Kenneth Campbell attacks 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, after waiting for any other aircraft to arrive, 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 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.

Torpedoed and in lifeboats off the Hebrides

‘One of the crew saw a torpedo coming without any warning, and next moment the ship was blown up. In about half a minute she broke into two and commenced sinking amidships.’

Report of Pedir Dehlin (Weklin?) only surviving officer of the Norwegian ship SS Arne Kjode:

The Arne Kjode left Aruba, Venezuela, on 27th of October, and was blown up on 12th of November at 10 am, 30 miles west of the Hebrides. She was carrying a cargo of 14,200, tonnes of gas oil. She was bound for Nebord, Denmark. One of the crew saw a torpedo coming without any warning, and next moment the ship was blown up. In about half a minute she broke into two and commenced sinking amidships. The oil from [the] tanks was blowing right over [the] masthead.

The wireless broke and we could not send any S.O.S.

We lowered the starboard lifeboat which capsized owing to [the] very heavy sea – some 10 men were thrown into the water. The port boat was also lowered and picked up these men. At this time the sea was flattened by oil, though there was a very heavy swell. At this time that the captain was in the boat with myself and all the time we’re wanting to get back to the ship to collect anything to keep us warm, also the compass, which we had not got, but this was impossible owing to the heavy swell and the fact that the plates were so broken and the sea so rough that no boat could get alongside.

We bailed out the starboard boats and made sail, the port boat which had a compass towing the starboard boat towards land. We sailed and towed until about 10 pm when the sea got so rough the tow rope parted and we lost the other boat.

We then hove-to on a sea anchor which we carried in the boat. At that moment we saw a light on the north side of Hebrides. At sunrise we got our direction but saw no land. We sailed the whole day towards land but there was no sun and a strong shifting wind and very heavy sea was running. All this was through Monday, the 13th. On Monday night we had to heave-to again. Our only food through the day was two/three wet biscuits each and 2 gallons of fresh water. An aeroplane flew over us that night and we let go one of our rockets, without success. We lay to by sea anchor until Tuesday morning at about 10 am, when the wind began to a ease and we saw the sun. At this time we were steering by two oars, the rudder having been carried away by the big waves.

About 11 am a big wave came which capsized [the] boat and, after [this], 10 men clambered on the keel. We saw the captain and the steward hanging onto an oar about 100 yards from us, they soon disappeared and the galley boy who had broken his leg in the explosion, was drowned. The sailors then said they heard someone in the boat and afterwards we managed to work the boat round to proper keel and up came two young boys (15 years) still alive. One boy said “Don’t let [the] air go out” . We tried to bail the boat but the air tank on the port side was cracked. And only one oar was left to keep us head to sea.

About 1 pm, we saw an aeroplane which circled around us and I told the boys there was hope now of a destroyer coming. At 3 pm we saw a destroyer coming full speed and then we were saved with plenty of food and whiskey and most of us were half dead.

The destroyer went back to our ship which was still afloat astern and tried to take [it] in tow, but the tow broke, the back being broken. The rough log book was saved and handed to me.

The captain, steward, and three others were lost from my boat.

I have heard since that all 23 in the starboard boat have been picked up and are now safe at Stornoway.

See TNA ADM 199/141

A total of 55 Norwegian ships were lost during the period of the war when Norway remained neutral, at least 19 were sunk by U-boat. Both Venezuela and Denmark were also neutral at this time. The sinking of the SS Arne Kjode was to be cited as an ‘atrocity’ during the post-war Nuremburg trial of Admiral Donitz. He claimed that U-41 which sank her, had mistaken her a British ship.

More details of the ship and the fate of many others from the Norwegian merchant marine during the war are at Warsailors.com

The destroyer HMS Isis made the rescue and attempted to salvage the remains of the SS Arne Kjode on 15th November.