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Sgt John Hannah: Attacking Antwerp He Becomes Youngest VC in RAF
Operation: Attack on barges preparing for Operation Seelöwe (Sealion)
Date: 15 September 1940
Unit: 83 Squadron Bomber Command
Location: Over Antwerp
Pilot: P/O Clare Arthur Connor DFC 40892 RAF
Navigator: Flt Sgt Hayhurst DFM RCAF
Rear Gunner: Flt Sgt G James RAFVR
W/Op: Sgt John Hannah VC RAFVR
The relatively small RAF Bomber Command was nothing like the force it would become in just a few years time. It was only equipped with twin engined medium bombers that would very soon be regarded as obsolete. Yet, with fear of an invasion of Britain at its height, RAF Bomber Command was given a task regarded as at least as important as defending the skies above Britain – it was sent out, night after night, to do as much damage as possible to the naval forces that Hitler had gathered for the cross channel attack. Huge number of barges had been observed coming down the Rhine and other rivers and congregating in Channel ports, including Antwerp. Most of these targets were very well defended.
Barges under preparation for the invasion of England
With only four days to go before the countdown for Seelöwe is due to start, Grand Admiral Räder is summoned to meet Hitler in Berlin. At the meeting are Generals Keitel and Jodl, the naval adjutant, Commander von Puttkamer, and Admiral Schniewind. The invasion is not the only item on the agenda though. Räder seeks and gets permission for the "strict execution" of submarine warfare. This entails the removal of all previously agreed restrictions on operations.
As to Seelöwe, Räder observes - making it clear that he means no criticism - that owing to weather conditions and 'the situation in air warfare' the planned minesweeping has been delayed until now and is still greatly hampered. Nevertheless, he states, the new deadline of 21 September can be met. Barges are already in position and all the transports will be in place in time for embarkation. The invasion appears possible 'if attended by favourable circumstances regarding air supremacy, weather, etc.'
There was no shortage of bravery amongst the RAF aircrew that had to face them. It was during an attack on the barge fleet at Antwerp that Sgt Hannah was called on to perform heroic deeds that earned him the Victoria Cross, the highest Allied award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
John was born in Paisley, Scotland on 27th November 1921, the son of an employee of the Clyde Trust and, after receiving an education at the Bankhead Public School, Victoria Drive and Glasgow Secondary School, young John Hannah started to earn a living, as a shoe salesman, in order to contribute to the family purse. On 15th August 1939, however, he decided to enlist with the RAF for a 6 year regular engagement, and after initial indoctrination and attestation at RAF Cardington that month, was posted to No 2 Electrical and Wireless Training School on 14th September 1939 to train as a wireless operator.
On qualifying in this trade he was sent to No 4 Bombing and Gunnery School at West Freugh for a brief course in air gunnery, and on 18th May 1940 was sent to 16 OTU, Upper Heyford to complete his air-crew instruction as a Wireless Operator Air Gunner (WOP/AG). Promoted to Sergeant on 27th May 1940 – he was then only 18 – he joined 106 Squadron on 1st July, based then at Thornaby, Yorkshire and operating Handley Page Hampden bombers. His stay was brief, and on 11th August, he arrived at RAF Scampton to join 83 Squadron’s Hampden bombers for operations.
On 15 September 1940, fifteen Handley Page Hampden bombers took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack enemy barges moored at Antwerp in readiness for Operation Sealion. During the action, the plane piloted by Pilot Officer C A Connor was hit by anti-aircraft fire and caught fire. The navigator and rear gunner, Flight Sergeants D A E Hayhurst and G James, baled out. However, the radio operator Sergeant J Hannah fought and extinguished the blaze, though terribly burnt, allowing the plane to return to Scampton. Connor received the DFC and Hayhurst the DFM. The Germans postponed Operation Sealion a couple of days later.
L-R: Sgt John Hannah VC P/O Clare A Connor DFC
Citation for Victoria Cross:
On the night of 15th September, 1940, Sergeant Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner in an aircraft engaged in a successful attack on enemy barge concentrations at Antwerp. It was then subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and received a direct hit from a projectile of an explosive and incendiary nature, which apparently burst inside the bomb compartment. A fire started which quickly enveloped the wireless operator’s and rear gunner’s cockpits, and as both the port and starboard petrol tanks had been pierced, there was grave risk of the fire spreading. Sergeant Hannah forced his way through the fire to obtain two extinguishers and discovered that the rear gunner had had to leave the aircraft. He could have acted likewise, through the bottom escape hatch or forward through the navigator’s hatch, but remained and fought the fire for ten minutes with the extinguishers, beating the flames with his log book when these were empty. During this time thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, but had the presence of mind to obtain relief by turning on his oxygen supply. Air admitted through the large holes caused by the projectile made the bomb compartment an inferno and all the aluminium sheet metal on the floor of this airman’s cockpit was melted away, leaving only the cross bearers. Working under these conditions, which caused burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah succeeded in extinguishing the fire. He then crawled forward, ascertained that the navigator had left the aircraft, and passed the latter’s log and maps to the pilot. This airman displayed courage, coolness and devotion to duty of the highest order and, by his action in remaining and successfully extinguishing the fire under conditions of the greatest danger and difficulty, enabled the pilot to bring the aircraft safely to its base.
The London Gazette of 1 October 1940, Numb. 34958, pp. 5788-89
Inspection after landing of the fire damage to John Hannh's plane
On landing, the true extent of John’s injuries became apparent, and it was immediately arranged to transport him to a nearby Service hospital for emergency treatment. On 1st October 1940 came the official awards of a VC to Sergeant John Hannah; a DFM to Sergeant Hayhurst (Canadian pilot), and a DFC to Pilot Officer C.A. Connor, who landed the plane with Hannah. Tragically, Connor was not destined to wear his DFC for long, as he was killed after a bombing sortie to Norway on 3rd-4th November 1940. Hannah was informed of his award whilst a patient in Rauceby Hospital, Lincolnshire, but after his discharge on 7th October 1940, accompanied Connor to Buckingham Palace on 10th October for their investitures.
Hannah did not return to operational flying and on 4th November reported to 14 OTU, Cottesmore for instructor duties. Here, in January 1941, he met Janet Beaver (1921-2005) his future wife, and on 1st April 1941 was promoted to Flight Sergeant. On 21st July 1941, he married Janet and they went on to have three daughters. In September, he was posted to No 4 Signals School, Yatesbury for further instructor duties, but his health began to deteriorate and he soon contracted TB; resulting in a full discharge from the RAF on 10th December 1942 with a full disability pension.
He initially took a job as a taxi driver, (using a car his aunt had lent him), but owing to increasing ill health he returned the car in 1943. He then found it increasingly difficult to support his wife and three small daughters. Finally, on 9th June 1947, aged just 25, John passed away in Markfield Sanatorium, Leicester, leaving his widow Janet and three daughters. He was laid to rest with full military honours in St James the Great Churchyard, Birstall, Leicestershire.
John Hannah's headstone is inscribed: "Courageous Duty Done In Love, He Serves His Pilot Now Above."
Twenty years later, on 6th May 1967, Janet presented her husband's medals to 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton.
His wife, Janet Hannah, was later interred at Birstall with her husband.
An inscription reads "Loved and remembered always Janet Hannah Aged 83 years".
When 83 Squadron was disbanded later, the medals were passed on to RAF Scampton itself. The medals are now held in the keeping of the RAF Museum, Hendon. (with thanks to Molly for these touching details)
Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include:
Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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