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.
The citation for the Victoria Cross:
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.