Bennett and the Tirpitz

Leadership was a key quality in sustaining aircrew morale, and the commander of the Pathfinders, Donald Bennett, was above all things an inspirational leader. Apart from his technical skills which were close to genius, he had immense courage and steadfastness of nerve. These qualities were shown to the full in his attack on the Tirpitz in 1942.

ATTACK ON THE TIRPITZ

In his book Pathfinder, Bennett tells the story of  being shot down whilst attacking the Tirpitz. At that time, he was the commander of 10 Squadron stationed at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire. The attack on the Tirpitz took place on 27/28 April 1942. The crew of Bennett’s Halifax were:

W/C D C T Bennett, Sgt H Walmsley (2nd Pilot), F/Sgt J Colgan (F/E), Sgt T H A Eyles (Nav), Sgt C R S Forbes (W/op), Sgt J D Murray RCAF and F/Lt H G How (gunners)

As Bennett’s aircraft approached the ship, it was hit many times and the tail gunner wounded. In a masterpiece of understatement, Bennett summed this up as ‘things were far from peaceful’.

The Tirpitz was hidden by a defensive smoke screen, and was almost impossible to locate exactly. Bennett’s calibre is shown by the fact that even though his aircraft was on fire and badly damaged, he still went round to try a second run. He released the mines as best as possible, then turned east towards neutral Sweden. Things were so bad that he then gave the order ‘Prepare to abandon aircraft’.

I regret to say that one member of the crew became a little melodramatic. He said, ‘Cheerio, chaps; this is it, we’ve had it.’ I told him very peremptorily to shut up and not to be a fool, that we were perfectly all right but that we would have to parachute.

Because the tail gunner, Flight Lieutenant How, was badly wounded, Bennett kept the aircraft in the air as long as possible so that How could escape with the aid of the flight engineer, Flight Sergeant Colgan. Bennett finally jumped just as the aircraft began to break up.

After baling out, he chanced across his w/op Sergeant Forbes in the darkness. At first both of them thought that the other was a German.

Suddenly I realised that he was one of my own crew, and I said, ‘It’s all right. It’s your Wing-co, it’s your Wing-co.’

The story of the two men’s trek through deep snow  is deeply engrossing. After many hardships, and the assistance of the Norwegian people, they made it through to neutral Sweden.

All the crew of seven survived. Four, including Bennett, made it back to England, the rest were captured. Bennett arrived back in England exactly one month after he had been shot down. He immediately hitched a ride in an Anson to RAF Leeming where his wife and children lived.

The Intelligence boys were furious that I had not reported immediately to London to be interrogated. I could not have cared less.

Less than seven weeks later, Bennett became commander of the Pathfinders.

Book exerts from D C T Bennett, Pathfinder: Wartime Memoirs (Frederick Muller, London, 1958)

NEWSPAPER REPORTING

11 May 1942, “Daily Sketch”
From Bennett file at Australian War Memorial at Canberra, AWM 2019.8.1367

4 May 1942, “Daily Telegraph”
From Bennett file at Australian War Memorial at Canberra, AWM 2019.8.1367


BENNETT’S MAE WEST

The Australian War Memorial at Canberra now owns the Mae West which Bennett was wearing when he was shot down. Bennett had buried this Mae West and his parachute under snow once he was safely on the ground.

Within hours, both were safely recovered and hidden by local villager, Redier Fordal. Most of the parachute materials were salvaged and used by the village, but Reidel kept the Mae West hidden from the Germans until the end of the war […]

Don Bennett died in 1986. In 1992, Bennett’s widow, Mrs Ly Bennett, visited Trondheim on the 50th Anniversary of the raid and was presented with this Mae West by Reider Fordal, who had kept it safe for 50 years in the hope he could present it personally to Don Bennett. The Mae West was then donated to the Pathfinder Force Association (Queensland) upon Ly Bennett’s death in 2000, before being offered to the Australian War Memorial in 2006.

Australian War Memorial at Canberra text, the variants in the Christian name are the museum’s.

See AWM Item: REL34487

THE FATE OF THE TIRPITZ

The Tirpitz lived on until 12 November 1944, when RAF Lancaster bombers finally sunk it. (See United News Broadcast).

Wing Commander William Anderson who was stationed at PFF HQ wrote in 1946:

They gave the Wing Commander [Bennett] a DSO and a far more important job even than sinking a battleship. But he still felt a little sore about it. And it was a relief to us [at the Pathfinders] when the Tirpitz was sunk in Tromso Fjord. For a picture of her used to hang in his office, and if ever she had got loose on the high seas I doubt if anything would have stopped him having a crack at the one thing that has so far got the better of him.

William Anderson, Pathfinders, (Jarrolds, London, 1946)


“Bennett and the Tirpitz” was researched and written by JENNIE MACK GRAY, Chairperson of the RAF Pathfinders Archive

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