Many thanks to Chris for putting together this fantastic account of the Narvik reconnaissance flight undertaken by F/L Aubrey Breckon and his crew on the 12th April 1940. The post was prompted by a recent post relating to the possible eligibility of this crew for the Arctic Star medal, announced at the same time as the Bomber Command clasp. Whilst this award was mainly for seamen, it has a qualifying criteria that relates to aircrew that also flew within the Arctic Circle.
The New Zealand Flight had been formed in England on 1 June 1939 to fly out to New Zealand a number of Wellington bombers for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. When war broke out, the NZ Government immediately placed the six Wellingtons, twelve pilots and six ground crew in the flight at the disposal of the British Government.
Aubrey Arthur Ninnis Breckon came from Northcote, Auckland, New Zealand, and had been a newspaper photographer (for the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Weekly News), as was his father. He gained his commercial pilots licence in 1931, and his photographs survive in various museum collections, including many fine examples of aerial and aviation photography.
In 1935 he travelled to England to take up a commission in the Royal Air Force. He transferred to the RNZAF in 1939, and was one of the founding pilots of the New Zealand Flight.
The formation of a New Zealand Bomber Squadron within the RAF had been approved on 1 March 1940, but had not yet taken place on the 27th March, when the New Zealand Flight made its first operational sortie, a reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping operation in which three Wellingtons flew to Brunswick, Ulzen, and Luneberg.
In this very early stage of the war, Bomber Command was not allowed to drop bombs on anything other than military objectives, and then, only if there was no risk of injury to civilians. So the Flight’s activities were limited to training, reconnaissance, and dropping pamphlets.
The first significant operation took place on 12 April, an extremely dangerous long distance reconnaisance to northern Norway.
Germany had invaded neutral Norway by sea on the 9th of April, mainly because of its dependence on Swedish iron ore, which during the winter was shipped primarily from the ice-free Norwegian port of Narvik. Narvik was already held by the Germans – the first naval Battle of Narvik had taken place on the 10th May and the Royal Navy wanted to sail up the fifty-mile-long fjord on the 13th of April to complete the destruction of German naval units in the Narvik area.
Flight Lieutenant Aubrey Breckon RNZAF and his crew from New Zealand Flight, but temporarily attached to Coastal Command, and with a Royal Navy observer, were tasked to find out whether there was enemy shipping which might ambush British forces from the many inlets off the main fjord.
This was intended be part of a series of reconnaissance flights to Norway, arranged at very short notice, and considering their difficulty, with minimal planning.
Breckon and his crew were selected, along with another crew from 38 Squadron, RAF Marham, to fly to RAF Bassingbourn on the 10th of April and collect two older Mk1 Wellingtons, on loan from 11 Operational Training Unit. They were being fitted with long-range fuel tanks, but on arrival at Bassingbourn, Breckon’s crew discovered that because they were training aircraft they were not fitted with D/F loops, self-sealing tanks or armour plating. LAC Williams, the W/Op, had to find a D/F loop and fit it himself.
The two crews flew to RAF Wick in Scotland early the next morning, and had the day to check over their aircraft, with the help of maintenance staff borrowed from Marham and Feltwell. RAF Wick was home to 269 (GR) Squadron, Coastal Command, flying Avro Ansons, and three fighter squadrons, all flying Hawker Hurricanes, so local Wellington expertise was non-existent. “Unfortunately we were rather handicapped by the absence of necessary tool kits, trestles and other equipment for the maintenance personnel.” said Breckon in his report.
The crew was:
Flight Lieutenant Aubrey A.N. Breckon, RNZAF (NZ1025, 70016) – Captain &1st Pilot.
Pilot Officer Donald J. Harkness, RAF (41694) – Pilot.
Sergeant Observer Robert H. Hughes, RAF – Navigator.
L.A.C. Edwin P. Williams, RNZAF (NZ38235) – W/Operator.
A.C. Thomas L. Mumby, RAF – Gunner Observer.
For the flight they were joined by Lieutenant Commander F.O. Howie, R.N., who acted as a Naval Observer for ship recognition and naval reconnaissance reporting.
The Wellington, L4387, coded LG-L, had been lightened wherever possible and fuelled up to capacity, in the absence of a bomb load.
They took off at 8am, into a squally north-west wind and worsening weather, heading for a target 1000 miles over the North Sea, and past the Arctic Circle. The course was set for Narvik, and landfall was made 5 hours later at the Lofoten Islands after a crossing in extremely bad weather conditions. “The ceiling” said Williams, “was 1,000 ft., with dirty sleet and mist, getting worse as we neared Narvik . . . the Navigator took wind drifts on crests of waves every twenty minutes. Our wireless was no longer of any assistance.”
On the way over they had sighted a number of vessels of the Royal Navy. They were 500 miles out, heading for the same destination. These were the ships which on the following day sailed into Narvik Fjord and destroyed seven German destroyers.
They had arrived at the coast of Norway only 10 miles off course, but visibility on the coast was approximately 2-3 miles, 10/10 cloud at 800 feet, with an extremely strong wind blowing and it took the Navigator about a quarter of an hour to find the right fjord.
Williams: “We had a little trouble in finding the right fjord which led up to Narvik, for every little inlet and river seemed alike on such a rugged coast. The weather was so bad that we could not fly higher than a thousand feet above sea-level. The further up we went the lower became the ceiling. The fjord began to narrow until huge rocks towered up on either side of us. Their peaks were hidden in dirty mist and sleet. Snow drifted down, so that soon we could only see a few yards ahead. The ‘wind-locks’ were terrific, bouncing and throwing us about until we had barely enough room to turn round.”
