OUR latest maritime heritage story, by Roy Pedersen, takes a look back at the heroic story of Saltcoats-born Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, whose brave efforts during World War Two earned him a Victoria Cross after his death.

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I WROTE recently about the important contribution to the Allied war effort during the Second Word War made by HMS Fortitude, as Ardrossan Harbour was known.

While Ardrossan was fortunate to escape enemy attack, many were the brave local servicemen who made the supreme sacrifice in the fight on land, sea and in the air to defeat Nazi Germany.

Notable among them was Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, born in Saltcoats on April 21, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for the daring and successful attack, in which he and his crew lost their lives, on the German battle-cruiser Gneisenau.

The importance of this episode may be understood in that the British war effort was highly dependent on convoys bringing supplies of food and war materiel from Canada and the United States.

The German High Command was consequently determined to starve Britain of these supplies by employing U-boats, aircraft and other warships to sink as many of the convoy ships as possible, a long struggle known as the Battle of the Atlantic ensued.

Until effective countermeasures were developed the U-boat campaign inflicted serious losses on Allied shipping, but the threat of major Kreigsmarine battleships and battle cruisers entering the fray was a matter of grave concern to Churchill.

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It was vital to remove this threat at all cost.

Early in the war, the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had already sunk HMS Rawalpindi, and the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.

After participating in the German invasion of Norway, they put in for repairs to Brest near the westernmost point of Brittany in German-occupied France.

Gneisenau had been damaged in action with HMS Renown. While Brest was strategically ideal for German deployments into the Atlantic, it was also within relatively close range of the RAF, thereby enabling the heroic achievement of Kenneth Campbell.

With the outbreak of war, he was mobilised in September 1939 for service with the RAF.

In September 1940, Flying Officer Campbell joined No. 22 Squadron and in March 1941, piloting a Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber he torpedoed an enemy merchant vessel near The Friesian island of Borkum.

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Days later, he eluded a pair of Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters and then two days after that, on a ‘Rover’ patrol he torpedoed another enemy vessel, off Ijmuiden.

At dawn on Sunday, April 6, 1941, three Beauforts headed for Brest through fog and driving rain.

Two of the aircraft turned round on account of the conditions, but Campbell pressed on and, on approaching Brest, at 15 metres (50 feet) he was met by a hail of concentrated anti-aircraft fire from about 1,000 weapons of all calibres.

His target was Gneisenau. As Gneisenau was moored only some 500 metres from a mole in Brest’s inner harbour, the attack had to be made with absolute precision.

Campbell had to time the release of his torpedo close to the side of the mole.

That he did so accurately is testament to his courage and determination.

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Normally, once a torpedo was launched, low-level escape was executed at full throttle, but in the case in hand, because of rising ground surrounding the harbour, Campbell was forced into a steep banking turn.

This revealed the Beaufort’s full plan to the gunners.

A wall of flak riddled the aircraft which smashed into the harbour.

The Germans recovered the bodies of Campbell and his three crew mates, Sergeants J. P. Scott DFM RCAF (navigator), R. W. Hillman (wireless operator) and W. C. Mulliss (air gunner), and buried them with full military honours.

The French resistance passed the news of Campbell’s brave deeds to Britain.

The announcement and citation for the Victoria Cross was published in a supplement to the London Gazette on March 13, 1942. It read:

“Air Ministry, 13th March, 1942.

“The King has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell (72446), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (deceased), No. 22 Squadron.”

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The citation then set out the detail of Campbell’s action and ended with the words:

“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.”

Gneisenau was severely damaged below the waterline and had to return to the dock being put out of action for six months.

Not long afterwards on May 27, the pride of the Kreigsmarine, the battleship Bismark was scuttled following incapacitating battle damage inflicted by the Royal Navy.

These two actions significantly reduced the threat to Allied shipping crossing the Atlantic.

In the end the German blockade failed, but at great cost.

Some 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk in the Atlantic for the loss of 783 U-boats and 47 German surface warships.

Campbell’s heroic action was commemorated at a small ceremony in his home town Saltcoats, on April 6, 2000, the 59th anniversary of his death.

A memorial plaque and bench were unveiled by his sister-in-law, and his 90-year-old brother handed over his VC to the safekeeping of the commanding officer of the present-day No. 22 Squadron.

In preparing this article, I wish to thank Mr Harry Brock for bringing Kenneth Campbell VC’s achievements to my attention and to the editor for forwarding a copy of an earlier article on the subject.