Hampdens of 49 and 83 Squadron also attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal near the aqueduct at Münster on 12–13 August in the hope of severing it. They flew through a hail of flak at low level, claiming two of the incoming bombers, but eight pressed on and damaged the aqueducts significantly enough to halt all traffic for over a month. Acting Flt Lt Roderick Learoyd of 49 Squadron was awarded the Victoria Cross for taking his Hampden down to 150 feet and pushing through the hail of bullets, sustaining hydraulic system damage, inoperable flaps, a wrecked undercarriage, and wing damage, before dropping his bombs and then nursing his aircraft back to England, where he circled his aircraft until daylight, as he felt it too risky to attempt a night landing.
On the night of 31 July/1 August 1940 42 Battles, Blenheims and Hampdens set out to bomb a variety of targets and sow mines in enemy waters but only thirteen bombed and nine laid mines. On its outward flight, one Battle was shot down into the sea off Skegness by RAF fighters and three Hampdens ditched in the sea on the return. Squadron Leader R. L. Oxley DFC, who was involved in the ‘Gardening’ operation, got his Hampden safely back to Lindholme but overstressed the aircraft. ‘Oxley, who was known among his service friends as ‘Beetle’ showed as much effrontery as his namesake in Kipling’s Stalky and Co., recalled David Masters in So Few: The Immortal Record of the RAF’ published in 1941 ‘with results that surprised him – as well as the enemy. It started with his bomber acting as a decoy over Magdeburg [probably on the night of 3/4 September], making as much noise as possible in order to draw the fire and let his companions go in and do their work before he went off to do his. Low cloud baffled the searchlights and Squadron Leader Oxley was not worried by the guns, which were firing blindly. Having roared about over Magdeburg to scare the Germans, he climbed to 6,000 feet to bomb his target which had shown up for a moment through a gap in the clouds. Swiftly, unexpectedly, the sinister shape of a German balloon threatened death only fifty yards away. It gave him a shock, ‘I thought of the chances I’d been running, flying in and out of those cables for half an hour,’ he said later. ‘As I turned and climbed I saw five or six dirty, grey shapes, just like the British balloons.’ Incidentally he once saw a German balloon as high as 13,000 feet. Dodging the balloons, he dropped a bomb or two on his target and turned to find another target where he could drop the rest. Flying south-west of Bremen at 10,000 feet, he saw an enemy aircraft landing on the illuminated flare path of an aerodrome. The red lamp was left on and the captain of the bomber was not slow to seize his opportunity. Gliding down to 4,000 feet, he fired off a signal cartridge to see whether the enemy would put the lights on. The Germans fired up a signal consisting of three yellow and three white lights in reply.
‘The nearest thing I had that night was a red-yellow, so I fired that,’ recorded Squadron Leader Oxley. ‘I was quite enjoying myself to see if we could fix them. They fired another signal, so I switched the navigation lights on, but these had no effect. Then I started Morsing on the recognition lights and for want of anything better to send I sent ‘Heil Hitler.’ That had the pleasing and astonishing effect of getting them to put all the lights on. They gave me a green to come in and land, which was just what I wanted, I went round the circuit as though to land-and opened up and let our bombs go into the hangars. Then I went off and returned about twenty minutes later. They must have been convinced that no enemy would hang about so long, for when I again signalled with my recognition lights, they gave us another green to land. But we had nothing more to drop. I wonder what they told the CO next day!’
‘Which incident goes far toward explaining his nickname. Yet there is nothing of the dare-devil about his appearance. He looks far too good-natured to go bull-baiting Germans in their own arenas. He speaks quietly and moves with an easy step. About five feet five inches in height, he is inclined to be tubby, with a clean-shaven face and fair hair that is going thin on the top, though he is still in his twenties. It is when his vivid blue eyes light up with a mischievous twinkle that he betrays a hint of that sense of humour which has found such free expression over Germany, although the Germans will never see his jokes.
‘Like other pilots, he struck a good blow for England when Hitler was preparing to invade Great Britain during the, crisis of 1940 and Squadron Leader Oxley twice ran the gauntlet of the heavy enemy defences in order to bomb the barges being collected for the transport of German troops. The Germans had mounted large numbers of machine-guns controlled electrically from a distance and during his first attack Squadron Leader Oxley was so blinded by the searchlights that he had to keep his eyes on the instrument panel and steer as instructed by the navigator.
‘A few nights later he arrived at the same spot at 2202 and dropped a flare. ‘Oh my God sir, you can’t miss. This is wonderful!’ exclaimed Sergeant Horner, the navigator. There were about a hundred barges arranged in arrowhead formation along the shore. The flare set all the guns firing in the neighbourhood as Squadron Leader Oxley circled to make a dive-bombing attack. At 5,000 feet the searchlights picked up the bomber and made it impossible for the pilot to see, so he flew once more under the instructions of the navigator. ‘Push her down a bit, sir!’ the latter exclaimed when they were down to about 3,000 feet. A moment later he added: ‘Bombs gone!’
‘What do we do now?’ asked the captain.
‘Keep on going down’ came the reply, as the captain closed the bomb doors. ‘Now turn left,’ said the navigator when they were down to 300 feet.
Escaping the dazzling lights, the captain dropped still lower, leaping a sand dune like a horse going over a hurdle at Aintree and climbing out to sea for home. His bombs shattered the barges, covered with black tarpaulins, but none of the bomber crew saw any German troops on board, which was not surprising considering that it was at night. The bomber’s attack lasted exactly four minutes.’
