The true story behind East Anglia’s comic book war hero
- Credit: Archant
It was a propaganda raid that backfired disastrously. Seventy-five years on, Steve Snelling tells how RAF Bomber Command’s most costly operation of the Second World War was redeemed in part by a Suffolk-born pilot’s courageous determination in the face of ‘almost impossible odds’
The attack when it came was as shattering as it was shocking. In the bomber’s cockpit, Cyril Barton wrestled with the controls in a frantic but futile attempt to evade the darts of fire peppering his aircraft.
For several minutes, the four-engine Halifax weaved a corkscrew-like pattern through the night sky as a stream of white tracer raked its fuselage, puncturing fuel tanks, cutting the crew’s intercom, wrecking the radio and setting the starboard inner engine on fire.
From the rear turret, its gunnery system rendered suddenly useless, Freddie Brice heard the sound of bullets “thudding” into the aircraft and saw sparks “shoot” past him as the bomber began to “vibrate badly”.
Moments later came a second attack which Barton successfully dodged. And then another which he did not, before a fourth and final attack was at last beaten off.
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Suddenly the sky fell quiet. There was no flak, no searchlights and no sign of any night-fighters. But what appeared once again to be a “normal” flight quickly proved anything but.
As Barton took stock he made the startling discovery that he was three crewmen short. In the confusion of the attacks, the navigator, bomb-aimer and wireless operator had baled out.
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It marked the beginning of an epic flight on a harrowing night 75 years ago that would go down in history as RAF Bomber Command’s bloodiest and most controversial raid of the Second World War.
Cyril Barton was an unlikely war hero. A teetotaller and non-smoker who had suffered severe bouts of meningitis and peritonitis as a youngster, he was a practicing Christian and helped run regular Bible classes.
Born in 1921 at Elveden in Suffolk, where his father worked as an electrical engineer for the wealthy Guinness family on the Earl of Iveagh’s Breckland country estate, he was a bubbly and good-natured boy who shared his faith with a passion for aviation.
According to his sister Joyce he dreamed of flying. Family legend even had it that as a five-year-old he had filled his sleeves with freshly plucked chicken feathers, climbed onto a coal shed and leapt off, flapping his arms in a vain attempt to take flight!
Growing older he had to make do with building model aeroplanes until the exigencies of war gave him the opportunity to fulfil his ambition and exchange his job as a draughtsman for an aircraft component manufacturing company for that of a trainee pilot with the Royal Air Force.
By then, his family, who had settled in New Malden in Surrey, had returned to Suffolk to escape the German air raids. Seeking his father’s permission to join up, Cyril wrote to his father in Newmarket. A veteran of the horrors of the First World War, he “grudgingly” acceded to his son’s wishes even though he felt certain he could have been exempted from military service “on the strength of your medical record”.
Promising to write to the Air Ministry, he added: “I wish you every success and a happy ending to your enthusiasm. Stick to your principles hand have faith… ‘Happy Landings’.”
Pilot training in the United States and the UK followed before he joined an operational squadron at Breighton in North Yorkshire in September 1943 as a flight sergeant soon to be promoted pilot officer.
From the start, according to the late Norfolk-based aviation historian Chaz Bowyer, his constant goal was efficiency. “He had no place for slackers in his crew,” he wrote. Nor did he allow any idle chit-chat on operations.
“We had to concentrate,” Lambert noted. “There was a lot of hard work required and our lives depended on it.”
Having sharpened their “individual and collective skills”, they flew their first combat sortie together on September 15-16 and followed it with four more missions within a fortnight.
A little over a month later, they had their first brush with disaster when flak struck their aircraft during a raid on Leverkusen. Lambert was one of two crewmen injured, but despite severe damage Cyril as he had become known, succeeded in flying back to make an emergency landing at Woodbridge.
There was no let-up in the action. Just 11 days after his narrow escape Cyril and his crew, complete with temporary replacements, raided Berlin at the start of a spate of perilous attacks on some of Germany’s most heavily defended industrial centres which continued into the New Year with a posting to 578 Squadron and a move to Burn.
Flying a new Halifax, LK797 ‘E’, which they christened ‘Excalibur’ and decorated with its own sword motif, their raid tally quickly mounted. Among the ‘ops’ was a difficult mission to Frankfurt during which Cyril was forced to fly the whole way home with his bomb doors gaping open.
The fraught journey paralleled another more personal struggle which had been troubling him ever since he enlisted. Writing to a friend in March 1944, he told of his decision to “openly kneel in my bed in prayer every night - something I have funked since my first days in the RAF”.
A few days later, he finally plucked up the courage to do so, while his bomb-aimer and wireless operator were listening to the radio. What he called “an awkward hush” followed when one of them “very reverently” turned down the volume.
“The Lord was very real to me for a few minutes and I was very thankful to Him for bringing me through,” wrote Cyril, “whatever the consequences might be.”
He had just completed his 18th mission and was “looking forward to finishing” his operational tour “within a reasonably short time”. Next up was Nuremberg, a city synonymous with Nazism and those hate-fuelled pre-war rallies.
Codenamed Operation Grayling, the raid was a controversial one. Intended to strike a damaging blow to enemy morale, it was inherently risky, involving a perilous flight plan that included a 265-mile straight leg south of the Ruhr followed by a 79-mile run-in to the target, and made even worse by an unfavourable weather forecast.
