Piece for the Daily Express on 28 June 2012
DURING the Second World War members of Bomber Command were awarded 19 Victoria Crosses, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for bravery in the face of the enemy.
LORD ASHCROFT, the businessman, author and philanthropist, donated £1million so the memorial could be completed while some veterans of Bomber Command are still alive. Here he tells three of the VC winners’ remarkable stories…
SERGEANT NORMAN JACKSON
BY April 24, 1944, Sergeant Norman Jackson had completed his scheduled tour of 30 operations. However before taking leave he volunteered for one more sortie “for luck” on the night of April 26/7. Earlier in the day he had been told his wife had given birth to their first son and the crew decided to celebrate after the mission.
Jackson, 25, was the flight engineer in a Lancaster bomber that had been detailed to attack Schweinfurt.
After successfully dropping its bombs the aircraft was climbing out of the target area to return home when it was attacked by an enemy fighter at about 20,000ft. One of the many hits started a fire near a petrol tank on the upper surface of the Lancaster’s starboard wing. Jackson, who had been thrown to the floor by the blast and injured in his right leg from shell splinters, immediately sought the captain’s permission to try to put out the flames.
Pushing a hand fire-extinguisher into the top of his life-jacket and clipping on his parachute pack, Jackson jettisoned the escape hatch above the pilot’s head. He then started to climb out of the cockpit and back along the top of the fuselage to the starboard wing with the aircraft still flying at 200mph. However, before he got clear of the fuselage his parachute pack opened and the canopy and rigging lines spilled into the cockpit. In the dark and bitter cold he continued to crawl along the wing as the pilot, bomb aimer and navigator gathered the parachute and held on to the rigging lines, gradually paying them out.
Eventually he fell from the fuselage on to the wing. Although he clung on, the fire extinguisher was blown away.
By now his face, hands and clothing were severely burnt. Unable to retain his hold he was swept through the flames and over the trailing edge of the wing. As he fell his parachute inflated and was burning. He plummeted earthwards and landed heavily.
However, he only sustained a broken ankle on top of the severe burns which had closed his right eye and rendered his hands useless.
At daybreak, Jackson crawled to the nearest village where he was taken prisoner and paraded as a trophy captive through a nearby town. He had been one of five of his crew to survive, with the other four parachuting to safety. However, two crew, including one of his closest friends, perished.
After 10 months in a German hospital, he made a good recovery, although he never regained full use of his hands.
After two failed escape attempts, he returned to Britain on VE Day and was reunited with his wife and the son he had never seen.
His VC was announced on October 26, 1945. The citation said: “To venture outside when travelling at 200mph at an incredible height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat.
Had he succeeded in subduing the flames there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his parachute and risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.”
Jackson, who was promoted to warrant officer after returning to Britain, received his decoration on November 13, 1945. He was the first RAF flight engineer to receive the VC.
He worked as a sales executive after the war and died at Hampton Hill, Middlesex, on March 26, 1994, aged 74. His VC set the then world record price when it was sold at auction in 2004 for £200,000. In his book British VCs of World War 2, John Laffin says: “His exploit may have been the most amazing of the war and certainly it was the most unusual.”
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT RODERICK LEAROYD
On August 12, 1940, Flight Lieutenant Roderick “Babe” Learoyd was in one of 11 Hampden bomber aircraft from 49 and 83 Squadrons ordered to make low-level attacks on the Dortmund-Ems canal close to Mu¨nster.
Their target was the spot where the canal crossed the River Ems by means of two aqueducts. The aim was to paralyse the transport of raw materials.
The target had been damaged earlier but by the day of Learoyd’s mission the Germans had strengthened their defences. This was apparent as soon as the first four aircraft tried to hit the target: two were destroyed and the other two were badly damaged. Learoyd, 27, showed exceptional courage by dropping to a dangerously low level to have a better chance of hitting the target. His attack at 150ft was the most dangerous of all. His aircraft was repeatedly hit and large pieces blown away but he pressed home his attack with skill.
He brought his wrecked aircraft home and because the landing flaps were inoperative and undercarriage indicators out of action, he waited for dawn before landing, without causing injury to his crew.
