First VC of WW2 was won by RAF Halton airman

  |  Published: May 12th 2015
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Thomas Gray joined the 20th Entry of aircraft apprentices at RAF Halton in 1929 and trained as an engine fitter. On leaving Halton in August 1932, Tom volunteered for flying duties as an air gunner, this aircrew category was usually filled at that time by ground tradesmen on a voluntary basis in addition to their normal duties. Following a short course of instruction at No 1 Air Observers School, he was retrained as an air observer, equivalent of the later category of Navigator. By the start of the war in 1939 he was a member of No 12 Squadron flying the Fairey Battle Light Bomber. On 2nd September 1939, 12 Squadron was deployed to France.

On the 12th May 1940, one bridge over the Albert Canal in Belgium in particular was being used by the invading army and bristling with protection from fighter aircraft utilising anti-aircraft and machine guns. The RAF was ordered to demolish this vital bridge, and five Fairey Battle bombers of 12 Squadron were despatched from the grass airfield near the village of Amifontaine, France, with Sergeant Gray as the navigator in the lead aircraft.

As they approached the Veldwezelt bridge, they were attacked by enemy fighters and soon met a wall of anti-aircraft fire, they pressed home the attack and the bridge was hit; much of the success being due to the coolness of the pilot of the leading aircraft, 21 year-old Flying Officer Donald Garland and the navigation of 25 year-old Sergeant Tom Gray. Unfortunately the lead aircraft and three others did not return; they died either crashing in the village of Lanaken or in the hospital in Maastrict, Netherlands. Flying Officer Donald Garland and Sergeant Thomas Gray were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery. These awards were the first air VCs of World War 2. The Air Office citation read:

Air Office, 11th June, 1940

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under mentioned officer and non-commissioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:

Flying Officer Donald Edward Garland (40105)

563627 Sergeant Thomas Gray

Flying Officer Garland was the pilot and Sergeant Gray was the observer of the leading aircraft of a formation of five aircraft that attacked a bridge over the Albert Canal which had not been destroyed and was allowing the enemy to advance into Belgium. All the aircrews of the squadron concerned volunteered for the operation, and, after five crews had been selected by drawing lots, the attack was delivered at low altitude against this vital target. Orders were issued that this bridge was to be destroyed at all costs. As had been expected, exceptionally intense machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire were encountered. Moreover, the bridge area was heavily protected by enemy fighters. In spite of this, the formation successfully delivered a dive-bombing attack from the lowest practicable altitude. British fighters in the vicinity reported that the target was obscured by the bombs bursting on it and near it. Only one of the five aircraft concerned returned from this mission. The pilot of this aircraft reports that besides being subjected to extremely heavy anti-aircraft fire, through which they dived to attack the objective, our aircraft were also attacked by a large number of enemy fighters after they had released their bombs on the target. Much of the success of this vital operation must be attributed to the formation leader, Flying Officer Garland, and to the coolness and resource of Sergeant Gray, who in most difficult conditions navigated Flying Officer Garland's aircraft in such a manner that the whole formation was able successfully to attack the target in spite of subsequent heavy losses. Flying Officer Garland and Sergeant Gray did not return.

Thomas Gray and Donald Garland are remembered in today’s RAF with a barrack blocks named after them and a stained glass window in St Georges Church at RAF Halton, commemorates Tom’s bravery. A portrait of him by the famous war artist Frank Beresford hangs in the Larkin Lobby in Halton House Officers’ Mess. Both airmen are buried at the Heverlee War Cemetery near Leuven in Belgium.

Sadly, Sgt Gray had six brothers of whom three were also killed in the war. Three of his brothers were also former Halton apprentices and Flying Officer Garland’s three brothers were also in the RAF and killed in action.

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