Gordon Brettell – Part 2


The Morlaix Mission

26 September 1942 was the date of the ill-fated Morlaix Mission. 133 Squadron was tasked with providing a fighter escort to Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF in their brand new Spitfire IXs. As McColpin was on leave, Gordon Brettell led the squadron on this disastrous mission, flying Spitfire Mark IX, BS313. The 18 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 97th Bomb Group were tasked with attacking a Focke Wulf aircraft maintenance plant and its neighbouring railway yards at Morlaix, with the Brest u-boat pens as their secondary target. Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons 401 and 402 were also flying escort with 133 Squadron.

133 Squadron was scheduled to meet the B17's over the Channel at 25,000ft at 16:00 hours and escort them to the target (a short range mission of less than 150 miles). Although, thanks to the apparent lax discipline only one other pilot accompanied Gordon Brettell to the briefing ("Cider we had for lunch had more authority than we realised", was how one pilot explained later). Not that it is certain that any more would have changed the outcome of the mission.

The forecast was for a 35 knot headwind but thanks to the jetstream (which flips around like an untended pressure hose) what they had was a 100 knot tailwind – in effect, a 135 knot error.

Not seeing the bombers at the rendezvous point they flew on, thinking that they may have gone ahead to the secondary target, and intending to link up with them on their return journey. After failing to make contact they turned for home, unaware that what were then unknown winds that form the jetstream had carried the squadron much further south than they realised. Flying at their mission height of 28,000ft above the clouds, with their fuel situation beginning to deteriorate but expecting to be within sight of the English coast, Gordon Brettell decided to dive through the cloud cover to try to get an idea of exactly where they were. Without an explicit order to stay where they were the others followed him down. Breaking through the cloud base they saw a medium size town on the coast ahead. Believing it to be Southampton, they decided to put on a show in their new Spitfires and tightened up into a close formation. Except it wasn't Southampton – it was Brest. Home to the German u-boat pens and one of the heaviest attacked places on the Atlantic coast – and home to some of the toughest air defences in Europe.

What happened next would have been comedy if not for the tragic outcome of a close formation flypast over those lethal defences. No doubt surprised, the Germans didn't waste any time wondering about the apparently insane behaviour of their foes – they let fly with everything they had.

Gordon Brettell's Spitfire took a direct hit from flak near the point where the right wing joined the fuselage – it blew the wing off and he spun in out of control. He crashed into an apple orchard and was seriously injured – he had broken both legs, an arm, and a number of ribs. In no state to escape he was captured and due to the severity of his injuries was sent to a hospital in Paris (he later recounted the kindness of his French nurses to the man who became his regular 'escape partner', Kingsley Brown, a Canadian bomber pilot). One of his flight leaders, Captain M E 'Jack' Jackson (Blue Flight) who had also been shot down was also on the ward. Later, they both were transferred to Stalag Luft III (Jackson was still there when Brettell's ashes were brought back by the Gestapo).

The rest of the squadron didn't fare much better. Those that survived the wall of anti-aircraft fire or flak were soon set upon by the skilled fliers of the crack JG54 Luftwaffe fighter squadron based nearby to defend the port. Only one aircraft from 133 Squadron made it back to the English coast – only to be destroyed in the crash-landing and its pilot seriously wounded.

The Morlaix Mission roll call

Shot down or forced down

Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell – A / Squadron and Red Section Leader

First Lieutenant Charles A Cook (rank of Captain according to one source)

Captain Marion E Jackson – Blue Section Leader

Second Lieutenant George H Middleton

First Lieutenant George B Sperry

Second Lieutenant Gilbert G Wright

Second Lieutenant Robert E Smith – bailed out over France and evaded capture with the help of the French Resistance. Later returned to Britain via Spain.


Shot down and killed

First Lieutenant William 'Bill' H Baker – Yellow Section Leader (heard on the radio that he was ditching but body not recovered).

Second Lieutenant Gene P Neville

Second Lieutenant Leonard T Ryerson

Second Lieutenant Dennis David Smith


Crashlanded in Britain

Second Lieutenant Richard N Beaty – Critically injured

Gordon Brettell's Distinguished Flying Cross was gazetted on 29 September 1942, three days after he was shot down. However, as notification of the award isn't necessarily on the same date, he may have already known about it. Otherwise, he would have received the news while a prisoner.

The citation mentioned that he had already completed 111 sorties over enemy territory, had been wounded in action and returned to combat, always showed "the greatest keenest" to engage the enemy, and was an excellent flight commander.

