Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1941, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell V.C., No. 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force, was killed when his plane crashed during a successful attack on the German battleship Gneisenau at Brest in France.
The youngest of six children, he attended Sedbergh School and Clare College, Cambridge, from which he obtained a degree in Chemistry and joined the University Air Squadron. In 1938 he was commissioned into the R.A.F. Reserve as a Pilot Officer, and mobilised on the 25th of September, 1939. After training he was promoted to Flying Officer and joined 22 Squadron, which was engaged in attacking enemy shipping during the Battle of the Atlantic.
His actions on the 6th of April, 1941, earned him the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. Detailed to attack the enemy battle cruiser Gneisenau in Brest Harbour, he flew his Bristol Beaufort through concentrated anti-aircraft fire from approximately 1,000 weapons in order to launch a torpedo with impeccable precision. Such precision was required due to the location of Gneisenau.
The citation tells the story: ”The battle cruiser was secured alongside the wall of the harbour, protected by a stone mole…behind the ship stood protective batteries of guns. Other batteries were clustered thickly round the two arms of land which encircle the outer harbour in [which] were moored three heavily-armed anti-aircraft ships. Even if an aircraft succeeded in penetrating these formidable defences, it would be almost impossible to avoid crashing into the rising ground beyond. This was well known to Flying Officer Campbell who, despising the heavy odds, went cheerfully and resolutely to the task. He ran the gauntlet of the defences. Coming in at almost sea level, he passed the anti-aircraft ships at less than mast-height in the very mouths of their guns and skimming over the mole launched a torpedo at point-blank range. The battle cruiser was severely damaged below the water-line and was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before. By pressing home his attack at close quarters in the face of withering fire on a course fraught with extreme peril, Flying Officer Campbell displayed valour of the highest order.”
Flying Officer Campbell was forced to make a steep banking turn, revealing his aircraft to the enemy gunners, he was hit and crashed into the harbour. The aircraft was salvaged and the crew members were buried with full military honours by the Germans in Brest Cemetery. Members of the French Resistance were witnesses that day and passed the story along until it reached England, otherwise the details may never have been known. The R.A.F. named one of their original Vickers VC10 aircraft in his honour.
Kenneth, from Saltcoats, Ayrshire in Scotland, was 23 years old.