The Victoria Cross – Part 2

Hatfield connections: the de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito – designed by a team (mainly drawn from Hatfield) at Salisbury Hall, London Colney, but first flown from Hatfield, and later also made at Hatfield – featured in the stories of a number of the air VCs of WWII. Sometimes before they received their award, sometimes after. However, there are also two WWI Victoria Cross recipients with Hatfield links.


World War I

2nd Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse, Royal Flying Corps. The first airman to be awarded the Victoria Cross, he also has the distinction of being the first person recorded as having flown over Hatfield in 1911.

Click here for Moorhouse, Rhodes and Rhodes-Moorhouse VC, DFC – Part 1



Lieutenant-Colonel John Stanhope Collings-Wells, Bedfordshire Regiment (renamed the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment after WWI) – having previously served with the Herts Militia, he was commissioned in 1904. Recalled to active service in 1914, Captain Collings-Wells served with distinction. Picking up wounds, promotions and awards – including a DSO. He was made acting Lieutenant Colonel in command of the 4th Battalion. However, it was the German Spring Offensive of 1918 which was to be his finest and final hour. On 24 March 1918, he led a small band of men, fighting to their last bullets, to provide cover for withdrawing British forces. Later, on 27 March, after being in almost continuous action for six days, he led an assault on Bouzincourt Ridge, near Albert. Having taking nearly taken their objective, Lt.Col Collings-Wells, who had been wounded in both arms, was 'almost physically dragged away' for medical treatment. In a bitter twist of fate, the bunker where he was being treated took a direct hit from a German mortar killing him and three other officers. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in April 1918 (it is on display at the Wardown Park Museum, Luton). A memorial plaque, along with the colours of the Bedfordshire Regiment, can be found in St Etheldreda's Church, Hatfield. It is dedicated to Lieutenant-Colonel John Stanhope Collings-Wells VC DSO, the Officers, NCOs, and Men of the 4th Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment (Herts Militia) who fell in Belgium, France, Egypt and Palestine during WWI. It was consecrated by Lord William Cecil, then Bishop of Exeter, in December 1920.


World War II

Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson (39438) – the legendary leader of 617 Squadron, better known as 'The Dambusters'. Won his VC for the famous 1943 raid while flying a specially modified Avro Lancaster. Killed later in the war while flying a mission as 'Master Bomber' in DH.98 Mosquito KB267. The exact cause of the crash remains a mystery but witnesses on the ground say the aircraft was on fire before it crashed. It's not clear whether KB267 was made at Hatfield or at another plant.


Group Captain Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire (72021) – another legendary RAF hero who was awarded the second 617 Squadron VC in 1944. His award was unusual in that it was not awarded for a single act of bravery, rather for 100 operational missions across four tours of duty. And many of these were extremely hazardous operations. Cheshire did a lot of pioneering work in low level target marking, and in a highly unusual move was loaned two DH.98 Mosquito. He first used ML976 on operations on 4 April 1944 to 'mark' an aircraft factory outside Toulouse. ML976 was built in Hatfield (its batch mate ML963 was photographed on a test flight from Hatfield on 30 September 1944 by Charles E Brown, resulting in some of the most iconic images of this famous plane). Cheshire's success meant 617 Squadron was assigned a small number of Mosquito aircraft for their sole use. There is some uncertainty about the serial numbers of these but NT202 and NT205 were Hatfield-built examples. After the war, Cheshire achieved success as a humanitarian and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1981, and was created a Baron ten years later.


Group Captain Hughie Idwal Edwards (39005) – Australian airman awarded his Victoria Cross, while flying the Bristol Blenheim with 105 Squadron, for a low level raid on Bremen in 1941. 105 Squadron, after a suffering heavy losses while carrying out anti-shipping operations from Malta was sent to Swanton Morley. Here it became the first squadron to be equipped with the DH.98 Mosquito Mk.IV bomber – demonstrated to them by Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, flying W4064, on 15 November 1941. The then Wing Commander Edwards returned from Malta to take command of the squadron on 3 August 1942. He led the Mosquito-equipped squadron on several operations (among the aircraft he used were Hatfield-built DK323 and DZ365) till he was posted to a Bomber Command HQ job in February 1943. 


Squadron Leader Robert Anthony Maurice Palmer (115772) – while Guy Gibson met his death in a Mosquito, some think Squadron Leader Palmer died because he wasn't flying one. On his 111th combat sortie, Squadron Leader Palmer was flying as a Pathfinder – tasked with marking the target (railway marshalling yards at Cologne) for the rest of the following aircraft on a hazardous daylight raid. The Pathfinder force on this mission was a mix of Lancasters and Mosquitoes (it is reported that he usually flew a Mosquito but decided to take a Lancaster to give a less experienced crew a better chance of surviving the hazardous raid). Approaching the target, he was hit and set on fire by flak and then attacked by fighters. However, he held his course unswervingly and managed to release his bombs successfully. His aircraft was last seen spiralling down in flames. The deputy master bomber in a Mosquito – Hatfield-built ML998 – was also shot down in flames. Both crewman – F/Lt Eric Charles Carpenter, RCAF, J.4918, and his navigator, P/O William Thraves Lambert, RAFVR, 145181 – were killed. In all more than half of the aircraft on this raid failed to return. Squadron Leader Palmer was 24 when he died, and his medal citation ended: "His record of prolonged and heroic endeavour is beyond praise".


