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Feature Extract: Bomber Command’s First Victoria Cross

 

Roderick Alastair Brook Learoyd. (Via author)

Air Cdre Graham Pitchfork profiles 49 Squadron’s Roderick Learoyd, a pilot who survived a devastating attack mission, and was awarded a VC for his actions.

 On the night of 12/13 August 1940, 11 Hampdens – six from 49 Squadron and five from 83 Squadron – were tasked with attacking the aqueduct that carried the Dortmund-Ems canal over the River Ems north of Münster. Against fierce opposition, two bombers were shot down while others were severely damaged but managed to return to base. Among those that suffered the greatest battle damage was the one flown by Flt Lt Roderick Learoyd of 49 Squadron. For his gallant actions that night he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first of 19 given to men of Bomber Command and one of only 32 bestowed on airmen during the Second World War.

Roderick Alastair Brook Learoyd was born in Folkestone, Kent, in February 1913 and he was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire. He went on to study aeronautical and automobile engineering at Chelsea College in London.

By 1936 he had decided to join the Royal Air Force to be a pilot and he was awarded a short service commission. After completing his training, he received his flying badge in December 1936.

He was posted to RAF Worthy Down near Winchester, Hampshire, where he joined 49 Squadron, which was equipped with the Hawker Hind bomber. This elegant biplane had grave limitations as a bomber and was in urgent need of replacement. The unit moved to the bigger airfield at Scampton, Lincolnshire, where, in March 1938, it was the first outfit to re-equip with the twin-engine Handley Page Hampden. Shortly afterwards, 83 Squadron also moved to Scampton to exchange its Hinds for the Hampden.

The new aircraft, a monoplane, offered a major advance on the Hind with its twin engines, all-metal construction and four-man crew. Conversion to the bomber occupied much of the next 12 months but this included very little night flying. It had been envisaged that only the AW Whitley force would fly during the hours of darkness and the other bomber units would operate in daylight in tight, self-defending formations.

Hampden P4403/EA-M, the aircraft in which Learoyd earnt his Victoria Cross. (Via Andy Thomas)

Ready For War

By late August 1939 war with Germany seemed inevitable and the two Scampton-based squadrons were placed on readiness. Following the invasion of Poland on 1 September each unit was ordered to bomb up some of its aircraft. When war was declared two days later a force of Hampdens was ready to begin operations.

Bomber Command had received orders that no targets could be attacked on German soil. It could strike naval vessels at sea and it could overfly Germany, but only to drop propaganda leaflets.

On the morning that war was declared, nine Hampdens were at readiness including three from 49 Squadron. Learoyd, known throughout his time in the RAF as ‘Babe’ because of his well-built size, was assigned to Hampden I L4040. The force took off from Scampton just after 0600hrs to carry out a low-level armed reconnaissance and to bomb any German warships sighted. They were tasked to head for the Horns Reef lightship a few miles west of the Danish port of Esjberg but poor weather in the area prevented any sighting and the force returned to base disappointed at having seen no targets.

“The force took off from Scampton just after 0600hrs to carry out a lowlevel armed reconnaissance and to bomb any German warships sighted”

Throughout the rest of 1939 the Hampdens of 49 Squadron carried out an occasional sweep, but it was not until the following April that operations intensified. During the month Learoyd undertook sorties off Denmark and North Germany and on the 25th he flew his first gardening (mining) operation when he sowed his vegetables (code for mines) off Pellworm Island on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein. A few nights later he carried out a second gardening sortie, this time to the east coast of Denmark, a mission of more than seven hours. April 1940 saw the commencement of a long campaign of mine-laying operations, which the Hampden with its large bomb bay was particularly suited to.

 

Stopping the Nazi War Machine

After the German invasion of the Low Countries and France on 10 May, Bomber Command was authorised to hit targets in Germany and its occupied territories. Learoyd attacked the marshalling yards at Liège, Belgium, with 250lb and 500lb bombs and incendiaries. Operations intensified in June with particular attention paid to railway systems, aerodromes and possible invasion embarkation ports.

On 28 June, Learoyd attacked the lock gates on the Dortmund-Ems canal, a vital waterway that carried essential raw materials to the great industrial Ruhr. He dropped his bombs but was unable to see the results.

Six weeks later, on the night of 11/12 August, Learoyd (now an acting flight lieutenant) returned to the canal flying Hampden P4403/EA-M. At this stage of the war it was a target of special importance because of the build-up of shipping and barges planned for movement to the English Channel ports for the eventual invasion of Britain. As a result, the Germans had established a formidable array of anti-aircraft guns and massed searchlights designed to blind the RAF crews.

Inside a Hampden’s cockpit. (Key Collection)

Of the 11 Hampdens tasked with the operation, two failed to find the target and four carried out diversionary attacks, leaving the remaining five to hit the canal aqueduct above the River Ems. Learoyd took off from Scampton at 2000hrs and arrived over the canal on time in half moonlight, which reflected off the water. He stood off as Sqn Ldr ‘Jamie’ Pitcairn-Hill of 83 Squadron made his attack at 100ft, approaching through an intense barrage of light flak. Although badly damaged, Pitcairn-Hill managed to drop his bombs in the right place. The second aircraft to attack was shot down and the third was so badly hit the crew were forced to bale out to become prisoners of war.

Learoyd, who was circling nearby, had seen these attacks go in and watched as the fourth aircraft ran the gauntlet of the intense anti-aircraft fire. Plt Off Hugh V Matthews’ aircraft was repeatedly hit but he managed to drop his bombs accurately before pulling away to face the daunting task of returning to Scampton on one engine, which he managed successfully.

Side profile of Hampden I P4403. (Key-Pete West)

For the rest of this exciting feature, see the may issue of Britain at War – in the UK shops now. Or you can order the magazine (or e-magazine) from our website.
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