Charlie Brennan’s trip to Berlin

PIC: Humphries collection, Lincolnshire Libraries

A recent research trip to the National Archives in Kew has highlighted a previously unreported incident in the RAF career of Sgt Charles Brennan, the Canadian flight engineer who flew alongside John Hopgood in AJ-M on the night of the Dams Raid.
Brennan was born in Canada on 22 February 1916 and emigrated to the UK in 1928. He joined the RAF in England at the outset of the war, and after training worked as ground crew. When the opportunity came for skilled ground crew to qualify as flight engineers for the heavy bombers he took the chance, like many other enthusiastic young men who were keen to fly. His course at No 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan finished in June 1942, and he was then posted to 106 Squadron. He joined John Hopgood’s crew, and flew on his first operation with him on 15 August, on a trip to Dusseldorf. Another 15 operations followed over the next two months, the last being the attack on the Le Creusot factory on 17 October, the last operation of Hopgood’s tour.
At this point, for some reason, Brennan was not allocated to another crew to finish his tour. Instead, he was posted to 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby on 25 November, to train other crews, even though he was only halfway through his own tour of operations.
In the middle of January 1943, 1660 Conversion Unit was told that it would be required to provide two crews for two special maximum strength force attacks on Berlin on successive nights. These would be crewed by a mixture of instructors and students in the final stages of training. Brennan was allocated to a Lancaster crew headed by Plt Off Stanley Harrison, a pilot who had finished one full tour and one period of instructing. He was halfway through a second in 97 Squadron when, for some reason, he had been given another instructional role.
The crew that night was made up of:

Plt Off S Harrison DFM, pilot
Sgt C Brennan, flight engineer
Flg Off J Henderson, navigator
Plt Off P Robins, wireless operator
Sgt T Beesley, bomb aimer
Plt Off K J Knight, mid upper gunner
Flt Sgt R G Cross, rear gunner

The text that follows is taken from Harrison’s 1992 memoirs.

[In January 1943] there occurred an incident in which I take no pride. …
[O]n the morning of the 17th, I was told that I would be detailed together with a composite crew for that night. We carried out a night flying test and found that the aircraft, although it had been hammered on ‘circuits and bumps’ over many months, appeared to be in good order. At briefing it was confirmed that Berlin would be the target and that we would be following the same route as on the previous evening.
After briefing, I called the crew together to talk through what was obviously going to be a long and arduous sortie. I found the three students in good heart but the instructors, all of whom had completed one tour, were very, very reluctant to undertake a Berlin operation while they were officially ‘on rest’. I made it clear that we had absolutely no option but to carry out our orders to the best of our ability; but we went out to the dispersal with the instructors still in a very sullen mood.
I started the engines and we went through the various pre-flight checks with the three instructors offering excuse after excuse, trying to persuade me to find some reason for declaring the aircraft to be unfit for the operation.
To add to the discord, I found that, because I had been flying Manchesters for the previous two or three months, I had forgotten that Lancasters had been modified to operate the send/receive changeover switch for the radiotelephone set in the reverse sense to what I was accustomed to, and that we had been transmitting all our chat to the outside world! I transmitted a quick apology, and then told the crew that I would ask for takeoff clearance straight away, and then we would be off to Berlin.
We took off and started the slow climb to the English and Dutch coasts and to our operating height of 20,000ft. When we reached 10,000ft and had been some 30 to 40 minutes on our way, I gave the usual order to turn the oxygen on (the aircraft was not pressurised and it was necessary for the crew to breathe oxygen enriched air the whole time we were over 10,000ft.)
It was then that the instructor manning the mid upper turret announced that his oxygen bottle was less than half full and he would therefore be able to stay at 10,000ft plus for only a short time. The other two instructors joined in the chorus of demands for me to abort the mission and return to base.
Obviously, in the pre-takeoff confusion, I had forgotten to ask each crew member to check his individual oxygen supply. I was now in a terrible dilemma. There was no necessity to abort a mission because one crew member was short of oxygen. On the other hand, we would clearly be handicapped if we were able to reach our operating height for only a short time while in the Berlin area. We would for the greater part of the long trip be 10,000ft below the main bomber stream and liable to be picked off by a night fighter.
Thus it was that I caved in and returned, tail between legs, back to base. I explained why I had aborted to the station commander, who made no comment. I felt sure that he would have heard the chat on the intercom which I had inadvertently broadcast prior to takeoff, and so would have understood my dilemma.
I should add that never before or later did I experience anything remotely like the ‘lack of moral fibre’ exhibited by the three instructors. A final postscript; my concern about falling victim to a night fighter had I pressed on, was given weight by the news we received later, that on that night, of the 170 Lancasters and 17 Halifaxes on the mission, 19 Lancasters and three Halifaxes were shot down; while on the previous night of 201 aircraft, one Lancaster only was lost.
(Stanley E Harrison, A Bomber Command Survivor, Sage Pages Australia, 1992, pp107-9.)

This text, and the crew list printed above, makes it easy to identify that one of the three instructors was mid upper gunner Plt Off K J Knight. It is also clear that the bomb aimer, Sgt Beesley, was one of the three students referred to: he would go on to transfer to 57 Squadron as one of the crew of Sqn Ldr Melvin Young (although he was replaced as Young’s bomb aimer before the Dams Raid.) It is likely, given that both were commissioned officers, that the other two instructors referred to by Harrison were the navigator, Flg Off Henderson, and the wireless operator, Plt Off Robins. Although Charles Brennan was an instructor in the unit, Harrison does say that the instructors had all completed a full tour, and Brennan was only halfway through his first. At this stage in the war, the trade of flight engineer had only been in existence for a few months and very few would have completed a full tour of operations. Harrison may therefore have mistaken him for a student, and so the students in the crew were Beesley, Brennan and the rear gunner, Flt Sgt Cross.
In a sad postscript for all concerned, it seems that Flg Off Knight did return to operations. An officer with the same initials and surname was lost on a raid on 3 September 1943. He had been recommended for the DFC shortly before this, and the citation was published in the London Gazette eleven days later.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Charlie Brennan’s trip to Berlin

  1. Jenny Elmes December 4, 2017 / 3:08 pm

    May I just say that Charlie Brennan was the most dedicated and loyal Flt Engineer my uncle, John Hopgood could have had; he swabbed Hopgood’s head wounds on the way to the Mohne dam, refused to turn back, and died alongside him on that fateful night of 16/17th May 1943, a true hero!

  2. Paul December 4, 2017 / 5:08 pm

    It take a morally strong and cautious pilot to realize and resist the urge to continue on with the mission with the problems you described. And then to publicly admit his mistakes further proves his ability to choose wisely. As a pilot it was a pleasure to read your story. Well done Sir.

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