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. Three torpedo bombers would follow this wave and attack the Gneisenau.

Bad weather caused the six aircraft in the raid to become separated. Kenneth Campbell, flying a torpedo bomber as part of the second wave, 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.

Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.

Tracer from German anti-aircraft gun fire (flak) vividly depicted in a vertical aerial photograph taken over the Port Militaire, Brest, France, during a night raid, possibly that of 4/5 January 1941.

Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This officer was the pilot of a Beaufort aircraft of Coastal Command which was detailed to attack an enemy battle cruiser in Brest Harbour at first light on the morning of 6th April 1941. The aircraft did not return but it is known that a torpedo attack was carried out with the utmost daring. The battle cruiser was secured alongside the wall on the north shore of the harbour, protected by a stone mole bending around it from the west. On rising ground behind the ship stood protective batteries of guns. Other batteries were clustered thickly round the two arms of land which encircle the outer harbour. In this outer harbour near the mole were moored three heavily armed anti-aircraft ships, guarding the battle cruiser. Even if an aircraft succeeded in penetrating these formidable defences, it would be almost impossible, after delivering a low-level attack, to avoid crashing into the rising ground beyond.

This was well known to Flying Officer Campbell who, despising the heavy odds, went cheerfully and resolutely to the task. He ran the gauntlet of the defences. Coming in at almost sea level, he passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast-height in the very mouths of their guns and skimming over the mole launched a torpedo at point-blank range.

The battle cruiser was severely damaged below the water-line and was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, Flying Officer Campbell 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.

Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.

Portrait of Kenneth Campbell RAF, awarded the Victoria Cross: France, 6 April 1941.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Burton April 6, 2016 at 2:13 pm

What brave men!

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.

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