, 1942

The torpedo put the Gneisenau out of operation for six months. Flying Officer Campbell VC and his crew of Sergeant J P Scott RCAF, Sergeant W C Mulliss and Sergeant R W Hillman rest in Kerfautras Cemetery in Brest.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kenneth Ballantyne November 16, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Thank you for this. Kenneth’s VC is possibly the least known RAF VC of WW2 and it is so good, and important, that the account of his courage and that of his crew is not forgotten. It is though sad that his crew did not receive the DFM, in the same way that LAC Lawrence Reynolds, the gunner in the Fairey Battle of Garland VC & Gray VC, was not recognised. I have no doubt that the decision to attack the Gneisenau was not Kenneth’s alone but a joint decision of all the crew. They all knew that if they did, there was almost certainly no way back. We will remember them.

Ann Parkhouse November 14, 2014 at 11:53 pm

Ralph Walter Hillman, my uncle, a much loved brother to my mother , Betty. My family and I will never forget the sacrifice he and the other members of the crew made.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: