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.

18 year old Sergeant Hannah wins the Victoria Cross

Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampden being bombed up, 2 August 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Handley Page Hampdens in flight, seen from the ventral gun position of one of the aircraft, 1940.
Pilot Officer Connor points out the damage to the Hampden which he brought back after Sergeant Hannah had successfully fought the fire.

The relatively small RAF Bomber Command was nothing like the force it would become in just a few years time. It was only equipped with twin engined medium bombers that would very soon be regarded as obsolete. Yet, with fear of an invasion of Britain at its height, RAF Bomber Command was given a task regarded as at least as important as defending the skies above Britain – it was sent out, night after night, to do as much damage as possible to the naval forces that Hitler had gathered for the cross channel attack.

Most of these targets were very well defended. There was no shortage of bravery amongst the aircrew that had to face them.

Sergeant John Hannah was 18 when he became one of the youngest recipients of the Victoria Cross. The original recommendation for the award reads:

On the night of September 15/16th., Sergeant Hannah was the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner of an aircraft detailed to carry out operations on enemy barge concentrations at Antwerp.

After completing a successful attack on the target, his aircraft was subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire, during the course of which the bomb compartment received a direct hit. A fire started and quickly enveloped the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner’s and Rear Gunner’s cockpits. Both the port and starboard petrol tanks were also pierced, thus causing grave risk of fire spreading still further.

Sergeant Hannah succeeded in forcing his way through the fire in order to grab two extinguishers. He then discovered that the Rear Gunner was missing. Quite undaunted he fought the fire for 10 minutes, and when the fire extinguishers were exhausted he beat the flames with his log book. During this time, ammunition from the gunner’s magazines was exploding in all directions. In spite of this and the fact that he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, he succeeded in controlling and eventually putting out the fire. During the process of fighting the flames, he had turned on his oxygen to assist him in his efforts.

On instructions from his pilot, Sergeant Hannah then crawled forward to ascertain if the navigator was alright, only to find that he also was missing. He informed his pilot and passed up the navigator’s log and maps, stating that he was quite alright himself, in spite of burns and exhaustion from the heat and fumes.

An inspection of the aircraft reveals the conditions under which Sergeant Hannah was working. The sides of the fuselage were ripped away by enemy action and exploding bullets. Metal was distorted and the framework scorched by the intense heat. The two carrier pigeons were completed roasted. His own parachute was burned out.

During this operation, in which he received second degree burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah displayed outstanding coolness, courage and devotion to duty of the very highest order. By his action he not only saved the life of his pilot, but enabled his aircraft to be flown back safely to its base without any further damage.

Sergeant Hannah has completed a total of 74 hours flying as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on 11 Operational flights against the enemy.

TNA AIR 2/5686

The citation that was published to mark the award of the Victoria Cross was substantially the same, although it omitted reference to the ‘completely roasted’ carrier pigeons.

Sergeant Hannah won the Victoria Cross and Pilot Officer Connor the D.F.C. after bringing their stricken Hampden bomber back to base.

John Hannah’s had been badly injured, far more than seems apparent from this photograph. His health was severely affected and, after contracting tuberculosis, he was eventually discharged from the RAF with a disability pension in 1942. He was unable to work full time and he struggled to support his family. He died in 1947.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson wins V.C.

Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON V.C.

Twenty three year old Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson won the only V.C. of the Battle of Britain on 16th August 1940. His aircraft was set on fire during an action with the enemy near Southampton, he was about to bale out when he saw an Me 109 and settled back into the burning cockpit to shoot it down:

Flight Lieutenant James Brindley NICOLSON (39329) No. 249 Squadron.

During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August, 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs.

Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.

It was perhaps an unexceptional act of bravery amongst so many fighting to defend Britain that summer – yet it was unique because it was witnessed by a number of people on the ground. The need for witnesses to corroborate individual acts of bravery meant that very few RAF crew were nominated for an award of valour. Nicolson was the only fighter pilot to receive the award during the Second World War. He was also one of only two recipients to win the award whilst in British territory, the other being Leading Seaman Jack Mantle of HMS Foylebank on 4th July 1940.

Nicolson was wounded in the eye and foot in the first attack that set his aircraft on fire, and his hands were so badly burnt that he was unable to release his parachute once he landed. Yet his ordeal was not over – he was peppered in the leg by a shotgun fired by an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard who was the first to approach him.

He made a good recovery and was extremely modest about the award – he had to be reminded that it was a discipline offence to be improperly dressed when he was slow to sow the medal ribbon onto his uniform.

Nicolson was later promoted to Wing Commander. He died in May 1945 whilst an observer on an aircraft that crashed into the sea off Burma.


Royal Navy Bomb Disposal, 1940 – detonating a charge against an unexploded bomb at a distance. Attached to the charge is a cable 800 yards long. Under cover of a bank Lieut West fires the charge by a dynamo charge.

On the night of the 16th-17th August 1940 a parachute mine fell on Bere Farm in North Boarhunt, a village outside Portsmouth. There was a small explosion when it landed and it was soon located by members of the Home Guard.

This was one of the incidents handled by bomb disposal specialist Leonard Walden, for which he would be later awarded the George Medal. Walden, a veteran of the First world War, had been Chief Laboratory Assistant at the Royal Ordnance College, Woolwich before being transferred to the Royal Navy’s Mine and Torpedo Establishment at HMS Vernon, Portsmouth at the beginning of the war.

Something was odd about this mine. After a few days of being worked on, the Admiralty came to the conclusion that it had been dropped with the deliberate intention of blowing up their mine disposal experts. Not only was it dropped close to their home base of HMS Vernon, but the mine was not actually a mine at all. There was no magnetic unit and no clock, so it could not have been used against shipping. However it did contain three elaborate booby traps, one of which went off by accident on impact. Walden was one of those involved in investigating this mine.

On the same day the Boarhunt mine fell, another was reported unexploded at Piddlehinton, Dorset. Commander Thistleton-Smith, along with a mine disposal officer named Anderson, and Leonard Walden inspected the mine where it lay. Again there was no clock or bomb fuze fitted. The mine was rolled over (it had landed at the top of a grassy meadow and had already rolled down it, so rolling it over again was not thought too risky).

The mine was then photographed from all angles. Anderson removed the detonator and primer, having assumed that any booby traps would be hidden in a less obvious place. A hole was then cut in the mine’s casing using a trepanner. This cutting tool was made of non-magnetic materials so that it could be used on magnetic mines and was driven by compressed air. After some time a four-inch circular hole had nearly been cut through the casing.

Walden finished the job by hand using a hacksaw blade, being careful not to let the blade go too deep into the mine’s casing. Once they had access to the inside of the mine they could see the battery power source and the electrical leads connected to it. These wires were cut and insulated. Now the electrically-operated booby trap was not able to function. However, it was believed that a mechanically operated one still existed at the rear ofthe mine. Due to the casing having strengthening ribs, this area would be difcult to drill through.

A parachute mine after being defused and partially dismantled by the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal Team

At this point the men had already spent six days working on the mine. They decided that they would use plastic explosive to open up the rear door of the mine. This task was given to Chief Petty Officer Thorns who was in attendance with a small working party. Having lit the fuze, the men took cover in a slit trench dug in an adjoining eld and waited for the bang. After the charge went off, the men took the precaution ofwaiting a few seconds before approaching the mine. As they got to within about fifty yards from the mine, it suddenly exploded!

of mine and clumps of earth showered down around the men, who were now at on the ground. The heavy battery landed only a yard in front of Thistleton-Smith, and the weighty parachute shackle on their lorry a hundred yards away. It appeared that the booby trap had worked but they were not sure of the reason for the delay. All the pieces were gathered up and taken back to HMS Vernon for analysis? As well as Walden, Thistleton-Smith and A.B. William Comfort were awarded George Medals for their work on these mines.

Investigating mines at HMS Vernon proved problematical. A mine recovered from Birchington in Kent was thought to have had the sting taken out of it. Unfortunately a concealed booby trap detonated as the mine was being stripped down inside Vern0n’s mining shed. A number of men were killed and injured. The booby trap had not detonated the main charge. Had it done so, then HMS Vernon would have been severely damaged.

A mine that has been washed up explodes.

After a rethink, a site for investigating mines, ‘HMS Mirtle’ (so named after the first three letters, standing for Mine Investigation Range), was located in an old quarry at Buriton. This secret establishment was nestled in the rolling hills of the South Downs not far from Portsmouth.

Walden’s work took him to Mirtle often. On 31 October 1940 he was accompanying a dockyard driver, transporting the first acoustic mine to be recovered from HMS Vernon to Mirtle. As they drove up the hill approaching HMS Mirtle the driver was forced to change down a gear. As he did so the lorry lurched. The mine broke free, fell out of the back of the lorry, and rolled off back down the road. Walden was quoted later as saying, ‘If ever a mine should have gone off — it was down that hillside!

The same day, some components removed from that mine arrived at Mirtle from Porthcawl, the place where it originally came down. These parts included the six-lead clock, bomb fuze and primer release mechanism. Walden and Anderson inspected the parts of the mine and found that it had not exploded because the primer had not released owing to a distorted spindle.

The two men suspected the mine was booby-trapped and it was Walden who first heard the very faint ticking sound coming from within the mine. From previous experience of the clocks in mines, Walden and Anderson guessed that this clock was set to run for six days from when it was dropped. They calculated that, if that was the case, they had a day or so to strip the mine before it exploded. However, they were aware that there might also be a mechanical booby trap similar to the one that went off in the mining shed at Vernon.

They cut a hole in the casing and the ticking became more audible. More holes were cut so the wiring became accessible. Batteries were found and wires were cut, and though the ticking continued, the men were satised that no circuit would be completed once the clock stopped.

As predicted, on 3 November, the men found the ticking had stopped without any detonation. Then the rear door of the mine was removed using specialist tools that meant that nobody had to be close to the mine. Again, no explosion and the men for the first time saw the acoustic unit designed by the Germans that would detonate the mine on the sound of ship’s engines pulsing through water.

As a result of this discovery British minesweepers were fitted with Kango vibrating hammers in compartments attached beneath their keels. These were set to a pitch that would detonate the mines at a safe distance.

Reproduced from Chris Ransted: Bomb Disposal in WWII by kind permission of the publishers.

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.

Captain Wilson defends Observation Hill

The British Somaliland Camel Corps was led by 14 British officers. Although only lightly armed they inflicted significant casualties on the invading Italians.

In British Somaliland a fighting retreat was being conducted in the face of the superior forces of the invading Italians, who had crossed the border on [permalink id=7062 text=’3rd August’].

The gap in the hills at Tug Argan provided a natural defensive position.

A stand was made at the Tug Argan Gap on 11th August where the 27 year old acting Captain Wilson deployed his Somaliland Camel Corps machine gun sections. He was wounded by artillery fire that killed some of those around him but continued to lead resistance from the position. He never received orders that were issued to withdraw on the 13th. He was finally knocked unconscious by an assault on the position on the 15th August. His citation reads:

The KING has been pleased to approve of the award of The Victoria Cross to: – Lieutenant (acting Captain) Eric Charles Twelves Wilson, The East Surrey Regiment (attached Somaliland Camel Corps).

For most conspicuous gallantry on active service in Somaliland. Captain Wilson was in command of machine-gun posts manned by Somali soldiers in the key position of Observation Hill, a defended post in the defensive organisation of the Tug Argan Gap in British Somaliland. The enemy attacked Observation Hill on August 11th, 1940. Captain Wilson and Somali gunners under his command beat off the attack and opened fire on the enemy troops attacking Mill Hill, another post within his range.

He inflicted such heavy casualties that the enemy, determined to put his guns out of action, brought up a pack battery to within seven hundred yards, and scored two direct hits through the loopholes of his defences, which, bursting within the post, wounded Captain Wilson severely in the right shoulder and in the left eye, several of his team also being wounded. His guns were blown off their stands but he repaired and replaced them and, regardless of his wounds, carried on, whilst his Somali sergeant was killed beside him.

On August 12th and 14th the enemy again concentrated field artillery fire on Captain Wilson’s guns, but he continued, with his wounds attended, to man them. On August 15th two of his machine-gun posts were blown to pieces, yet Captain Wilson, now suffering from malaria in addition to wounds, still kept his own post in action. The enemy finally over-ran the post at 5 p.m. on the 15th August when Captain Wilson, fighting to the last, was killed.

The London Gazette: 14 OCTOBER, 1940

In fact Captain Wilson had survived, coming round amidst a pile of bodies he emerged to be taken prisoner. The British authorities were not made aware of his survival until he was liberated from a POW camp in 1941 and he did not receive his Victoria Cross from the King at Buckingham Palace until 1942. The publicity surrounding the award of the ‘posthumous VC’ convinced many people that he was dead and he was subsequently accused of being an imposter on at least one occasion.

Wilson went on to serve with the Long Range Desert Group and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel. He died in 2008, aged 96, following a career with the Colonial Service.

HMS Foylebank bombed in Portland Harbour

HMS Foyle Bank Anti Aircraft ship
The auxiliary AA ship HMS FOYLE BANK, a former grain carrier converted to an Anti-Aircraft ship, on which Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross

On the morning of the 4th July 1940 the auxiliary AA ship FOYLE BANK, anchored off the breakwater within Portland Harbour, was attacked by 33 Ju87 divebombers.

Naval Harbourmaster Edward Palmer was on duty in Portland harbour

I was proceeding down the inside harbour at about 08.30 in the morning, a lovely day, a normal day. I noticed the guard ship was flying the yellow flag, [Yellow flags were for aircraft reported, Red flags were for Air raid imminent] but did not take much notice, for she had been flying that on a number of days lately.

When out of the sun they came, enemy dive bombers. Diving straight down onto the guard ship, machine gunning and bombing. Hell let loose, about 20 planes, they appeared to have caught us napping. I immediately told my crew that we were going in to pick up the hands and ratings who were jumping and being blown into the water alongside of her. There was a barge with work people alongside of Foyle Bank, a bomb dropped alongside the barge turning it upside down.

We got in alongside started to pick up the survivors and dive bombers kept coming, machine gunning and bombing, lifting the launch almost out of the water. Well we loaded the hands on board until we could not carry any more and made for the nearest jetty. Some of the poor fellows were in a sad mess. We landed as quickly as we could and went back for more. By this time the enemy dive bombers had done what they had come to do, the Foyle Bank was on fire and sinking. She went down later in the day. The Lord looked after us that day.

Edward Sidney Palmer won the British Empire medal for his work that day. His full story is at Eddie Palmer.

Launches go to the rescue of survivors from the Foyle Bank as she is dive bombed and machine gunned in Portland harbour.

During the action Leading Seaman Jack Mantle won the Victoria Cross. His citation reads:

Leading Seaman Jack Mantle was in charge of the Starboard pom‑pom when FOYLEBANK was attacked by enemy aircraft on the 4th of July, 1940. Early in the action his left leg was shattered by a bomb, but he stood fast at his gun and went on firing with hand-gear only; for the ship’s electric power had failed. Almost at once he was wounded again in many places. Between his bursts of fire he had time to reflect on the grievous injuries of which he was soon to die; but his great courage bore him up till the end of the fight, when he fell by the gun he had so valiantly served.

The London Gazette, Tuesday 3 September, 1940

See also BBC Peoples war for an account of the raising of HMS Foylebank.

HMS Foylebank was apparently hit by a total of 22 bombs. With one of the attackers shot down, she sank to the bottom with 176 men killed out of a total crew of 19 officers and 279 other ranks.

The BEF start to withdraw

Bomb craters on aerial picture of Arreux
The village of Arreux, with bomb craters beside the roads following an attack by Blenheims of 82 Squadron, 15th May in an attack on German road transport- illustrating the difficulty conventional bombers faced in dealing with such targets.

Meanwhile the situation was rapidly changing for the British Expeditionary Force. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came into contact with the enemy for the first time and then found themselves withdrawing:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Wednesday 15th May.

About 9.30 a.m. the C.O. arrived with the message that “B” Company was going forward to Ottenburg to become Brigade Reserve. I went on with C.O., saw the new area, and the company marched up. Whilst visiting had lunch in the W. [?] mess. Ottenburg shelled steadily all day, but quite light stuff. Took Hughes up as runner. His and my first experience of shelling. Did not care much for the position. Kerr, on the right, was isolated, forward up the road, with Fleming behind him about 1/2 a mile and 10 Pl on the left. The previous Company had obviously left in a great hurry, not having time to collect all their kit. Company H.Q. was extremely comfortable and we looked forward to a good night. Did not keep any tpt [transport] forward except for the 8cwt. Continue reading “The BEF start to withdraw”

Death of a Danish hero – Anders Lassen VC

Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.
Corporal Aubrey of the SBS (Special Boat Service) sharpens his fighting knife as he prepares for combat.

On the night of 8th – 9th April 1945 eighteen men from the Special Boat Service set out across Lake Comacchio to attack heavily defended German positions. The assault was led by a Danish national, 24 year old Major Anders Lassen, already a legend within the British Special Forces, three times decorated with the Military Cross for his exploits during raiding parties on enemy occupied ships and positions.

He was originally recruited by the Special Operations Executive after he arrived in Britain as a merchant seaman in 1940. They judged his independent character unsuitable for covert spying but well suited to raiding and patrolling. He began his career for the British with a raid on a Spanish ship in African waters – and then graduated to the Small Scale Raiding Force which made covert cross Channel raids on the Channel Islands and the French coast, before joining the new Special Boat Service in the Mediterranean in 1942.

A recent biography of Lassen has collected a number of recollections by men who served with him:

He had the character of a first rate soldier and reacted in a flash. I never saw Andy hesitate to open fire, and as such he could have been labeled a killing machine; but that was the only way to survive.

one of those people who are quite fearless and also, at times, quite ruthless, a potential berserker. A truly heroic figure in the Iliadic sense, the sheer force of his personality meant that uneducated Greeks could usually understand him, even though he spoke only a few words of their language. This struck me quite strongly during the hours I was with him. He was tall and blonde and intrepid-looking, but the Nazi occupation of Denmark had made him a bit unbalanced in certain respects.

Thus it was that while he and his sergeant were going through the small rooms of the German and Italian barrack-building outside Phira, a couple of nights before, Lassen had orders his companions to wake up the sleeping enemy soldiers before cutting their throats, so that they should know what was happening to them. The sergeant had refused. Nothing was said at the time, but when I met up with the party at the Perissa monastery Lassen was insisting on putting his sergeant on a charge for disobeying orders. The other officers had tried to dissuade him without much success.

He told me about the incident at some length, during our leisurely afternoon together; naturally I too advised him to calm down, that the sergeant had after all been completely right. Eventually he did calm down, or at least not press the charge, but it reminded one that war was a dirty business all right.

A very youthful looking person with a gentle voice; which gave a somewhat false impression of him! I still believe that he was one of the toughest and bravest men I have ever had the honour of knowing. Even in the SBS (the British Special Boat Service), which were handpicked, hardened men who hit the Germans hard with everything they had at each given opportunity, he succeeded in standing out. I can’t imagine any higher praise.

Read more of these accounts in Anders Lassen’s War, there are more stories and excerpts on the website of author Thomas Harder.

The night of 8th/9th April, fifth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Denmark, saw Lassen’s luck run out. He was killed after approaching a German machine gun nest that was apparently surrendering. Nevertheless his raiding force had achieved their objective, simulating a much larger attack and diverting German attention from the main attack that was to follow.

