The Canal Raids

'Babe' Leoroyd's VC   

Of the 32 VCs awarded during 1939-45, 19 went to air crew members of RAF Bomber Command, and the first of these to Flight Lieutenant (later Wing Commander) Roderick Alastair Brook Learoyd of 49 Squadron.

The son of Major R. B. Learoyd of Littlestone, Kent, Roderick Learoyd was born at Folkestone on 5th February 1913. Educated at Hydreye House Preparatory School, Baldstow, Sussex, and Wellington College, Berkshire, Learoyd then attended the Chelsea College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering.

There followed a two years spell in Argentina as a fruit farmer, and a brief period as a motor engineer, before Learoyd decided to join the RAF to learn to fly. Accepted in March 1936 for a short service commission, he received his elementary training at Hamble AST and his Service training at Wittering; graduating in December 1936 and being posted to 49 Squadron, equipped with Hawker Hinds at Worthy Down aerodrome.

In March 1938, 49 Squadron moved base to Scampton where it became the first RAF squadron to re-equip with the new monoplane Handley Page Hampden bombers. Sharing the grass airfield and accommodation at Scampton was 83 Squadron, which began conversion from its Hawker Hinds to Hampdens in October 1938, and was completely re-equipped with the type by early January 1939. The change from biplanes to all-metal monoplane bombers gave both units many months of necessary practice flying though, strangely, virtually no night-flying was undertaken - indeed, it was only on the outbreak of war that the Hampden crews had their first experience in flying Hampdens with full bomb loads.

As the European political scene rapidly deteriorated in the high summer of 1939, Bomber Command began to implement its plans for possible war, and on 26th August the bomber squadrons were brought to a state of two hours' 'Readiness' for dispersal tinder the command's 'scatter scheme.
On 1st September, as German forces swept into Poland, the Scampton Hampden squadrons were ordered to bomb up a flight of aircraft each, and at midnight general mobilisation orders were issued throughout the RAF in Britain.

By dawn of 3rd September the war-loaded Hampdens were still at standby and, at 6.15 pm, six Hampdens from 83 Squadron and three from 49 Squadron left Scampton on an 'armed reconnaissance' over the North Sea, seeking German naval ships to bomb. The trio of 49's bombers, led by Flight Lieutenant George Lerwill, included Roderick Learoyd. In the event the sortie flew as far as the Horns Reef lightship, found no targets to bomb, and returned to Scampton without incident.
During the next ten months Learoyd participated in 23 more bombing sorties, apart from various other types of operations, proving himself to be a cool-headed pilot, seemingly imperturbable in the most dangerous situations. One target he attacked was a vital waterway, the Dortmund Ems canal, a heavily-defended objective which received considerable attention from RAF bombers in mid-1940. And it was this canal that was to be Learoyd's target on the night of 12th August 1940.

Eleven Hampdens - six from 49 Squadron, five from 83 Squadron - were detailed for the whole sortie, and the specific objective was to destroy the old aqueduct carrying the canal over the river Ems, north of Münster (a second, new, aqueduct had already been destroyed in a previous RAF raid). The 6 pm briefing of the crews was thorough, explaining that four Hampdens were to bomb diversionary targets, and that timing over the target was crucial in view of the special 'canister' bombs being used, each of which was fitted with ten-minute delayed action fuses. Learoyd was detailed as captain of Hampden P4403, EA-M, and his crew comprised Pilot Officer John Lewis (navigator and bomb aimer), Sergeant J Ellis (wireless operator and dorsal air gunner) and LAG Rich as ventral air gunner. Each captain was given a precise time to arrive over the target and a specific sequence in which to bomb.

At exactly 8 pm Learoyd got airborne from Scampton, lifting 'Pinocchio' (the Walt Disney character painted just below the left side of the Hampden's cockpit) into the clear night air and setting course south-east. He was due to be over the aqueduct at precisely 11.15 pm, the last of the five Hampdens detailed to carry out the actual bombing attack, and John Lewis's skilled navigation brought Learoyd to a point just north of the target at ten minutes before their designated ETA.

The moon was half-full, reflecting clearly the canal water, and Learoyd circled leisurely, awaiting his turn to bomb. Elsewhere, unseen by Learoyd, four Hampdens were making their diversion raids, as per the pre-arranged plan, while two other Hampdens, having failed to locate their primary targets, bombed Texel Island instead. As Learoyd waited calmly he saw the first Hampden begin its run over the canal; Squadron Leader 'Jamie' Pitcairn-Hill DFC of 83 Squadron in Hampden P4402.

