ILLUSTRATIONs: Sharif Tarabay
All three Canadian airmen awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II were cited for their valour within two months of each other during the summer of 1944–all of them posthumously. They were Andrew Charles Mynarski, on the night of June 12-13, David Ernest Hornell, June 24, and Ian Willoughby Bazalgette, Aug. 4.
Mynarski earned the decoration while serving as a mid-upper air gunner in a Lancaster bomber with 419 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, at Middleton St. George in Yorkshire. Hornell was awarded the VC while attached to 162 Squadron, RCAF, as captain of a twin-engine amphibian aircraft flying out of Wick, in northern Scotland. Bazalgette earned his VC as a flight commander with 635 (Pathfinder) Sqdn., Royal Air Force.
Son of Polish immigrants, Mynarski was born on Oct. 14, 1916, in Winnipeg where he was educated at King Edward and Isaac Newton schools, following which he took a job as a leather worker to help support his family after his father died. In 1940, he joined the Winnipeg Rifles militia unit. The following year he enlisted in the RCAF and graduated as an air gunner in 1942 before proceeding overseas. After operational instruction he was posted to 9 Sqdn., RAF, before transferring to 419 Sqdn. on April 10, 1944.
Hornell was born in Mimico, Ont., on Jan. 26, 1910, and was educated at John English High School, Mimico High School and Western Technical School. Upon graduation he worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. He joined the RCAF in 1941. On Sept. 25 he received his pilot’s wings and was selected for Coastal Command duties. After further instruction at Charlottetown, P.E.I., and a stint at an air force station on Vancouver Island, he was posted to 162 Sqdn., which in January 1944 was sent to Reykjavik, Iceland, for anti-submarine patrol duty. That spring, with heavy U-boat activity off the north coast of Scotland, a detachment from the squadron was posted to Wick. Hornell and his crew arrived there on June 3.
Bazalgette was born in Calgary on Oct. 19, 1918, the son of an army pensioner who had been gassed at Ypres, Belgium. In 1923, the family moved to Toronto where he received his early education at Balmy Beach School. After the family moved again, this time to England, he completed his education at Rokeby, the Downs, Wimbledon, as well as taking private tuition.
When war broke out he joined the Searchlight Section of the Royal Artillery as an officer. In 1941, he transferred to the RAF and after completing his flying training was posted to 115 Sqdn. on Sept. 15, 1942, flying twin-engine Wellingtons. In September 1943 he went to an Operational Training Unit as an instructor and in April 1944 was posted to No. 635 Sqdn. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in Italy in July 1944.
Mynarski and rear gunner G.P. Brophy, an officer, were the closest of buddies, even though they lived in different quarters. Though figuratively–and only figuratively–their ranks separated them until June 11, 1944, at which time Mynarski, who had been a sergeant, was given a commission. The two men made a joke of it. Bidding each other good night, Brophy would clap Mynarski on the back and wish him “Good night, Irish,” to which Mynarski, with just a trace of a Polish accent, would respond: “Good night, Sir.”
On the night of June 12, the pair along with the rest of the crew of their Lancaster were sprawled on the grass, idling away the time waiting for takeoff. A few hours earlier they had been briefed on their night’s mission: a bomb raid on the Cambrai railroad marshalling yards in northern France. Understandably, superstition crept into their conversation. This was their 13th mission and they would be over the target on June 13. Stress unlucky 13! To allay that superstition, Mynarski plucked a “lucky” four-leaf clover and gave it to his buddy. “Here, you take it.” Brophy stuck it under his leather flying helmet.
At 11:44 p.m. the Lancaster took to the air, part of a force of 200 bombers that night. Because the weather was clear they knew the German defences would be ready and waiting. Their first inkling was over the Pas de Calais where they were greeted with ugly flak explosions, fortunately none of them very close. Over the intercom, pilot Art de Breyne calmly announced the time it would take to get over the target.
“Thanks,” replied Mynarski from the mid-upper gun turret. “No rush.”
Searchlights seemed to meander drunkenly all over the sky to pinpoint the bombers for the German night-fighters. Suddenly, one of them caught de Breyne’s Lancaster in its beam. “Hang on,” he called out. “We’re coned.” The pilot flew the Lancaster out of the searchlight’s glare, and then began a slow descent to 2,000 feet for maximum bombing accuracy on the railway yards.