After he recovered sufficiently from his injuries he was sent for the customary interrogation at the enemy aircrew transit camp, Dulag Luft where he shared a room with Flight Lieutenant Henry Kenneth Rees (116828) – better known as Ken Rees or Shag Rees, a Wellington pilot, and five others. Two South African pilots shot down in the Western Desert – Shultz and de la Harpe; Jean Regis, a Free French Spitfire pilot; Gordon Lindsay, an Australian fighter pilot; and George Harsh, an American in the RCAF. Rees and Harsh were later to become leading figures in The Great Escape. Harsh, a former prisoner on a Georgia chain gang becoming 'Big S' – the chief of security. Rees later wrote that Gordon Brettell should have had a brilliant career in whatever he did, if he had not been murdered by the Gestapo.


Stalag Luft III, Sagan

Towards the end of November 1942, Gordon Brettell was sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan as part of a group of 35 prisoners (including Rees and Harsh – according to Rees, but Harsh only refers to two others) transferred from Dulag Luft. Here Gordon Brettell became Prisoner No.760.

The Forgery team at Stalag Luft III, led by Flight Lieutenant Gilbert William Walenn (73022) – better known as Tim Walenn, was named after the travel firm Dean & Dawson. The practice of naming various parts of the X Organisation (the name given to the Escape Committee and its various sections) after well known British companies as a security precaution was first used in Stalag Luft I. 

The team was responsible for creating forged travel documents like passports and travel permits. They also created other documents like fake letters from home to add support to a faked identity used by an escaper. For The Great Escape they created 200 sets of documents.  Alexander Cassie (107280) – better known as Alex, was another member of the forgery team. He decided against going out in The Great Escape, and survived the war. In an interview for the tv documentary The Great Escape: The Untold Story he revealed that it took 9 months work. The fact that the documents were all signed and dated played an important role in deciding against postponing the actual Great Escape. In part of the interview, not included in the original programme, Alex Cassie revealed that he shared a room in the camp block with Gordon Brettell, Tim Walenn, Des Plunkett (map maker), Henri Picard, and one other. The five all took part in the escape – four were executed.

The forgery team showed remarkable skill and ingenuity. Kingsley Brown, who teamed up with Gordon Brettell when the two of them worked on Walenn's 'Dean & Dawson' forgery team, remembered Brettell using a razor blade to carve a police department stamp out of a Canadian YMCA hockey puck. While both Brettell and Cassie made ink from lampblack (a pigment obtained from soot) mixed with oil. Cassie's speciality was creating German gothic scripts.


A bid for freedom

27 March 1943 – Transfer of prisoners to the newly opened North Compound begins.

Around this time, taking advantage of the disruption, Gordon Brettell and Canadian Kingsley Brown switched places with members of a work party building the new compound and slipped away while the guards were being distracted with a black market cigarette deal and hid. Their absence was noticed but it was thought that they had somehow walked out the gate. Lying low till dark, they climbed the unguarded wire of the new compound. Setting off on foot they walked through the night and all the next day before catching a train to Cottbus where they caught another train to Leipzig. Disguised as Bulgarian steelworkers, they found themselves sharing a compartment with six German soldiers, one of whom was wearing the uniform of the Afrika Korps. They reached as far as Chemnitz and were even helped by a policeman on duty to buy tickets. However, someone alerted the railway police (possibly a suspicious railway clerk or someone who noticed something when they were seated close by in the bomb shelter during a raid). They were arrested in the station restaurant and after eventually identifying themselves as British officers were later handed over to the Gestapo. Once it was established that they weren't spies they were well treated. The two Gestapo officers interrogating themselves even revealed that they had been prisoners of the British during WWI and one of them had succeeded in escaping (the other was recaptured). The successful Gestapo escapee even wished them better luck the next time as he returned them to Sagan. What a difference a year was to make.

They were briefly held in the village of Grosshartmannsdorf in German Saxony before being returned to Sagan. During their obligatory stay in the cooler, Brettell wrote his own version of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If', with the words altered to celebrate their escape bid.

Paul Brickhill, once part of the security team for the forgery team but best known for writing the book 'The Great Escape', described Gordon Brettell as "a dark, tough customer with a thickset jaw." In the book he refers to an escape attempt by Gordon Brettell around this time which involved concealing himself in the half built North Compound. However, he doesn't mention an escape partner and says he was posing as a French worker, arrested at Chemnitz while trying to buy a ticket to Nuremburg (which had restricted access following a bombing raid). So, either this is an error or Gordon Brettell mounted a solo escape bid (and got three weeks in the cooler for his trouble), probably before this one.

Brettell intended to team up with Kingsley Brown and travel as Bulgarians again (but this time as forestry students) but was forced to make a last minute partner change to Henri Picard. The escape was planned to coincide with the departure on holiday of 'Rubberneck' – a keen and astute ferret (German guard) whose task was to discover tunnels. However, perhaps sensing their plans the Germans decided to forestall them by marching 19 picked individuals – many of them key members in the escape organisation – and 31 other volunteers off to Belaria (a satellite camp some 5 miles off) while he was away. Among them were Kingsley Brown and Brettell's former Dulag Luft room-mate, George Harsh.

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