Len Lambert was among a host of aircrew and senior officers who fully expected the mission to be cancelled as soon as aerial reconnaissance reported little prospect of cloud cover on the way out and an overcast sky over Nuremberg.
But for reasons never satisfactorily explained the mission was not aborted and ‘Barton’s Barmy Bomber Boys’, as the crew of ‘Excalibur’ had been dubbed, were among a 795-strong force climbing into the air a little after 10pm on March 30, 1944.
As forecast, conditions were hardly encouraging. Freddie Brice remembered there being “little cloud and a brightly lit moon”. Climbing steadily, they passed through “what little cloud there was… into a sky almost as light as day”.
It was an ominous portent. Brice noted: “As we continued on our way the sky remained almost cloudless… We realised it was a night for the night fighter…” And so it proved.
During an hour of deadly combat nearly 60 bombers were shot down at a rate of almost one a minute between the Belgian border and the final run-in to Nuremberg. It was a slaughter without parallel in the RAF’s strategic bombing offensive and ‘Excalibur’ was in the thick of it.
Brice recalled being bracketed by searchlights with flares lighting up the sky as a magnet for enemy fighters. “The bomb aimer reported an aircraft was being attacked ahead,” he wrote, “and then yet another.”
‘Excalibur’ survived unmolested until the turning point for the final run-in when there was what Lambert described as “a terrific clatter” as cannon shells struck the bomber in “a brilliant display of blue flashes and then flames” spewing from the aircraft’s electrical circuits. The first in a series of attacks by a Junkers 88 and then a Messerschmitt 210 dealt Barton’s crew a savage blow. With the intercom dead and flames gushing from the bomber’s starboard inner engine, Lambert made ready for a hasty exit only to find the escape hatch had jammed.
In trying to kick it free, with his parachute already billowing open, he suddenly found himself falling through space. Whether he had been pushed from behind or thrown out by the aircraft’s violent manoeuvres he never knew. But seconds later he was followed out of the bomber by the bomb-aimer and wireless operator.
The terrible realisation that ‘Excalibur’ had lost an engine, at least 400 gallons of fuel, its entire communications system as well as having most of its protective armament rendered useless was compounded by the discovery that the men responsible for the aircraft’s bombing and navigational guidance were missing.
For the 22-year-old pilot it was a moment of truth. As one aviation historian wrote: “If Barton had now decided to bale out the rest of his crew and himself; or at least jettison the incendiary bomb load no one could have blamed him.”
However, he chose to do neither, preferring instead to ‘press on’ to the target and complete his duty in a badly damaged bomber without key personnel or the means to defend itself from attack.
With no precise idea as to his actual location Barton was forced to make an educated guess at the course to follow and steered towards the glow of what he took to be target indicator flares lighting up a city which he took to be Nuremberg but in all likelihood was probably Schweinfurt, to the north-west, where he personally released his bomb load.
Then, having scorned the idea of diverting to neutral Switzerland, he began the long plod home with only the Pole Star and a flight map to guide him across hundreds of miles of Occupied Europe.
And, against all the odds, he very nearly made it. Having avoided “bunches of searchlights” and dodged the worst of the enemy’s flak hot-spots, he passed over the French coast and Brice, who had gone forward, remembered him, “with a big grin on his face”, giving “the thumbs-up sign”.
They might have diverted once again to Woodbridge, but instead elected to make for their home base, staying well clear of the coast for fear of inviting ‘friendly fire’ from anti-aircraft batteries.
Eventually, with fears growing as to the fuel situation, a light was spotted to the west through the murk of a grey dawn. “It must be land,” wrote Brice. “We made for it and as we passed over it we found it was indeed land. We didn’t care where and I think we all said a silent prayer.”
It would be answered for some but not all. A burst of anti-aircraft fire greeted their first approach until an SOS flashed from the nose silenced it. Seemingly undaunted, Barton was “grinning all over his face” as he shouted to his surviving crew to take up ‘crash positions’. Seconds later Brice felt “a bump” as the aircraft “lurched to starboard and port” followed by “a blue flash”. “The next thing I remember was a deadly silence. I thought, ‘this is it’.”
Blacking out briefly, he recovered his senses to hear voices calling. “I became conscious of faces looking down on me and I raised myself up and soon willing hands were pulling me out over the wreckage.”
‘Excalibur’ had made landfall at Ryhope Colliery, near Sunderland, some 90 miles north of its base, the last of more than 90 aircraft lost on that disastrous night 75 years ago. During its final descent with just one fully functioning engine, Barton had succeeded in avoiding all but one house before plunging to earth on the edge of a railway cutting, killing one man on his way to work.
It was a final act of self-sacrifice. In devoting himself to his mission and then to saving his crew, Barton paid the supreme price. Barely alive when lifted from the broken remains of his cockpit, he succumbed shortly after in hospital while his three crewmen escaped with only minor injuries.
A few days later, his younger brother delivered a letter to his mother which Cyril had written almost a year earlier, shortly before going on operations. “I hope you never receive this,” it began, “but I quite expect you will…
“All I can say… is that I’m quite prepared to die, it holds no terror for me. I know I shall survive the judgement because I have trusted in Christ as my own Saviour. I’ve done nothing to merit glory, but because He died for me it’s God’s free gift… I commend my Saviour to you.”
Some three months later the London Gazette of June 27, 1944, announced the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross to the aircraft-mad boy from Suffolk for a display of “unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty”.