They were down to 5,000 feet when Brophy–in the rear gun turret–spotted a German Junkers 88 night fighter. He shouted into the intercom: “Bogie astern! Six o’clock!”
De Breyne immediately put the plane into a corkscrew pattern to evade. Seconds later Brophy saw the JU 88 pulling up from below. “He’s coming under us,” he yelled. As he wheeled his turret to take aim, the night fighter whizzed by with guns blazing. Both of the Lancaster’s port engines were knocked out, and the wing tank was on fire. Another burst ripped into the fuselage, starting a fire between Mynarski’s and Brophy’s turrets.
The attack also put the intercom out of business. De Breyne pressed the button that turned on the red alarm at all stations–the signal to bail out. The Lancaster had had it.
Brophy recalled looking at his watch. The time was 13 minutes past midnight on June 13.
All the crew got out except Mynarski and Brophy. Mynarski slid down the mid-upper gun turret and made his way to the rear escape hatch, approximately 15 feet from the rear gun turret. He was just about to jump when he spotted Brophy, and right away he knew his buddy was trapped. The turret’s hydraulic system had failed and the manual system wouldn’t work either. Brophy was unable to pivot the turret to get out.
Mynarski turned away from the escape hatch, but the pilotless plane banked and swerved so violently he had to make his way forward on his hands and knees through a wall of flaming hydraulic fluid. By the time he reached the turret his flying suit was on fire from the waist down.
Brophy shouted to him not to try, but over the whine of the engines and the roar of the rushing air, Mynarski couldn’t hear him. It didn’t make any difference. He grabbed a fire axe and began chopping at the turret. It gave slightly, but not enough. Desperately, Mynarski tore at the doors with his hands. By this time he was a mass of flame.
In horror, Brophy yelled at him to go back and to get out, but again his words went unheard. However, Mynarski must have known the situation was futile. Crawling back to the escape hatch through the wall of fire, he looked back in anguish and frustration. Standing there, his clothes enveloped in fire, he saluted and then jumped.
French people on the ground watched Mynarski’s descent which resembled a Roman candle. He was beyond help by the time they reached him.
Miraculously, Brophy survived. The impact of the Lancaster striking the ground freed the jammed turret, and Brophy was thrown clear. When he took off his flying helmet it was no surprise that after his harrowing experience a tuft of hair came with it, along with the “lucky” four-leaf clover.
Brophy teamed up with the French resistance, and in September 1944 was picked up by a British armoured regiment to whom he related the epic incident for which Mynarski was awarded the VC. “I’ll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen, so that the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend,” he said later.
Hornell’s demise was no less horrific, but it was an ordeal by water instead of fire. When he and his crew set out on that fatal flight of June 24, 1944, Hornell–by this time a flight lieutenant–had logged a huge amount of anti-submarine patrol time. This was his crew’s 60th mission.
After 10 tedious hours in which they had seen not so much as a seagull, Hornell turned his Canso aircraft toward Wick, some 1,000 miles away. Suddenly a surfaced German submarine–U-1225 –appeared off the port beam, travelling at full speed. Hornell signalled Action Stations and swerved abeam of the U-boat to attack, but the submarine opened fire first. The aircraft’s forward gunner took aim, but one of his guns jammed. Nevertheless, he managed to rake the sub’s conning tower, killing most of the crew.
However, the U-boat’s cannon fire had taken a toll. Shells tore two gaping holes in the starboard wing and set that engine and the fuselage on fire. The aircraft began to vibrate so violently it was almost impossible to control. But Hornell continued his attack, dropping his depth charges in a perfect straddle that blew holes in the submarine’s hull. Soon after, U-1225 was on its way to the bottom.
With the Canso’s weight alleviated by the release of the bombs, Hornell, with superhuman effort, managed to bring the aircraft up from 50 to 250 feet. But by now the fire in the starboard wing became so intense that the engine dropped off, and the Canso lost what little stability it had. Hornell had no choice but to ditch.