Anders Lassen, VC
Anders Lassen, VC

This is the citation for the Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Lassen for the action on the 8/9th April 1945:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to: Major (temporary) Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau LASSEN, M.C. (234907), General List. In Italy, on the night of 8/9 April 1945, Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.

No previous reconnaissance was possible, and the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged after approximately 500 yards from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion by answering that they were fishermen returning home failed, for when moving forward again to overpower the sentry, machinegun fire started from the position, and also from two other blockhouses to the rear. Major Lassen himself then attacked with grenades, and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machineguns.

Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping fire road from three enemy positions, an additional one having come into action from 300 yards down the road, he raced forward to engage the second position under covering fire from the remainder of the force. Throwing in- more grenades he silenced this position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced. By this time the force had suffered casualties and its firepower was very considerably reduced.

Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and reorganised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward himself he flung in more grenades which produced a cry of ” Kamerad “. He then went forward to within three or four yards of the position to order the enemy outside, and to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of spandau fire from the left of the position and he fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants, and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position.

Major Lassen refused to be evacuated as he said it would impede the withdrawal and endanger further lives, and as ammunition was nearly exhausted the force had to withdraw. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Lassen had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects.

Three positions were wiped out, accounting for six machine guns, killing eight and wounding others of the enemy, and two prisoners were taken. The high sense of devotion to duty and the esteem in which he was held by the men he led, added to his own magnificent courage, enabled Major Lassen to carry out all the tasks he had been given with complete success.

'Fantails' or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.
‘Fantails’ or Buffalo amphibians transport German prisoners through a flooded landscape south of Lake Comacchio, 11 April 1945.

Individual attacks make the difference on two fronts

Ram Kangaroo personnel carriers carrying troops of the 9th Durham Light Infantry near Weske, 31 March 1945.
Ram Kangaroo personnel carriers carrying troops of the 9th Durham Light Infantry near Weske, 31 March 1945.
Comet tanks of 11th Armoured Division advance towards Osnabruck, 2 - 3 April 1945.
Comet tanks of 11th Armoured Division advance towards Osnabruck, 2 – 3 April 1945.
A long column of German POWs captured on the outskirts of Munster, 2 April 1945.
A long column of German POWs captured on the outskirts of Munster, 2 April 1945.
A Cromwell tank crew of 11th Armoured Division prepare a quick meal during the advance towards Osnabruck, 2 - 3 April 1945.
A Cromwell tank crew of 11th Armoured Division prepare a quick meal during the advance towards Osnabruck, 2 – 3 April 1945.

The push into Germany was now gathering pace, with the defences encountered being very unpredictable. The situation in Italy was very similar. Two British soldiers were to make courageous attacks of a very similar nature, fate dealt very different outcomes to the two individuals .

Corporal Edward Chapman VC
Corporal Edward Chapman VC

On 2nd April 1945, a Company of the Monmouthshire Regiment crossed the Dortmund- Ems canal and was ordered to assault the ridge of the Teutoberger Wald, which dominates the surrounding country. This ridge is steep thickly wooded and is ideal defensive country. It was, moreover, defended by a battalion of German officer cadets and their instructors, all of them picked men and fanatical Nazis.

Corporal Chapman was advancing with his section in single file along a narrow track when the enemy suddenly opened fire with machine guns at short range, inflicting heavy casualties and causing some confusion. Corporal Chapman immediately ordered his section to take cover and, seizing the Bren gun, he advanced alone, firing the gun from his hip, and mowed down the enemy at point blank range, forcing them to retire in disorder. At this point, however, his Company was ordered to withdraw but Corporal Chapman and his section were still left in their advanced position, as the order could not be got forward to them.

The enemy then began to close up to Corporal Chapman and his isolated section and, under cover of intense machine gun fire, they made determined charges with the bayonet. Corporal Chapman again rose with his Bren gun to meet the assaults and on each occasion halted their advance. He had now nearly run out of ammunition. Shouting to his section for more bandoliers, he dropped into a fold in the ground and covered those bringing up the ammunition by lying on his back and firing the Bren gun over his shoulder.

A party of Germans made every effort to eliminate him with grenades, but with reloaded magazine he closed with them and once again drove the enemy back with considerable casualties. During the withdrawal of his Company, the Company Commander had been severely wounded and left lying in the open a short distance from Corporal Chapman.

Satisfied that his section was now secure, at any rate for the moment, he went out alone under withering fire and carried his Company Commander for 50 yards to comparative safety. On the way a sniper hit the officer again, wounding Corporal Chapman in the hip and, when he reached our lines, it was discovered that the officer had been killed. In spite of his wound, Corporal Chapman refused to be evacuated and went back to his Company until the position was fully restored two hours later.

Throughout the action Corporal Chapman displayed outstanding gallantry and superb courage. Single-handed he repulsed the attacks of well-led, determined troops and gave his battalion time to reorganise on a vital piece of ground overlooking the only bridge across the canal. His magnificent bravery played a very large part in the capture of this vital ridge and in the successful development of subsequent operations.

Marine Corporal Thomas Hunter V.C,
Marine Corporal Thomas Hunter V.C,

The late Corporal (Temporary) Thomas Peck HUNTER, CH/X. 110296, Royal Marines (attached Special Service Troops) (43rd Royal Marine Commando) (Edinburgh).

In Italy during the advance by the Commando to its final objective, Corporal Hunter of “C” Troop was in charge of a Bren group of the leading sub-section of the Commando. Having advanced to within 400 yards of the canal, he observed the enemy were holding a group of houses South of the canal.

Realising that his Troop behind him were in the open, as the country there was completely devoid of cover, and that the enemy would cause heavy casualties as soon as they opened fire, Corporal Hunter seized the Bren gun and charged alone across two hundred yards of open ground. Three Spandaus from the houses, and at least six from the North bank of the canal opened fire and at the same time the enemy mortars started to fire at the Troop.

Corporal Hunter attracted most of the fire, and so determined was his charge and his firing from the hip that the enemy in the houses became demoralised. Showing complete disregard for the intense enemy fire, he ran through the houses, changing magazines as he ran, and alone cleared the houses. Six Germans surrendered to him and the remainder fled across a footbridge onto the North bank of the canal.

The Troop dashing up behind Corporal Hunter now became the target for all the Spandaus on the North of the canal. Again, offering himself as a target, he lay in full view of the enemy on a heap of rubble and fired at the concrete pillboxes on the other side. He again drew most of the fire, but by now the greater part of the Troop had made for the safety of the houses. During this period he shouted encouragement to the remainder, and called only for more Bren magazines with which he could engage the Spandaus. Firing with great accuracy up to the last, Corporal Hunter was finally hit in the head by a burst of Spandau fire and killed instantly.

There can be no doubt that Corporal Hunter offered himself as a target in order to save his Troop, and only the speed of his movement prevented him being hit earlier. The skill and accuracy with which he used his Bren gun is proved by the way he demoralised the enemy, and later did definitely silence many of the Spandaus firing on his Troop as they crossed open ground, so much so that under his covering fire elements of the Troop made their final objective before he was killed.

Throughout the operation his magnificent courage, leadership and cheerfulness had been an inspiration to his comrades.

Commando signallers prepare to release a carrier pigeon, Lake Comacchio area, 4 April 1945.
Commando signallers prepare to release a carrier pigeon, Lake Comacchio area, 4 April 1945.
A British Bren gun crew keep watch in a trench at Anzio.
A British Bren gun crew keep watch in a trench at Anzio.

Trawler Captain wins the Victoria Cross

heinkel 115 floatplane
A Heinkel 115, a German float plane of the type shot down by HMS Arab

Lieutenant R. B. Stannard was in command of the Anti-Submarine Trawler H.M.S. Arab that was part of a force sent to Namsos in late April. A series of heroic actions over the 5 day period that he was there would win him the Victoria Cross. His own report to the Admiralty provides a detailed account of those actions, the final episode occurred just as he was leaving the Fjord: Continue reading “Trawler Captain wins the Victoria Cross”