Extract from Harry Stannus' (bomb aimer) memoir



Extract from Harry Stannus' (bomb aimer) memoir


Account of operation to mine Brest harbour entrance, William Holmes was pilot and captain of aircraft. Used acoustic mines, describes briefing by naval officer, trip out, being engaged by heavy anti aircraft fire and finally dropping mines after several runs. Describes near mid air collision with an Me 109 on return flight. Notes that pilot Bill Holmes was awarded Distinguished Flying Cross for this operation.

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One of our crew’s most memorable exploits was an assignments to may mines in the harbour-mouth of Brest. This French ports was a heavily fortifies U-boar base giving a wide radius of access to the north/south and east/west Atlantic sea routes uses by allied shipping. The U-boats, in port for provisioning in preparation for further ocean patrols, were berthed in strongly reinforced concrete shelters which could not be penetrated by the most powerful armour piercing bombs then available. TO make it as difficult as possible for the U-boats to pit to sea again the Royal Navy had enlisted the services of the R.A.F. for mining operations and 149 Squadron was one of the unites selected to do the work. The mines used were the acoustic type; they were triggered by the sound vibrations of a ship’s engines or propellers transmitted through the water but the firing pin mechanism could be pre-set to allow a number of transits, perhaps up to six, over them before they were detonated. This, of course, would have a very demoralizing effect on the minesweeper crews whose job it was to try to clear the harbour entrance to allow the U-boats safe inbound or outboard passage. There would always be the possibility that an undetected mine could need only one more pass to detonate it under a minesweeper. We were told the crews were changed frequently to try to sustain their morale for their very hazardous job.

The naval officers who briefed us for the operation would not divulge much of the technical details of the mines to us and stressed the importance of our ensuring none of them be released until we could be quite sure of their dropping into the water,. For all we knew, the Germans could already have known the details and specifications of these weapons but it was very clear to use that if we allowed any that we were carrying to fall on land where they could be disarmed and examined by the enemy there would be unpleasant repercussions. The Navy maintained a virtual daily watch by Fleet Air Arm reconnaissance on activity in Brest Harbour, and as soon as it was judged that the last batch of mines had been detonated or otherwise cleared the next sortie was organized.

Having supervised the arming and loading of the mines in the bomb-bay of our aircraft the naval officers departed and left us to the task they had given us.

Shipmast M mother, the coded radio call sign for our aircraft, was cleared for take-off at 2237 hours on the night of June 17 1944. On a southerly course to the west of London plotted by Chalky White, our Navigator, we soon crossed the coast and were out over the English Channel heading for Brest. There was no moon but the visibility was good as we neared our drop area at an altitude of 3500 feet about two hours later, I left my seat beside Skipper Bill Holmes and went down to the nose of the aircraft. Using the bombsight to line us with the landmark we were to use for the start of our mine-laying run, I began giving the Skipper course corrections to take us in. As we make our approach, searchlight beams began raking about near us as thumps of exploding bursts of flak jolted the aircraft. Seconds before we were to pass over the harbour shire and I could press the bomb toggle to release our string of mines I was blinded by the direct glare of a searchlight; with the target landmark no longer visible to me, we had to turn out over the sea and turn in again for a second run. This time more searchlights seemed to be manned and the flashes of fire from the anti-aircraft guns became more frequent; one searchlight beam and then others locked on to us and Bill had to take evasive action which again precluded our making a clean drop. So once again we went out and around for a third run. Lying on my stomach in the nose of the aircraft I probably has the best overall view of the enemy’s defensive activity. I therefore told Cyril Marjoram and Doug. Bacon, respectively the mid-upper and rear-gunners, to fire towards searchlights and gun-flashes even though they were perhaps out of normal range. This they did and the probing searchlight beams dropped away as the tracer bullets from our Browning machine guns and the thumps of exploding flak ceased as we could imagine men leaving their posts and running for cover from our leaden rain falling on them. This time we completed our run and made the drop unmolested in the required location and turned for home with no injuries and only a few shrapnel holes in the aircraft.

Chalky gave a course for Selsey Bill on the English South Coast and when we were about half-way across the Channel we were all probably inwardly congratulating ourselves on once again having left the scene of the action unscathed. I suppose too, that we had relaxed our earlier alertness a little when a sudden roar over our heads jerked us to attention. Looking up at that instant, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a single-engined aircraft speeding away about 20 degrees of our heading to port. It undoubtedly was a Messerschmidt [sic] 109 which had been vectored on to us by enemy ground control near the French coast. They had done their job well, the fighter’s track precisely intercepting ours with no more than four feet of vertical clearance separating the two aircraft. We had escaped almost certain career terminations either by collision or gunfire in that missed appointment over the Channel for we saw no more of him and he quite definitely has seen nothing of us, There must have been some puzzled discussion between the Me 109 pilot and ground control as he was returning to base.

Following an interview the next morning with our Squadron Commander Bill was given an immediate award of D.F.C . which, upon receiving our warm congratulations, he was quick to say graciously he regarded as an award to the crew as a team.



H Stannus, “Extract from Harry Stannus' (bomb aimer) memoir,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 19, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/17960.

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