Alongside each bank of the canal were rows of deadly accurate mobile flak guns, well-sited, and presenting any potential attacker with no choice but to run the narrow gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire during his actual bombing attack. Knowing these odds against survival, Pitcairn-Hill led the way in - threading his way through a curtain of shells and tracer bullets, and in the face of blinding searchlights focussed directly on the approach lane. Levelling out at 100 feet above the silver water he suffered numerous hits but refused to evade the punishment, maintaining a rock-steady bombing run and releasing his bomb canisters with precision, before banking away from the danger zone and limping home to England.

The second Hampden, P4410 piloted by an Australian, Pilot Officer E. H. Ross, received a direct hit as he nosed into the flak lane and crashed in a holocaust of flames alongside the canal.
Third to run the gauntlet was another Australian from 83 Squadron, Flying Officer A. R. Mulligan DFC in Hampden P4410. Before Mulligan had reached his bomb-release point however his aircraft was hit in its port engine, which erupted in flames. Jettisoning his bomb load quickly Mulligan climbed swiftly to 2,000 feet and then ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft. Once the three crew members were out, Mulligan took to his parachute and watched his machine plunge into the earth and explode. All four men survived their hasty exit and were soon taken prisoner by the Germans.

Fourth in line came Pilot Officer Matthews who bombed successfully and then struggled back to England with one engine reduced to junk by flak damage. It was now Learoyd's turn to bomb. Just six minutes had elapsed since Pitcairn-Hill's initial attack.

Due to bomb at exactly 11.23 pm, Learoyd let down to 300 feet some three miles north of the target, then started a shallow diving attack run straight along the canal. By now the German gunners and searchlight operators had fixed the height of the raiders, and were waiting impatiently for the next aircraft. Levelling out at 150 feet, Learoyd reached a point where the canal forked just before the two aqueducts, and then handed over final control of the bomber to his bomb-aimer, John Lewis.
At that moment all hell broke loose as the flak barrage opened up and several searchlights coned the approaching bomber. Blinded by the lights, Learoyd ducked his head below the windscreen to fly solely on instruments at the bidding of Lewis; while both gunners began raking the searchlight sites as these flashed by on either side.

A sudden thump as a shell blasted through the starboard wing almost threw the Hampden off course, and was immediately followed by a second shell which tore through the same wing between the engine and Learoyd's cockpit. Machine gun bullets splashed the underside of the bomber continually, but Learoyd held firm, waiting for Lewis to release the bomb load.

Then he heard Lewis yell, 'OK Finish', and immediately pulled the battered Hampden into a steep banking turn out of the flak fury, climbing as fast as possible towards a safer area of sky.
Once clear of the danger zone Learoyd and his crew took stock of the damage. Most serious was a ruptured hydraulic system which leaked oil almost everywhere, resulting in drooping wing flaps and a useless undercarriage indicator. The wing damage, though serious, had fortunately missed the wing petrol tanks. One moment of relief from the tension was provided when Ellis calmly reported over the intercom that one of his carrier pigeons had laid an egg at the height of the attack.

Carefully nursing the shell-shattered Hampden home, Learoyd crossed the English coast line just after 2am, and soon reached Scampton, where in the pre-dawn blackness he considered it best not to attempt a night landing in a machine with unknown damage, and continued to circle the area until first light, and finally made a safe landing minutes before 5am.

Post-raid intelligence showed that the raid had been entirely successful, and 'Jamie' Pitcairn-Hill was awarded a DSO for his leadership, while the imprisoned Mulligan received a Bar to his DFC.
Learoyd, whose final deliberate run into the well-alerted defences had been possibly the most dangerous attack of all, was awarded a Victoria Cross, gazetted on 20 August 1940. Part of the citation read : 'The high courage, skill and determination, which this officer had invariably displayed on many occasions in the face of the enemy sets an example which is unsurpassed.'

The award was a popular one to the men of Scampton who held Babe' Learoyd (his universal nickname, clue to his impressive physical size) in the highest regard for his quiet modesty and cool 'unflappability'.
The cross was awarded at an investiture on 9 September 1940, by which time Learoyd had been taken off operations, promoted to Squadron Leader, and was acting temporarily as personal assistant to Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham.