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Wings Over Wick
David E Hornell - Canada
Fourteen Canadian airmen and three aircraft were lost as a result of action against the enemy. In July of 1944 a Canadian pilot who flew from Wick was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The official citation of the award tells the details of the story.
"F/L Hornell was captain and first pilot of a twin engined amphibian aircraft engaged in an anti-submarine patrol on northern waters. The patrol had lasted for some hours when a fully surfaced U-Boat was sighted, travelling at high speed on the port beam. F/L Hornell at once turned to the attack.
The U-Boat altered course. The aircraft had been seen and there could be no surprise. The U-Boat opened up with anti-aircraft fire which became increasingly fierce and accurate. At a range of 1200 yards the front guns of the aircraft replied, then its starboard gun jammed, leaving only one effective. Hits were obtained on and around the conning tower of the U-Boat, but the aircraft was itself hit, two large holes appearing in the starboard wing.
Ignoring the enemy's fire, F/L Hornell carefully manoeuvred for the attack. Oil was pouring from his starboard engine which was, by this time, on fire, as was the starboard wing, and the petrol tanks were endangered. Meanwhile, the aircraft was hit again and again by the U-Boats guns. Holed in many places, it was vibrating violently and very difficult to control
Nevertheless, the captain decided to press home his attack, knowing that with every moment the chances of escape for him and his gallant crew would grow more slender. He brought his aircraft down very low and released his depth charges in a perfect straddle. The bows of the U-Boat were lifted out of the water, it sank and the crew were seen in the sea.
F/L Homell contrived, by superhuman efforts at the controls, to gain a little height. The fire in the starboard wing had grown more intense and the vibration had increased. Then the burning engine fell off. The plight of aircraft and crew was desperate. With the utmost coolness the captain took his aircraft into wind and, despite the manifold dangers, brought it safely down on the heavy swell. Badly damaged and blazing furiously the aircraft rapidly settled.
After ordeal by fire came ordeal by water. There was only one serviceable dinghy and this could not hold all the crew. So they took turns in the water, holding onto the sides. Once, the dinghy capsized in the rough seas and was righted only with great difficulty. Two of the crew succumbed to exposure.
An airborne lifeboat was dropped to them but fell some 500 yards down wind. The men struggled vainly to reach it and F/L Homell, who throughout had encouraged them by his cheerfulness and inspiring leadership, proposed to swim to it, though he was nearly exhausted. He was with difficulty, restrained. The survivors were finally rescued after they had been in the water for twenty -one hours.
By this time F/L Hornell was blinded and completely exhausted. He died shortly after being picked up. F/L Hornell had completed 60 operational missions, involving 600 flying hours. He well knew the danger and difficulties attending attacks on submarines. By pressing home a skillful and successful attack against fierce opposition, with his aircraft in a precarious condition, and by fortifying and encouraging his comrades in the subsequent ordeal, this officer displayed valour and devotion to duty of the highest order."