Saltcoats, Ayrshire, 7th April 2000

Bill Brady, Vice-Chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Branch of the South African Military History Society, on his first visit to his home town of Saltcoats, Ayrshire in 10 years, was disappointed to discover the town had not recognised the bravery of Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell VC in any way, even though Campbell had been born in the town. Returning to South Africa, Bill Brady was determined to rectify this anomaly so he started a campaign to put that right, the result of which was a ceremony held in Saltcoats on 7th April 2000 to recognise Campbell, exactly 59 years and one day after his death, and the posthumous award of his Victoria Cross.

For more than half a century Campbell's singular valour had been known of and recognised by few people outside his own family in Saltcoats. That was rectified at a ceremony in the town that paid long-overdue tribute to its forgotten hero. It was to have been, in the words of the council convener, Sam Taylor, "a modest wee ceremony". Instead, he found himself addressing a crowd of more than 100, including the Officer Commanding Campbell's old squadron, a colour party that had accompanied him from Cornwall, and a group of ex-servicemen which included the only man who knew what Campbell had gone through on that day. Ron Bramley, 79, was a wireless operator and air gunner on one of the two other Beauforts of 22 Squadron, that had been sent to attack the German Capital ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in Brest harbour. Bill Brady made the long journey from South Africa, via the scene of the action at Brest Harbour and the grave of Campbell, to attend the ceremony.

A brass plaque was unveiled above a black cast iron bench seat near the town's war memorial. The back of the bench displays the profile of a Bristol Beaufort bomber among clouds, bearing Campbell's name in gold lettering, with the inscription "For Valour". Overhead of the assembled people, an RAF flag was trailed by a Sea King helicopter of the current 22 Squadron in a fly-past tribute by an aircraft made to save lives, rather than take them.

Undoubtedly, the most moving part of the ceremony held in Saltcoats that day, was the VC medal itself. The family, and specifically Campbell's elder brother James, aged 90 years, handed over Kenneth Campbell's Victoria Cross for safe keeping to Wing Commander David Simpson, the Officer Commanding 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force. Campbell was flying with 22 Squadron on the day he won his VC, the only cross to be awarded to an RAF torpedo bomber crew.

In the last week of March 1941, two German Capital ships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst arrived in Brest. French Resistance radioed the news to London and an RAF reconnaisance Spitfire confirmed that the report was true. On 4/5 April the RAF carried out a raid on Brest docks and a direct hit was claimed on one of the ships. With the prospect of further attacks and an unexploded RAF bomb that had fallen into the dry dock, the Gneisenau's captain decided his ship would be safer if moored in the outer harbour.

Brest was as heavily defended as any target throughout the war, in any country. In addition, there were the natural defences of the hills around it. RAF Coastal Command was given the task of making a torpedo run against Gneisenau with Bristol Beauforts. An earlier raid by 71 bombers - Wellingtons, Manchesters and Whitleys took place and because of bad weather only 47 aircraft located the target and they caused no damage to the big ships. The three Bristol Beauforts were piloted respectively by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, Flying Officer John Hyde, and Sergeant H Camp, all of 22 Squadron and all veterans. Flying independently, they were to rendezvous near Brest but poor weather prevented this and Campbell made the strike alone. It brought him a posthumous VC.

For the award of the Victoria Cross.

[ London Gazette, 13 March 1942 ]. Over Brest Harbour, France, 6 April 1941, Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell, 22 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

In recognition of most conspicuous bravery. This officer was the pilot of a Beaufort aircraft of Coastal Command which was detailed to attack an enemy battle cruiser in Brest Harbour at first light on the morning of 6th April 1941. The aircraft did not return but it is known that a torpedo attack was carried out with the utmost daring.

The battle cruiser was secured alongside the wall on the north shore of the harbour, protected by a stone mole bending around it from the west. On rising ground 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 this outer harbour near the mole were moored three heavily-armed anti-aircraft ships, guarding the battle cruiser. Even if an aircraft succeeded in penetrating these formidable defences, it would be almost impossible, after delivering a low-level attack, 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.

From the beginning there was little prospect that the 24-year-old Campbell and his crew of three would survive the attack on the Gneisenau. It was merely a matter of getting a torpedo to run true before they were brought down. The battered Beaufort crashed into the harbour, from where the Germans recovered it. They buried the RAF men in Brest cemetery.

The VC citation is interesting because, gazetted one year after the exploit, it was based mainly on reports from French Resistance observers, who reported having seen Campbell coming in 'almost at sea level' and passing the German flak ships at 'less than mast height' and that the Gneisenau was crippled and repairs would take 'many months'. In fact Gneisenau was out of action for nearly nine months. Overall, intelligence must have been very good for the authorities to decide on the award of a VC to Campbell, without waiting for an investigation after the war.

This VC was not just another award for bravery as the action performed by Flying Officer Kenneth Campbell was of immense proportions. There is every possibility that Britain, then fighting alone, may not have been able to continue the war against Hitler's Germany, if Campbell's attack had not crippled the German battle cruiser Gneisenau, and made the supreme sacrifice. Had the German capital ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau been able to break out from Brest and rendezvous in the Atlantic with the Bismark and Prince Eugen, the consequences would have been disasterous for the supply convoys and the already overstretched Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. Britain came periously close to losing the war at that time and the damage inflicted by Kenneth Campbell's conspicuous act of bravery dramatically altered events.


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Iain Stewart, 25 July 2000