Not a forgotten hero — new statue of Mynarski unveiled at former RAF base

by Bruce Cherney

Murray Peden, a Canadian pilot with 214 Squadron of Royal Air Force  Bomber Command, wrote in his book, A Thousand Shall Fall, that the most terrifying moment for any bomber crew during the Second World War was being coned — lit up by searchlights from the ground.

“I feared and hated those baleful blinding lights more than anything else the Germans used against us ... A pilot trapped in a large cone had little chance of escape ...”

For Andrew Mynarski of Winnipeg and the crew of a Lancaster bomber of 419 Squadron, that is exactly what happened on the evening of June 12, 1944, just six days after the Allied landings on D-Day.

“As we crossed the French coast (on the way to Cambrai), I saw enemy searchlights sweeping the sky, then lazy puffs of smoke and deceptively pretty sunbursts of sparks,” related Pat Brophy, a member of the aircrew serving on the Lancaster with Mynarski on that fateful day.

“‘Light flak below, Skipper,’ I reported.

“Suddenly there was a blinding flash, a searchlight caught us. Other searchlights quickly converged, coning the aircraft. ‘Hang on,’ called (pilot) Art de Breyne. ‘We’re coned!’ He threw the Lanc into a banking dive, then swung upwards, trying to squirm away from the deadly glare. Then just as suddenly, we were in the dark again.

“We’d escaped — or had we? The Germans sometimes allowed a bomber to shake loose once their nightfighters had got a fix on the aircraft. It was too soon to tell.”

Brophy, a tail-gunner on the aircraft, said the Lanc descended to 5,000 feet and then he caught a glimpse of a twin-engine fighter. He opened fire on the nightfighter ... “the white-bellied Ju-88 flashed by with its cannons blazing. Three explosions rocked our aircraft.”

It was the events following the attack that earned Mynarski a Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded in the British Commonwealth.

In the entire history of the VC, only 1,351 have been awarded and only 94 to Canadians, starting with Lt. Alexander Roberts Dunn of Ontario who took part in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (1854). And, of the 94 awarded, only 16 were handed out to Canadians during the Second World War, among whom was Mynarski. He was also the first airman of the Royal Canadian Air Force to receive the VC during the Second World War.

To understand the rarity of receiving the honour, during the Second World War over one million men and women served in the Canadian armed forces.

Mynarski is a local hero with a school, a park, a cadet squadron and a memorial dedicated to him in Winnipeg. In addition, a chain of three lakes in Manitoba has been named for him by the Geographical Placenames of Canada. In 1973, he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton calls its restored Lancaster bomber — one of only two capable of flying in the world — “Mynarski’s Lanc.”

A memorial to Mynarski was erected on June 12, 1994 at the park named in his honour, and was initiated by members of Legion Branch No. 134, which is also named in his honour, and members of the Polish Combatants Association Branch No. 13.

Mynarski’s most recent honour is the result of a campaign instigated by a letter from Betty Amlin to the Northern Echo, a British newspaper, which undertook the challenge to raise funds to erect a statue of the Winnipegger at his former airbase at Middleton St. George, Yorkshire, which is in the north of England. Betty is the wife of Jimmy Amlin from Windsor, an airman stationed at the same base during the war.

Her letter to the Echo said that “there is not one iota of recognition of his heroics at the (Durham Tees Valley) airport — he seems to have been forgotten.”

Middleton St. George was renamed  Durham Tees Valley Airport when the RAF sold the base in 1964.

The response was immediate and highly successful. School children in England and Winnipeg — the Winnipeg Free Press took on the campaign on this side of the Atlantic — sent in their donations, as did hundreds of adults, and over $98,000 was raised for the statue.

“We will always remember our forgotten hero,” was the message from the children of the Middleton St. George Primary School at the ceremony dedicating the 8-foot-6 bronze statue. The message was handed over to Keith Maddison, the sculptor, to leave at Mynarski’s grave in Meharicourt, France.

An article published in the Echo related: “From across the globe they came to see an unforgivable wrong righted — the scandal of Andrew Mynarski’s selfless act of fortitude being largely forgotten on these shores at last brought to an end.

“Second World War veterans, schoolchildren, politicians, civic leaders ... all mingled together in the grounds of the St. George Hotel, at Durham Tees Valley Airport, for a truly momentous occasion.”

Those gathered in a driving rain on June 6, according to the newspaper, scrambled for umbrellas, “Yet there was one defining moment when the adverse conditions were forgotten. One glorious moment when, although the heavens had opened up, nobody cared ...

“The magnificent, spine-tingling, droning sound of the legendary Lancaster bomber grew louder and louder as it thundered towards the airport ... The young singers from Middleton St. George Primary School launched into O Valiant Heart as the Lancaster flew by — again and again and again. There was barely a dry eye.”

