Colchester, 3 August 2016
They were known in WW2 RAF parlance as "gardening" operations: using heavy bombers at low level to drop mines in the sea lanes of Germany and the occupied territories.
It would be a mistake to think they were a picnic, as you will gather from my picture.
This depicts a Short Stirling Mk III that was coned by searchlights and hit by flak while minelaying at Brest on the Brittany Coast on the night of 23/24 June 1944.
The aircraft is LK386, OJ-O of 149 Squadron whose motto was Fortis nocte ("Strong by night").
Four years earlier in his wartime RAF career the pilot, Pilot Officer Sidney Edward Lucas RAFVR, had flown Hurricane fighters in the Battle of Britain.
The Short Stirling, ungainly on the ground and relatively slow flying, was however remarkably manoeuvrable in the air. Usually this was a redundant, even undesirable quality in a heavy bomber but on this occasion – coupled no doubt with Lucas's previous experience – it probably helped them to escape. He dived the big airframe almost to sea level to shake off the Germans' attention, then headed back to England.
My picture was commissioned by the son of the flight engineer that night, who was Sgt Ronald Vivian French RAFVR. He and the bomb aimer had been wounded by shrapnel but the rest of the crew did not realise how badly Sgt French had been hurt until he collapsed when he tried to return to his instrument panel.
After regaining the south coast of England they made for RAF Hartford Bridge (now Blackbushe aerodrome) in Hampshire. On touchdown at 0357 the hydraulic brake pressure was insufficient to prevent the Stirling from running off the end of the runway: the tall undercarriage collapsed and the wreckage caught fire.
Sgt French was too badly injured to make his escape with the other six. The Wireless Operator, Flt Sgt Donald Houssemayne Du Boulay* of the Royal Australian Air Force, dragged him through the fuselage and passed him out through the rear door, and he survived.
Du Boulay was awarded the British Empire Medal (Military Division) for this action, Sgt French the Distinguished Flying Medal and Pilot Officer Lucas the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In my research I could not be absolutely sure from the given co-ordinates which German gun batteries were involved so I had to use some artistic licence in the depiction. But this was a very heavily fortified coast.
There were two batteries just to the west on the Crozon peninsula to protect the approaches to the major naval base at Brest. As well as these, mobile searchlight and anti-aircraft units were deployed.
OJ-O was one of four 149 Squadron Stirlings that were sent on the operation. According to 149 Squadron historian Alan Fraser, it followed a bombing raid on the Brest harbour area, so the flak gunners had had plenty of time to "get their eye in".
The Stirlings were led in by OJ-C, which had a clear run according to the wireless operator in OJ-B, which went in next, Sgt Ted Sweet. In his book, Enemy Below! (Square One Publications, 1991), he described their approach height of 3,000ft as "suicidal".
He wrote: "The sky suddenly lit up brilliantly with a score of searchlights, which could not fail to lock onto us accurately. All around us erupted into Flack bursts. Dull red flashes were followed by black smoke."
Sweet witnessed Stirling EF188, OJ-M, streaming flames and going down. According to French observers, it lit up the church steeple as it flew low over the village of Ploumoguer, west of Brest, before crashing into the first floor of a farmhouse nearby.
The bomber's fuel tanks erupted in a fireball. The seven crew were all killed as were three small children and a young farmhand. The farmer, Jean-Francois Bleas, was badly burned and died the next night.
* While researching this work I came across a terrific, characterful portrait of Du Boulay by Wayne Dowsent. According to him, the wireless operator survived the war but died of cancer aged just 35.
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