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.
John Hannah 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.