Throughout August, just when one would expect the story to come to a climax and the threat of the flat-bottomed boats to declare itself, there was a long pause. In daylight Blenheims were almost wholly engaged in attacks on aerodromes and the long-range guns at Cape Gris Nez. These were bombed on many nights from the middle of August onwards and well on into September. As to the barges, they were still about on inland waterways, but they had not, as yet, collected in the Channel ports in any great quantity. In August 1940 traffic on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, an essential link between central and western Germany and a bottleneck of the canal system, was about three times what it had been before. As a result, bombing attacks were made on this canal, highly vulnerable where it is carried across aqueducts, at frequent intervals. German transport had to be attacked whatever might be under the covers of those mysterious barges; this was the period when Bomber Command made Hamm a household word and traffic diverted from much-bombed railways would naturally go by canal. For the time being, with invasion apparently not absolutely imminent, it probably seemed better to bomb where an attack would be a threefold gain, helping to interfere with Germany’s economic organization, hampering the supply of armies in the West and blocking the route for invasion barges coming from the East.
Hampden pilot, Wilf Burnett, recalled: ‘The Station Commander gathered all officers together one morning in August or September 1940 and told us that it appeared invasion was imminent and that we should be prepared for it. I remember the silence that followed. We left the room and I don’t think anyone spoke, but we were all the more determined to make certain that we did everything possible to deter the Germans from launching their invasion. At the time we were bombing the invasion barges in the Channel ports, undertaking operations almost every other night. I remember one operation in particular against the invasion barges. We had part moonlight, which was very helpful because navigation in those days depended entirely on visual identification. We flew to the north of our target so that we could get a better outline of the coast. We followed the coast down towards our target, letting down to about 4,000 feet so that we could get a better view of what was below and to increase the accuracy of the bombing. At that height light anti-aircraft fire was pretty heavy and fairly accurate so we didn’t hang around after dropping our bombs. This was done repeatedly over a period of time until the invasion was called off.’
Twenty-seven-year-old Flight Lieutenant Roderick Alastair Brook ‘Babe’ Learoyd, a pilot on 49 Squadron at Scampton, was awarded the Victoria Cross for a most daring low-level swoop on one of the Dortmund-Ems Canal’s aqueducts on the night of 12/13 August. Learoyd recalled later in a BBC broadcast: ‘Our target on this raid was the old aqueduct carrying the Dortmund-Ems Canal over the River Ems north of Münster. This canal is of great importance to the industrial area of the Ruhr. There is also at this point a new aqueduct, but when that was blown up as a result of previous raids the Germans had diverted all traffic to the old one. The operation had been most carefully planned. Five aircraft detailed for bombing, were to slip in and carry out their work. Two of the five, I am sorry to say, never got back.
‘Timing was an all-important factor. For a reason I cannot mention it was imperative that the five of us should all attack within a very short period.
‘At three o’clock in the afternoon we were told that we were going and at six o’clock that evening we were given the details of the operation. Aircraft from two squadrons were taking part. Having been there before, most of us knew the place pretty well. The actual briefing of the crews took about three-quarters of an hour. The whole place was carefully gone through with special maps and plans.
‘We synchronised our watches and the clocks in the aircraft before starting. Everybody got away right on time. Just after we took off, I saw one of the others in the air, but we soon lost sight of him. The timing had been worked out so as to allow us a ten-minute margin in case we got slightly off our course or had any trouble in getting into the target area. My navigator did a very fine job of work and we arrived at a point north of the target with our ten minutes in hand, so we circled round there for a bit.
‘Going out, there hadn’t been any excitement, but we were not looking for trouble anyway. There were clouds on the way over but they cleared beautifully just on the edge of the target. The moon was about half full. We were relying on the moonlight reflecting on the water to give us our direction for the run up. We being the last of the five were due to go in at 23.23. Two minutes before that time we came down to about 300 feet. We were then still several miles north of the target. Gradually we lost height as we came along the Canal, following its course all the time.
The navigator was in the nose of the aircraft doing the bomb-aiming. Everything was quiet until we got to the point where the Canal forked just before the two aqueducts. I was doing the run up to this point when the navigator was taking over the directing. We must have gone off a bit to the left because he called out ‘Right’, then immediately after, when we had turned a bit to make the correction, he called out ‘Steady’.
‘Then, suddenly, everything started at once-searchlights and all the antiaircraft fire. It was unfortunate from our point of view of course, that the enemy knew pretty well the direction from which we must attack. They had disposed their defences so that they formed a sort of lane through which we had to pass. It seemed to me that they had strengthened these defences a great deal since the first raids.
‘The searchlights were blinding and we were flying entirely on the bomb aimer’s instructions. I had my head down inside the cockpit trying to see the instruments, but the glare made even that difficult. Our instructions were not to rush it too much because of the need for extreme accuracy. Before we started, the rear gunner had asked if he could fire at something or somebody and he was shooting at the searchlights as we went past.
‘Almost at the same moment as we bombed I felt a thump and the aircraft lurched to the right. A pom-pom shell had gone through the starboard wing. Then another shell hit the same wing between the fuselage and the engine. They were firing pretty well at point-blank range. It was all over in a few seconds. The navigator called out ‘OK finish’. Then we turned away again. The ground defences were still after us but the tracer was dying out a bit by this time.
‘When we had got away and set course for the base the rear- gunner reported that oil was coming into his cockpit. Then the wireless operator reported that the flaps were drooping. I tried to raise them but found that they wouldn’t come up. What had happened was that the hydraulic system had been damaged. We discovered too that the undercarriage indicators were out of action.
‘Not having landed without flaps before I didn’t like to try it that night with a crew aboard, so we cruised around a bit doing a few local ‘cross countries’ for about two and a half hours. We waited till dawn and then we came in all right.’