ACA Woking News by Paul Holden, PRO

15 November 2005

Fighter Command’s “Black Day”

Derrick Croisdale
Derrick Croisdale

At the November meeting of the Woking branch of the Aircrew Association, members were fortunate enough to be addressed by Derrick Croisdale, a member of a neighbouring Branch that meets at Leatherhead, and who had conducted a painstaking and very comprehensive research into a Fighter Command operation that went disastrously wrong, on 26th September 1942.

On that ill-fated day, No. 133 “Eagle” Squadron launched 12 brand new Spitfires, which were destined to be handed over later that week to United States Air Force command, on an operation to meet up with, and provide protective cover for, a formation of B17 “Flying Fortresses” attacking heavily defended targets on the Northwest coast of France.

Two things went disastrously wrong from the start – firstly that the Flying Fortresses took off 20 minutes earlier than scheduled, without telling anybody; and secondly that there was an unforecast, and very strong, 100 mile an hour Northerly wind blowing, above cloud, at their operating altitude of 18,000 ft.

The flight of 12 Spitfires, led by F/Lt Gordon Brettell DFC who was born in Pyrford on 19th March 1915, climbed under radar control from Exeter to the planned rendezvous point in mid Channel – but finding no B17s, commenced to circle whilst they waited for them to arrive. Unknown to them, the Northerly wind was carrying them over the French Coast, and out of radio contact with Exeter.

When their fuel was beginning to get low, and with no help forthcoming from Exeter Radar Control, Gordon Brettell led them down below cloud, as he thought, over the English Channel. But in fact when they broke cloud, they were over the sea South of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German control. Thinking that this was Plymouth, Gordon Brettell decided to give the citizens a friendly show, and tightened the formation to fly over the city at low level. Of course this presented a most vulnerable target to the deadly German Light Anti-Aircraft batteries, and all 12 Spitfires were shot down. Six pilots baled out, of which five became POWs, four were killed, and one broke away damaged, and flew back to England, where he ran out of fuel and was badly injured in the subsequent crash landing.

Gordon Brettell, whose DFC arrived three days after this operation that ended his flying career, was one of those taken prisoner, and became a regular escaper. He served as a forger on the Great Escape, when 81 prisoners got out; and on Hitler’s furious order, was one of 50 recaptured prisoners shot by the Gestapo on 29th March 1944. This was a truly sad end to the distinguished RAF career of one of Surrey’s unsung heroes.

The Branch Chairman, Eric Smith GM, proposed the vote of thanks for this thorough and very moving piece of research, and was able to announce that the monthly raffle had raised £119 for deserving Service charities.

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