Breckon: “A great effort was made to reach the town of Narvik but although we were nearly over the top of it, we had to turn back for our own safety. We were flying at 200 feet in a heavy snow storm with the cloud closing in on us making us wonder if we could make a safe exit.”
Williams: “Visibility was almost nil. Up till that moment we had been able to see the surface of the fjord. Now we could do so no longer. We went about and picked our way down the fjord again, feeling our way along the cliffs like a boat hugging the shore. Suddenly we saw once more the open sea.”
At the same time, they saw a Ju 86 twin-engined bomber, apparently also engaged in reconnaisance, but no attack was made. As they set course for home at 1410 hrs, they also saw two destroyers escorting a merchant ship towards Narvik.
While we were in the vicinity of Narvik,” said Williams, ” our magnetic compass showed errors varying between 20 and 30 degrees. The wireless was useless for reception purposes.” Low cloud and drizzle also hampered their return flight.
For more than six hours no land was sighted. ” Darkness was falling and our petrol-gauges were touching the zero mark. Lifebelts were blown up, the Astro-hatch was opened, and all prayed for petrol coupons.” Still experiencing bad weather, the exhausted crew made landfall near the Shetland Islands at 2018 hrs.
At 10.30 in the evening, after a flight of well over 2000 miles, the Wellington finally touched down at Wick with only 37 gallons of petrol left in its tanks.
With no automatic pilot fitted, the two pilots had manually hand-flown the aircraft for 14 hours 30 mins. It was one of the longest flights undertaken by a Wellington bomber, and an RAF record at the time.
The mission had been successful: its crew had been able to report that Narvik Fjord was clear of enemy shipping up to within 10 miles of the town.
On the next day the second battle of Narvik was fought – seven enemy destroyers and one submarine were sunk by the Royal Navy.
Unfortunately the second crew were not so lucky. On the 13th they went on a similar reconnaisance to Trondheim, but failed to return, apparently crashing into the sea on their homeward journey.
Breckon was detailed for duty on the Court Of Inquiry into this loss, but while it was still underway, on the 21st April, he and his crew made a second reconnaisance flight, this time to Trondheim. The orders were to photograph and observe Trondheim, the frozen lake adjoining, and the aerodrome at Vaernes, now occupied by the Germans.
The crew flew a replacement Wellington, L4387 having been returned to Bassingbourn on the 14th for a 180 hr inspection. They took off at 2am, and in much better weather, arrived over Kristiansund at 4.30 in the morning.
The whole country was covered with snow, which made ships anchored close to the shore stand out very clearly. Trondheim was photographed, a complete pattern of the town being made. On the frozen lake twenty-two German aircraft were counted. They were spread haphazardly in the centre of the lake, covered with snow, and some appeared as if having made crash landings. The aerodrome at Vaernes was also photographed. Then the Wellington turned for home down the fjord, sending out an immediate code message about the aircraft on the frozen lake, “For,” says the Wireless Operator, ” we thought we had discovered a first-class target for our bombers to come over and enjoy themselves.” – They were right. Later in the day aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, operating from an aircraft carrier, bombed the lake with excellent effect. Flight Lieutenant Breckon and his crew reached their base at 10.30 in the morning, having covered 1,180 miles in a little over eight and a half hours.
After several more days on standby for further duties, Breckon and his crew returned their second Wellington to Bassingbourn “owing to unserviceability of miscellaneous equipment”, and went home to Feltwell.
For the reconnaissance flights to Norway, Flight Lieutenant Breckon received the D.F.C.:
Citation DFC (11 Sep 1940): ‘This officer has participated in 21 major bombing attacks on Germany, Holland, Belgium and France since early this year. He made a reconnaissance flight to the north of Narvik which lasted 14 ½ hours and within three days made another to Trondheim which was of 9 ½ hours duration. Undeterred by enemy action or by bad weather, he is a reliable, persistent long distance pilot, who has shown himself to be a cool, courageous and very determined leader’.
Aubrey Breckon DFC, went on to to serve as Squadron Leader with 75 (NZ) Sqdn, and after the war, as Commanding Officer of 75 Squadron (Apr to Jul 1947), and later Group Captain. He died in 1989. His younger brother Ivan also served with 75 (NZ) Squadron.
Donald Harkness DFC, a New Zealander serving in the RAF, went on to serve as Squadron Leader with 158 Squadron, but his Wellington was shot down 30/31 May 1942 by a German nightfighter. Buried at Vlissengen, Holland.
Robert Hughes was awarded the DFM on 20 Nov 1940, in part for his role in these operations.
Edwin Williams was also awarded the DFM, in part for his role in these operations, rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and was involved in ferrying Mosquitos back to New Zealand immediately after the war.
Thomas Mumby was also awarded the DFM in January 1941, in recognition of his many op’s with S/L Breckon, and later with WI Collett.
– 75 (NZ) Sqdn Operations Record Book, Appendix D.16 – General Report on Long Distance Reconnaisance duties when attached to R.A.F. Station, WICK, SCOTLAND, by F/L A.A.N. Breckon.
– Return At Dawn, by Hilary A. St George Saunders.
– Early Operations With Bomber Command, by B. G. Clare, War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, New Zealand. 1950.
Note: The author of Early Operations With Bomber Command, F/L. Baden Gordon Clare, RNZAF (NZ429590) served with 75 (NZ) Squadron in 1944 with the Southward crew. He was shot down and baled out on the night of 6-7 Oct 1944 during a raid on Dortmund, and became a POW.