Turning into the wind with the utmost skill, Hornell bounced the plane once, twice before setting it down on a heavy, rolling seven-foot swell. The shattered hull began to sink immediately, but all eight crew members were able to abandon the craft and take with them the two dinghies. However, only one of the dinghies inflated properly; the other one exploded. That left the crew with a life raft that would uncomfortably hold seven. One man on an alternating basis would have to stay in the water, clinging to the side. By this time the sea had turned so rough that the men were bailing constantly.
At this point the men were perhaps fortunate that they did not realize the hopelessness of their situation or paradoxically the luck they were about to experience. They were blissfully unaware that their wireless transmission–sent at the time of the attack–had never been received because the radio had been knocked out of commission when the aircraft was first hit. That knowledge would have added despair to distress.
So it was purely by chance that–four hours after they had ditched–another aircraft spotted them after they had desperately fired off all of their flares. The aircraft, manned by a Norwegian crew, signalled that it had radioed for help and that a rescue launch was on its way.
But the ordeal was far from over. By this time the waves had risen to 20 feet, with winds gusting to 30 knots. Overcome with cold, Hornell became seasick. Then the waves got worse, up to 50 feet high.
After 14 hours in the sea, the dinghy capsized and with what little strength they had left, the airmen righted it and climbed back in. One of the crew, a flight engineer, died and his body was lowered over the side with the sobering, if somewhat morbid, realization that the survivors no longer had to take turns in the water.
Suffering from exposure, Hornell began to go blind.
The men had been in the sea for 16 hours when a Warwick transport plane attempted to drop an airborne lifeboat. Unfortunately, the lifeboat landed 500 yards away and was only visible when it rode on the crest of a wave. Hornell insisted on swimming after it, but before he could do so, his co-pilot forcibly restrained him.
The crew became increasingly discouraged, but Hornell, by now almost totally blind and semi-conscious, continued to exhort his men in an effort to cheer them up. Thankfully, the sea began to abate, but not before another member of the crew succumbed to the ordeal. Hornell eventually lapsed into unconsciousness.
Twenty hours and 35 minutes after they had ditched, the rescue launch arrived and picked up the six survivors. And although Hornell was given intense medical treatment for three hours, he never revived.
In the summer of 1944, German buzz bombs continued to plague London. Until northern France was overrun there would be no end to it. For the time being, there was only one way to combat it and that was to strike at the source.
On the morning of Aug. 4, Bazalgette had been assigned the role of master bomber in a raid on a flying bomb depot at Trossy St. Maximum east of Rouen, France. His job was to mark the target with incendiary bombs as a beacon for the main bomber force that followed. As he neared the depot, his Lancaster came under extremely severe anti-aircraft fire. Both starboard engines were put out of action. The bomb-aimer had his arm and part of his shoulder torn away. Smoke and flames overcame the mid-upper gunner who had been given a shot of morphine. But there was no turning back. The deputy master bomber had been shot down and so it was up to Bazalgette and what was left of his crew and his aircraft to finish the job under the most appalling conditions. Bazalgette pressed on, bombing and marking the target with accuracy and precision.
After the bombs had been dropped, however, there was more trouble ahead. The plane went into a dive, spinning out of control. Bazalgette struggled to put it back on an even keel but then the inner port engine packed up. He was now flying on one engine with the entire starboard wing a mass of flames. At 1,000 feet he had no hope of gaining height.
With a fire on his hands, one of the crew mortally wounded and another suffocating he could only hope to put the Lancaster down and salvage what was left of the situation. He ordered those who could to bail out, and then did his best to avoid crashing the plane into the French hamlet of Senantes. He got the crippled aircraft on the ground, but it exploded, killing him and the two wounded crew members who had remained on board.
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Mynarski was buried in Méharicourt cemetery in the French hamlet that bears its name. Well after the war a bronze memorial plaque was attached to a cairn in the hamlet. In Canada, a group of lakes in Manitoba was named after him, and so was a Legion branch in Winnipeg.
Hornell, who has also had things dedicated to his memory, rests in Lerwick Cemetery in Scotland’s bleak Shetland Islands. His grave is a solemn monument to his valour and sacrifice.
Bazalgette was buried in the Senantes churchyard. His tombstone reads: “Greater love hath no man than this. That a man can lay down his life for his friends.” In 1949, a mountain in Jasper National Park, Alta., was named after him.
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