The Lancaster used in the ceremony was from RAF Coninsby, and with the Lancaster in Canada is only one of two still flying.

The statue commemorating Mynarski was unveiled by Colleen Bacon, the daughter of Brophy.

The Echo declared that Mynarski “is no longer a forgotten hero.”

Mynarski was born in Winnipeg on October 14, 1916, to Polish immigrants who had three sons and three daughters, and lived in the city’s North End. He attended King Edward and Isaac Newton elementary schools and then went on to St. John’s Technical School, but left at age 16 when his father died and he had to help support his family.

In Winnipeg, he was employed as a chamois cutter for a local furrier. In his spare time, he loved to design and build furniture and models in a workshop he built in his basement.

In 1940, Mynarski joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, then a militia unit, but only served a short time. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in September 1941 and was posted to No. 3 Manning Depot in Edmonton, and then went on to No.2 Wireless School in Calgary. But, at wireless school, he had difficulty learning Morse Code so he was sent to No. 3 Bomb and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba where he earned his AG Wing as an air gunner.

He was promoted to temporary Sergeant in Halifax just before he was shipped overseas in January 1942.

In England, he was posted to “manning pool” No. 3 Personnel Reception Depot and then was sent to No. 16 Operational Training Unit. While at OTU, Mynarski trained in Wellington bombers and then in Halifaxes at No. 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit where he became a Flight Sergeant.

Once his training was completed, he was posted to No. 9 Squadron of the RAF which was then flying the Vickers Lancaster bomber. He was subjected to a series of other transfers in the RAF, but found a home with squadron formed of his countrymen, after the RCAF began demanded that Canadian bomber squadrons in England be primarily manned by Canadians. Subsequently, Mynarski was posted to 419 “Moose” Squadron, a heavy bomber unit with 6 Group, which was the Canadian arm of the RAF. The name “Moose” is explained by the squadron patch portraying the animal.

While posted at Middleton St. George, he met the young men who would serve with him as the aircrew of Lancaster VR-A — Pat Brophy, rear gunner; Jim Kelly, wireless operator; Roy Vigars (the only Englishman among the crew), flight engineer; Art de Breyne, pilot; Jack Friday, bomb-aimer; and Bob Bodie, navigator.

The Lancaster bomber is described as a wonder to fly with a top speed of 272 mph and was as nimble as a fighter aircraft. It carried from seven to 11 tons of bombs and was protected by nine .303 machine guns. 

Its one flaw was that it lacked belly guns like those found on the USAF’s B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber. The Ju-88 that brought down Mynarski’s bomber used this vulnerability to its advantage, attacking the Lancaster from underneath. The nightfighter was equipped with a set of 20mm cannons that fired explosive shells upwards at 45 degrees.

The aircrew actually  had one relatively uneventful operational flight in a Halifax, bombing the marshalling yards at Laon, France. After this flight, they received a new Canadian-built AVRO Lancaster MkX.

With the Normandy invasion just two months ahead, bombers were dispatched to destroy railways, roads and bridges leading to the landing beaches to prevent the Germans from moving up reinforcements when the Canadians, British and Americans invaded Europe.

Their first trip was to St. Grislain’s rail marshalling yards, while other raids were made to Ghent, Boulogne and Louvain, to also bomb marshalling yards. They participated in a three-minute attack on a German military camp at Bourg Leopard, Belgium and a raid on a radar station at Cap Griz Nez.

During and after these raids, Mynarski and Brophy developed a close friendship, despite Brophy outranking him as a Pilot Officer. What bonded the two men was there role on the Lancaster — they both served as air-gunners, Brophy as the tail gunner and Mynarski as the mid-upper-gun position. Their isolation from the rest of the crew in the front of the aircraft — they were separated by a long, narrow passageway over the bomb-bay — ensured they would turn to each other for support.

While off-duty, they chummed together. Mynarski even bailed Brophy out of jail after he had gotten into a fight.

J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton in their book, A Nation Forged in Fire: Canadians and the Second World War 1939-1945, wrote that Canadians stationed at Middleton St. George “took out local girls, visited pubs, and accepted invitations for Sunday dinners from Yorkshire families ... And they tried to avoid dwelling on the fact that less than one-third of them would survive their 30-ops tours.” 

In a 1965 Reader’s Digest story, Brophy described Mynarski as “a quiet, chunky fellow with a boyish grin.”

According to Brophy, their routine after a night on the town was for him to say, “So long Irish,” at which Mynarski would snap to attention, make an exaggerated salute and say, “Good night, sir!”