His VC was announced on August 20, 1940. His citation said: “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… 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.” The damage caused by the Hampdens was so extensive that barge traffic was still being held up a month later.
Learoyd later said of the action: “To obtain the best possible view of the aqueduct, it was necessary to get it as directly as possible between us and the moon. So, coming down to 300ft at a distance of four or five miles north of the target, I commenced my run in, the aqueduct being clearly silhouetted against the light of the moon. Within a mile of the target I came down to 150ft. By this time, however, Jerry had got our range to a nicety and was blazing away with everything he’d got. The machine was repeatedly hit.”
His VC was presented on September 9, 1940, by which time he was a squadron leader. It was not until October 14, 1946, that, by now a wing commander, he was demobilised.
He joined the Malayan civil aviation authority but returned to Britain in 1950 and worked for a tractor and road construction company.
In 1953 he became sales manager for Austin Motor Company. He died in Rustington, Sussex, on January 24, 1994, aged 82.
FLYING OFFICER LESLIE MANSER
IN early 1942 Bomber Command had been having a torrid time with almost five per cent of its aircraft lost on major operations and fewer than one bomb in 10 falling within five miles of its target. After relatively successful raids against the cities of Rostock and Lu¨beck in March and April, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the new head of Bomber Command, had conceived a plan – Operation Millennium – whereby 1,000 bombers would attack a German city in one night.
By May 26 everything was in place. After three false starts targeting Bremen, Cologne was chosen to be bombed. Harris sent a message to all the aircrews which ended: “Let him [Jerry] have it – right on the chin.” The aircraft took off from 52 airfields, mainly in the east of England, on the night of May 30.
Flying Officer Leslie Manser, 20, of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), was captain and first pilot of one of the new Manchester bombers. As his aircraft was approaching its objective it was caught by searchlights and subjected to intense and accurate antiaircraft fire. Yet Manser held his dangerous course and bombed the target successfully from 7,000ft before setting his course for his return journey.
However, the Manchester had been damaged and was still under heavy fire so Manser took violent evasive action, turning and descending to under 1,000ft. It was to no avail and the searchlights and flak followed the aircraft until the outskirts of the city were passed. The aircraft was hit repeatedly and the rear gunner was wounded.
The cabin filled with smoke and the port engine was overheating but Manser took the aircraft up to 2,000ft. Then the port engine burst into fl ames. It was 10 minutes before the fi re could be brought under control but by this point the engine was past coaxing, part of one wing was burnt and the air-speed became dangerously low.
The Manchester began to lose height. Once again, Manser rejected the chance of parachuting to safety with his crew. Instead, he set a new course for the nearest base. When a crash was inevitable, he ordered his crew to bail out. A sergeant handed him a parachute but he waved it away saying: “I can only keep her steady for a few seconds more.
Jump now. Go on – jump!” As each crew member left, he gave them the thumbs up and shouted a cheerful, “Cheerio”. As the crew descended they saw the aircraft plunge to earth and burst into flames east of Bree, a Belgian village close to the Dutch border. Manser had inevitably died as it struck the ground.
Manser, who served with 50 Squadron, had sacrificed his life. All his five crew survived. The navigator injured himself when he landed and was captured but the others were hidden by villagers who arranged for them to be squirrelled back to Britain from Gibraltar.
Of the 1,046 aircraft on the mission, 989 claimed to have attacked their targets. In total, 1,455 tons of bombs were dropped and 600 acres of Cologne were destroyed.
Manser’s posthumous VC was announced on October 23, 1942, when his citation said: “In pressing home his attack in the face of strong opposition, in striving against heavy odds to bring back his aircraft and crew and finally, when in extreme peril, thinking only of the safety of his comrades, Flying Officer Manser displayed determination and valour of the highest order.”
His VC was presented to his family on March 3, 1943. At a small ceremony on May 31, 1965, at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, Cyril Manser, Leslie’s brother, presented the VC on loan to Wing Commander WJ Stacey of 50 Squadron. It was the first occasion at which the RAF was invited to take custody of a VC.
Read this story in the Daily Express.