Unsung heroes

It is worth remembering that not everyone who deserved a nation's highest honour received it.

The reasons for this are many:

 – it may have been they weren't entitled to it at the time (posthumous awards only became possible after the Boer War, members of the Indian armed services only became entitled after 1911).

– their personal relationship with their senior officers was such that they weren't put forward for the award.

– their bravery did not meet the criteria of 'in the face of the enemy'. There are different types of courage: an instinctive act to aid wounded comrades after suddenly being ambushed often is a spur of the moment decision with little time to consider the risks involved. Contrast that with the case of bomb disposal experts who make a lonely walk to a device that may well detonate at any second (even if it hasn't deliberately been booby-trapped), do what needs to be done – then go on to the next device, day in and day out. The author would argue that it takes more courage to do the latter role than a selfless and heroic dash under fire while carrying an injured comrade – a more instinctive reaction.

– there were no survivors to bear witness to what had happened.

– a refusal by authorities to do extra paperwork.

Pilot Officer Warren Frank Cowan (407614)

On the night of 21/22 July 1942, the Japanese landed an Army Division at Buna, 110 miles south of their airbase at Lae on the eastern coast of New Guinea. It was a desperate attempt to launch an attack through the jungle on Port Moresby. On 22 July 1942, a 32 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, Lockheed Hudson, A16-201, took off on what was to be its final mission (it appears to have been a lone reconnaissance mission, although another Hudson from the same squadron – flown by Flight Lieutenant L W Manning – is also known to have been in action that day).

The Lockheed Hudson was a twin engine bomber with a maximum speed of around 253 mph (407 kph), and for protection had 2x 0.3 inch (7.62mm) machine guns in the nose; another two in the dorsal turret, a single gun of the same type to be fired from a ventral hatch, and some versions had single guns for side hatches.

Lockheed Hudson A16-201 was new, having entered service in April that year and assigned to the squadron in May. At the controls was Pilot Officer Warren Frank Cowan (407614). On board with him were 33 year-old Pilot Officer David Reid Taylor (408206), Sergeant Russell Bradburn Polack (411183) and Sergeant Lauri Edwin Sheard (416369), 24 and 22 years-old respectively.

Providing aerial cover to the beach-head were a number of Mitsubishi Zeroes of the Imperial Japanese Navy (there wasn't a separate Japanese air force in WWII, military aviation came under army or naval air wings). The Zeroes from the Sasai Squadron of the Tainan Air Group, which had transferred to this area of operations in April 1942, were led by fighter ace Saburo Sakai – destined to become Japan's top scoring surviving ace.

Suddenly spotting bombs bursting in the beach-head area, the Zeroes roared in looking for the attacker or attackers. They soon spotted a lone Hudson in the distance.

Mitsubishi A4M 'Zero' was armed with 2x 20mm cannons and 2x 7.7mm machine guns and had a top speed of 351 mph. According to his autobiography there were six aircraft in the formation; however, some accounts put the total as 8-9. Whatever the total was there was no doubt about the outcome.

Expecting an easy kill, Saburo Sakai was stunned when the Hudson whipped round in a fast turn – more like a fighter than a bomber plane – and returned his fire. The Japanese formation was thrown into chaos. PO Cowan threw his aircraft around in a brilliant display of flying ability, making it impossible for the Japanese pilots to get a clear shot – no small feat, given that the Zero was one of the fastest and most nimble aircraft in the world at the time, and Japanese naval pilots were trained to an extremely high standard. After a 10-minute dogfight – an extremely long time for such an unequal battle – the end came when a burst of fire hit the turret gunner. With the tail of the aircraft undefended the Zeroes were able to close in and set the plane ablaze. Too low to bale out, Sakai watched as the stricken Hudson glided towards the jungle canopy, ploughed in and exploded.

The Japanese pilots were astounded by the fight put up by Cowan and his crew. Saburo Sakai, who took part in over 200 air combats, never forgot the bravery of the then unknown Hudson pilot and crew. His post-war autobiography led to Warren F Cowan, who had been simply listed as Missing in Action, being identified as the gallant airman. Sakai valiantly tried to convince the Australian authorities to honour his fallen foe – even writing to their Ministry of Defence in 1997. Sadly, they refused to act on the basis that the files were closed – and that it could open the way to further appeals.

One can only wonder how many other stories of heroism and courage were never recorded – let alone rewarded.

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