On June 12, the aircrew was to fly its 13th mission. Before taking off and while sitting on the grass beside their Lancaster, Mynarski spotted a four-leaf clover, picked it and handed it to his friend, saying, “Here, Pat. You take it.”

Over France

Brophy said two rounds fired by the Ju-88 knocked out both port engines and set the wing tank between the engines on fire. The third round ripped into the fuselage, starting a fire between “Andy’s mid-upper turret and mine.”

Brophy said the Lancaster began to lose attitude and the intercom was dead.

By this time, the 12th had turned into the early morning of the 13th. Brophy said he looked at his watch, “(and) It was 13 minutes past midnight, June 13, on our 13th operation!

“I could tell by the fire in the fuselage that was sweeping towards me, due to the air drafts in the fuselage, that our aircraft A for Able had had it.”

Brophy pressed the rotation pedal in the rear turret, but nothing happened. He tried the rotating gear handle, but it broke off. He was trapped.

“... I remembered Andy Mynarski’s words: ‘Back there, you’re completely cut off.’

“Then I saw him. Andy had slid down from the mid-upper turret and made his way back to the rear escape hatch, about 15 feet from me, having received the same P signal to bail out by the skipper. He opened the door and was just about to jump when he glanced around and spotted me through the plexiglass part of the turret. One look told him I was trapped.”

Mynarski then climbed over the Elsan chemical toilet and on his hands and knees crawled into the fire fuelled by  hydraulic oil. “By the time he reached my position in the tail,” said Brophy in the Reader’s Digest article, “his uniform and parachute were on fire. I shook my head; it was hopeless. ‘Don’t try!” I shouted, and waved him away.”

Brophy said Mynarski ignored him and grabbed a fire axe to smash the turret free. “It gave slightly, but not enough.”

On fire, Mynarski then grabbed at the turret with his hand. It was futile.“By now he was a mass of flames below the waist. Seeing him like that, I forgot everything else. Over the roar of the wind and the whine of the two remaining engines, I screamed, ‘Go back, Andy! Get out!’”

Mynarski then came to the realization that he could do nothing for his friend ... “he hung his head and nodded, as though he was ashamed to leave — ashamed that sheer heart and courage hadn’t been enough.”

He had to crawl backwards through the flames to reach the escape hatch. All the time he never took his eyes off his friend.

“When Andy reached the escape hatch, he stood up. Slowly, as he’d often done in happier times together, he came to attention. Standing there in his flaming clothes, a grimly magnificent figure, he saluted me! At the same time, just before he jumped, he said something. And even though I couldn’t hear, I knew it was ‘Good night, Sir.’”

When Mynarski jumped, Brophy was the only crew member remaining in the Lancaster — still trapped with the airplane in flames and going down fast. 

What happened as the airplane hit the ground was miraculous. As the Lancaster bellied “into the field, it hit a tree with its port wing, which tore off the flaming wing and engines and spun the aircraft violently to port or left — in one final lurch ... the resulting whiplash 

effect on the tail of the aircraft, snapped the turret around and the doors flew open, freeing me from the aircraft.”

Brophy said he didn’t even have a scratch on his body. While it may be called superstitious prattle, one still has to ask, “Had it been the four-leaf clover given to him by Mynarski that was responsible for such great luck?”

“I’ll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen, so that the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend,” said Brophy as the explanation for his remarkable escape from the clutches of death.

All seven crew members were on the ground and with the exception of Mynarski they were in fairly good shape. French farmers who witnessed his descent said both his clothes and parachute were on fire. He landed still alive and the farmers whisked him off to a doctor, but he died at age 27 from his severe burns and was buried in the local cemetery.

Four of his crew members, including Brophy, with the aid of the French Underground, were able to make their way safely to England. Two others were captured by the Germans and interned until they were liberated in 1945 by the Americans.

When Brophy and de Breyne were reunited in 1945, they started the campaign for Mynarski to receive an award for his valour. Mynarski’s story made its way up the chain of command and a decision was made that the award should be the VC.

The VC was awarded posthumously to Mynarski on October 11, 1946 and was reported as a supplement to the London Gazette:

“Pilot Officer (all Canadian aircrew were made Pilot Officers just prior to D-Day as a demonstration of the equality of citizenship within Canada) 

Mynarski must have been fully aware that in trying to free the rear gunner he was certain to lose his own life. Despite this, with outstanding courage and complete disregard for his own safety, he went to the rescue. Willingly accepting the danger, Pilot Officer Mynarski lost his life by a conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.”

In 30 months of action, 6 Group lost 3,500 men. Another 4,700 Canadians died while serving with other Bomber Command units. In total, 17,101 Canadians serving in the RAF and RCAF died during the Second World War.