Halifax V9978 (18/12/1941)

Halifax V9978 was one of six No. 35 Squadron aircraft detailed to attack the battleships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) in Brest Harbour on 18th December 1941 (daylight).

It was crewed by:

  • Basil Vernon Robinson (Pilot)
  • Harry R Larson (2nd Pilot)
  • Alfred Abels (Observer)
  • Norman Henry Hood (WOP / AG)
  • Walter Harold Mennell (WOP / AG)
  • Richard Charles Rivaz (Air Gunner)
  • Frederick Esmond Perry Burtonshaw (Flight Engineer)

The route was as follows: Base, Lundy Island, Lizard Point, Lanildut, Target

The squadron’s Operations Record Book shows “Heavy flak burst observed under port wing by other aircraft in the formation. V9978 was repeatedly hit. Port inner engine failed immediately after leaving target, feathered with difficulty. Shortly afterwards starboard outer engine failed and at 12.41 hours a Glycol leak developed in the same engine followed by a small fire and flames were observed in the cowling. The same engine totally failed at 12.50 hours. Propeller boss holed by shrapnel. Port inner engine and port main plane behind port inner engine both holed by shrapnel. Subsequently aircraft made a successful landing on the sea and crew took to dinghy until rescued. Excellent visibility”.

All personnel were rescued; RC Rivaz sustained a slight injury to his ankle.

V9978 [IWM C3046]
Halifax V9978 over the target area during this raid [Source: IWM C3046]

The aircraft of FO Wilkerson circled the ditched aircraft and crew in the dinghy and for half an hour remained in the vicinity, communicating by wireless to the shore stations and did not depart until he was satisfied that everything had been done to ensure the rescue of the crew in the dinghy.


Cause / Location of Loss

  • Flak Damage
  • In the sea, 50 miles south of Plymouth

P4 Casualty File

The following Casualty File is available at the National Archives:

AIR 81/11099 Flying Officer R C Rivaz: injured; Wing Commander B V Robinson, Sergeant H R Larson, Flying Officer A Abels, Sergeant N H Hood, Sergeant W H Mennell, Flight Lieutenant F E P Burtonshaw: uninjured; aircraft crashed at sea on return from operational flight over Brest, France, enemy action, Halifax V9978, 35 Squadron, 18 December 1941.

ADM199/2327 Admiral Superintendent’s Office

18 December 1941, the 6th Motor Launch Flotilla operating out of Lowestoft received a report of a Halifax ditching. ML 157 was sent to the area. Seven men in the water, seven rescued.

Extract from Coastal Command Review Vol.1:

An investigation, for Air Sea Rescue, into a forced landing in the sea by an aircraft of Bomber Command has revealed a story of such practical interest as to justify its inclusion in this review, as an example of how the job should be done. It was a Halifax II and it was lost on 18th December 1941. The incident has proved that four-engined aircraft are no more dangerous to ditch than twin, with the aid of previous drill.

While engaged on operations over north-west France, the aircraft had taken off from Linton-on-Ouse at 0959 hours to attack German main naval units. Prinz Eugen, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst.  (Operation Veracity I). Fighter protection was given by 10 Squadron of Fighter Command. Both port motors were struck by flak. Only the port inner airscrew was feathered, the port outer mechanism having failed. Thus the captain was forewarned of the impending ditching. When the aircraft was struck by the flak, at 14,000 ft., considerable difficulty was experienced in maintaining a low rate of descent. Full rudder and aileron bias and full aileron with half rudder was required in order to control the aircraft. At 5,000 ft. all hope of maintaining height was abandoned and preparation for ditching began.

The wireless operator remained at his set, transmitting SOS, and he put I.F.F. to distress signal. Owing to the exertions of the captain in controlling the aircraft, the second pilot was unable to strap him in. The crew moved to the following ditching stations: second pilot prone on the floor between the rest seats, the navigator, rear gunner and engineer lay on the floor with their feet braced against the rear spar, the front gunner lay on the rest seat with his feet against the fore spar. The crew were not anchored to the aircraft.

Six hundred gallons of fuel remained in the aircraft. There were no bombs and the bomb doors were closed. No equipment was jettisoned. The wheels were up. A gradual descent was made at approximately 110 m.p.h. at 2,800 r.p.m. on both starboard engines. Any increase of power above this resulted in loss of control. At about 1,000 ft. the wireless operator moved to his ditching station on the rest seat with his feet braced against the fore spar. Both the mid-upper and the pilot’s upper exit were opened before ditching.

The sea was calm with a very slight swell. The wind was 5 m.p.h. Conditions of visibility were good with warm sunshine and little cloud.

The starboard engines were throttled back and the aircraft was glided down into wind at about 110 m.p.h. with flaps up until close to the surface. The aircraft was then held off and the tail wheel touched with the nose only slightly up. The impact occurred in the neighbourhood of 85 m.p.h. The rate of descent was almost imperceptible. As the aircraft struck the water the nose dug in and all forward speed was immediately lost while a deluge of water surged over the aircraft. When this had subsided the water level in the fuselage was 2 ft. deep and seemed to be the same level as the water outside. A great deal of water entered the aircraft from the broken nose and the upper escape hatches. The front turret was dislodged. It was noted that the propeller tips were bent. In spite of his not being secured the captain was neither thrown forward nor received any injuries. The tail gunner was the only casualty; he sprained his foot, which he considers was due to not bracing it carefully enough.

Immediately the aircraft came to rest the engineer operated the manual releases. The captain escaped by his own upper exit and the remainder of the crew through the mid-upper exit. The dinghy (” J ” type, Mark III) released satisfactorily and the drill was carried out without a hitch ; it had been well practised previously.

The aircraft remained afloat for 40 minutes with the right wing and nose slightly down. The dinghy was punctured while clearing the aircraft but the leak was effectively stopped with the stoppers provided, so that topping up was only required every quarter of an hour.

Throughout the descent the two remaining aircraft in the ‘section kept in touch with base and finally communicated the position of the ditched aircraft, 50 miles south of Plymouth. One and a half hours after ditching, a Lysander appeared and remained circling overhead until visual contact had been established between the rescue boat and the dinghy. A motor launch, with two others in attendance, rescued the crew at 1600 hours.

BBC History Peoples War [Story by WH Mennell]

I served in the RAF from October 1940 to October 1946, as a wireless operator/air gunner in bomber command.

As a newly arrived WOP/AG at Linton-on-Ouse in No. 4 Group, 35 squadron, it was a rude awakening to find myself in the front turret of the C.O’s Mark ll Halifax doing intensive training at formation flying in preparation for a daylight attack on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (the german pocket battleships in Brest docks). This was to be a joint effort with 18 Halifaxes from 10, 35 and 76 squadrons of 4 Group, 18 Stirlings from 3 Group. 11 Manchesters of 5 Group, with a fighter escort.

With W/Cdr ‘Robbie’ Robinson as skipper we took off from Linton when we joined up with 10 and 76 Squadrons to rendezvous with the other two groups off Lundy Island.

It was a clear sunny cloudless sky on the 18th December 1941 when we approached the French coast about midday. In the front turret of the leading Halifax I had a front row view as we changed from a vic formation to line astern. Although our escort kept the enemy fighters busy, we met very accurate flak, the first round exploding just ahead of us as we flew through its smoke. As one of our 2000 lbs bombs hung up at the first attack Robbie decided to make a further attack, this time from the land direction when the two port engines were damaged by flak, one of which could not be feathered causing considerable drag and we were forced to lose height to maintain flying speed. It struck me afterwards that although I was unable to swim I was in no way fearful of landing in the sea.

We ditched about 50 miles from Start point and took to the dinghy which inflated just as described in the manual but Robbie immediately clambered back on to the mainplane and back to the cockpit to retrieve his pipe which he had left in the cockpit. He always flew with his unlit pipe poking from the side of his oxygen mask.

F/Lt Rivaz our tail gunner who had broken a bone in his foot with the landing advised us not to open the brandy in the dinghy until we were picked up (He had previous ditching experience!)

Another aircraft in the formation circled us and transmitted our position, but had to leave us. Some time passed and we were beginning to get anxious when we saw the cross trees of a ship on the horizon which proved to be a naval torpedo boat which had been searching throughout the night for a Whitley that had ditched. Once on board we were very well looked after. Each crew member went to his bunk and shared with us his stored tots. We finally arrived in Dartmouth not a little drunk. to find ourselves being ushered into the naval guard room (a room in a pub!}. We were given beds in the Royal Naval college and the following day travelled back to York where we were met on the station by half the squadron singing “Winco’s in the drink”

Back on the squadron we were expecting to get survivor’s leave only to find being on standby for another visit to Brest.