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Philip Brentnall: D-Day Deception Specialist

15 December 1918 - 4 October 2017

Pilot who led bombers dropping ‘window’ to deceive the enemy on D-Day and create a ‘ghost fleet’

CAPTAIN PHIL BRENTNALL DFC, who has died aged 99, led a small force of RAF bombers that created a 'ghost invasion' on the night of D-Day in June 1944; he went on to have a distinguished career as a training captain and fleet training manager with British Overseas Airways Corporation and British Airways.

During the build-up to the invasion of France the Allied command had devised a complex deception plan to convince the German defences that a large army had been formed in the South East of England and was being prepared for an amphibious assault across the narrowest part of the English Channel. The culmination of this intricate operation during the night of June 5/6 was to create the impression that a large fleet was approaching the Pas-de-Calais at the same time as the true invasion fleet was heading for Normandy.

To deceive the German radars, the scientists devised a plan for bomber aircraft to drop 'Window' – thin metallic strips which confused enemy radar – in a precise manner to create a 'ghost fleet'. This required extremely accurate flying, navigation, timing and co-ordination with a small fleet of boats towing radar-reflecting balloons and using electronic jammers and fake broadcasts. For almost a month the two squadrons tasked with the operation conducted trials and flew practice missions against radar sites in Yorkshire to perfect the techniques.

Brentnall was a flight commander on 218 Squadron and one of its most experienced pilots. Late in the evening of June 5, he took off with seven other Stirling bombers (two were reserves) on this unique and vitally important operation. A similar force of Lancasters of 617 Squadron had the same task approaching Cap d’Antifer.

Brentnall’s crew was reinforced with a second pilot, two navigators and four airmen to act as 'Window' dispatchers. After take off they started to fly the complicated series of orbits while dispensing window as they crept to within 10 miles of the French coast. The operation, the most elaborate piece of 'spoofing' in the electronic jamming war, was successful and drew high praise from the senior Allied commanders.

In his BOAC days

Shortly after this event, Brentnall was awarded the DFC, the citation commenting that his involvement resulted in 'an outstanding success'. He was assessed as an exceptional pilot, his squadron commander writing: 'His contribution to the success of the squadron was unequalled.'

Philip Brentnall was born in Manchester on December 15 1918. He joined the RAF in 1940 and trained as a pilot in the USA under the US/UK bi-lateral Arnold Scheme. After a period as a flying instructor he converted to bombers and joined No 218 Squadron in October 1943.

By the autumn of 1943 the four-engined Stirling was coming to the end of its time as a strategic bomber following heavy losses. The aircraft was being used increasingly to lay sea mines in the Baltic and close to the U-boat bases in the French ports along the Bay of Biscay. It was an operation not without its dangers, particularly when flying at low level.

Brentnall flew his first mining operation on October 17, and over the next few weeks he visited the Frisian Islands, Jutland, Kiel and numerous French ports. In the build-up to the D-Day landings he reverted to the bombing role and attacked railways and marshalling yards in northern France and the flying-bomb sites in the Pas-de-Calais region.

After his sortie on D-Day, the squadron replaced its Stirlings with the Lancaster and Brentnall bombed targets in Germany. After flying 30 operations he was rested and became an instructor on the Lancaster. Towards the end of 1945 he trained pilots to fly the new Avro York transport aircraft and early in 1946 he was seconded to BOAC.

Brentnall’s early experiences of flying as a first officer to more elderly Imperial Airways captains, and their reluctance to accept advice convinced him of the need to formalise the roles of the monitoring pilot, now known as part of Crew Resource Management or CRM. Over the next three decades, Brentnall was to concentrate on training and the development of the company’s first officers to become effective pilot monitors and future captains.

Brentnall flew the company’s early piston-engined airliners and became a training captain on the Argonaut and then the new Comet 1, the world’s first jet airliner. Following the Comet’s withdrawal in 1954 he moved to the Douglas DC 7C fleet.

He was one of the company’s first pilots to operate the Boeing 707 and in 1959 became the Fleet Training Manager when he developed the operating procedures for the aircraft, which were subsequently used throughout the airline. In addition to being an outstanding pilot and training manager, Brentnall was also an innovator. He ensured that first officers were able to operate with a complete role reversal when flying a sector and they were trained on instrument and procedural flying to the same standards as captains. In January 1961 he was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

In 1969 he and a fellow captain delivered BOAC’s first Boeing 747 to Heathrow and he became responsible for the introduction of the airliner into BOAC service. Following the merger with British European Airways (BEA) in 1977, he became the General Manager Flight Training for all of British Airways until his retirement.

In 1979 the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators (GAPAN) awarded him the Cumberbatch Trophy for his 'outstanding contribution to aviation safety'. A senior BA captain and colleague described him as 'the architect of the fine safety and performance record achieved by BOAC and BA'.

A kind, modest and understanding man, Brentnall was greatly admired in the airline industry. A keen theatre and operagoer, he made a formidable bridge pair with his wife, and after her death he continued playing doubles; he and his bridge partner topped their club and came 21st out of 640 pairs across the UK.

He spent much of the summer months each year picking fruit, bottling it and making jam. The pantry was full on his death.

Phil Brentnall married his wife Hannah in 1958 and she died in 2012. A son and daughter survive him.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 03 April 2021, 17:07