Coming Down in the Drink
The story of a fighting Goldfish Flight Lieutenant John Brennan
By Séan Feast
Published: Winter 2017 edition
Born 5 January 1921, John Brennan was an Irishman who need not have fought in the war at all.
John Brennan joins the Royal Air Force
A sense of adventure, however, and the need to escape an over-bearing mother took him from his village in Ballylinan, a small, farming village on the borders of County Laois and Kildare, to London as a 16-year old boy where he trained as a chef before joining the Royal Air Force within the first few weeks of war breaking out:
‘I’d read in the national newspapers about the exciting trips that the heroic crews of the Wellingtons and Whitleys were flying over Germany, and that on occasion they had to fight off determined attacks from the German Luftwaffe. In the thick of the action were the air gunners, and despite never once having fired a shot in anger or even having held a gun or rifle, I was determined to become one of their number’.
After Initial Training Wing (ITW) where John learned the rudiments of service life, he was eventually posted to RAF Yatesbury, a Signals School, to become a wireless operator and thence onwards to RAF Stormy Down for an air gunnery course:
‘There were classroom lectures on gunnery and gunnery practice, and of course we learned how to strip and rebuild a variety of different weapons, including the Browning .303s, such that we could do it blindfolded…
We shot on the ranges and using cine guns, and in the air firing at a drogue. We would operate in pairs: one aircraft would tow the drogue while the pupils in the other aircraft would shoot at it; then we would swap. The pilots were nearly all Polish, and it would always make me smile when they came on intercom and said “dropz the droguesz”…
Firing at a drogue was not as easy as it sounds. With air gunnery, you do not shoot directly at the target, but rather at the point in the sky where you expect the target to be when your bullets arrive, taking into account wind speed, air speed, bullet drop, angle of attack etc, and you had to get it right or you could shoot down the aircraft and not the drogue!’.
Qualifying as a wireless operator/air gunner, John progressed to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Harwell to become part of a crew. It was while he was at Harwell that he took part on his first operation, dropping propaganda leaflets (and a couple of 250-pound bombs) over France on what was called a ‘Nickelling’ Raid.
‘I remember very little about the operation, other than that there were six of us who set out and only four came back. We were all carrying leaflets as well as two 250lb general-purpose (GP) delayed action bombs. It was a very long trip for an inexperienced crew, but I never gave a thought for those men who went missing. It didn’t seem to affect me one way or another’.
148 Squadron RAF Kabrit – Operations over the Middle East
Having survived his first taste of enemy action, John was posted to 148 Squadron in the Middle East. Their transit flight took them via Gibraltar, with John manning the front turret of a Wellington. Flying onwards to Malta, they ran into enemy fighters:
‘The danger came as we approached Pantelleria, a small island in the straits of Sicily. We knew that there were squadrons of Italian and German fighters close by, but perhaps somewhat closer than we thought…
Then, as I peered out in front of me, I thought I saw a speck in the sky. I blinked and looked again. It was still there, only the speck seemed to get steadily bigger. It was not a smudge on the Perspex or some other trick of the eye. Then there was no mistaking it was another aircraft, and it was closing fast. Recalling the hours spent on aircraft recognition, I identified it as a single-seat Messerschmitt Bf109, Germany’s best fighter, and making its way straight towards us in a head on attack…
I lined the fighter up in my sites, released the safety catches on the guns, and called to the pilot to take evasive action. I then squeezed both triggers and opened fire’.
John gave the enemy a long burst but seemingly without effect. The fighter flashed by and prescribed a large arc in the sky as it turned to attack again, this time from the rear.
‘The pilot took terrific evasive action and I kept blazing away, the smell of cordite from the spent cartridges filling my nostrils and the brass cases falling around my feet and onto the floor. Almost as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The fighter broke off the attack and again became little more than a speck in the sky as it disappeared. He was probably low on fuel, and it had certainly been a lucky escape’.
Arriving in Malta in the middle of an air raid, they were again lucky to survive after their aircraft was blown upside down on landing. It was another two weeks, however, before they could get off the besieged island and reach Shallufah, their initial destination, before being transported to RAF Kabrit in Egypt to begin operations. John joined the crew of an officer, Pilot Officer Donald Crossley, an old-Harrovian, who he considered brave but rather cavalier in his attitude to danger. The conditions at Kabrit, for non-commissioned officers, were primitive at best, and boredom was a constant enemy, prompting some of the NCOs to rebel in a little-known but potentially very dangerous mutiny. Accommodation was especially rough; they slept in scrapings in the ground, and bed posts had to be coated in creosote to keep the scorpions at bay.
‘Sleeping on the ground was not an option; it was too cold and too uncomfortable. I fashioned my own bed by acquiring a stretcher and mounting it on four-gallon cans, one at each corner. I smothered each of the cans with creosote at the base to stop any unwelcome visitors from crawling into my bed during the night. I then put the straw palliasse on top and covered it in blankets to make it more comfortable’.
With Rommel on the move, and the threat that British and Allied forces might be overrun, John and his crew began flying daily sorties to the heavily-defend port of Benghazi in what was known as ‘the mail run’, bombing enemy ships that were offloading vital supplies to The Desert Fox and his Afrika Korps. They also flew supplies to the resistance forces in Crete, and it was during one of these operations in March 1942, that he nearly came to grief:
‘Flying conditions were far from ideal. There was cloud up to around 10,000ft, and you could clearly see an electric storm brewing on the horizon. Despite these conditions, we managed to make a successful landfall over the coast of the island before the problems really started. One of our engines, which must have been running rough for a little while or couldn’t cope with the extra strain being placed upon it in the cloud, suddenly caught fire’.
Slowly starting to lose height. John was ordered to throw out everything that wasn’t bolted down, including his guns. It wasn’t enough, and his pilot was obliged to attempt a landing on water:
‘When we hit the water, the noise was intense, a loud scraping sound as though the bottom of the aircraft was being sliced open. It seemed to last an eternity before it finally stopped and the aircraft slew to one side as the water washed over the wings’.
Clambering into a dinghy, they were lucky. After four hours of drifting, their throats dry and their voices hoarse from shouting, they were spotted by a friendly aircraft who steered a fast boat to their rescue. John thus became a member of the Goldfish Club, a club exclusively for members brought down and rescued from the sea.
Given ‘survivor’s leave’, John spent the next few months of his tour out ‘in the blue’, preparing advanced landing grounds in the desert from which the bombers could operate on a temporary basis, as the front line shifted. After more than 300 hours of operational flying, comprising more than 40 raids, he was deemed ‘tour expired’ and posted home. He was commissioned, and spent the next 18 months instructing in Kinloss, Scotland, surviving yet another accident in which his pilot crashed into a mountainside, but John emerged unscathed.
78 Squadron at RAF Breighton – Operations over Europe
Volunteering for a second tour, John joined 78 Squadron at RAF Breighton in the summer of 1944, being crewed with one of the flight commanders, Squadron Leader Duncan Hyland Smith, a most experienced pilot. Interestingly, while John had flown all of his first tour as an air gunner, he spent his second tour as a wireless operator. He also swapped two engines for four, as his new squadron was equipped with the Handley Page Halifax.
The differences between his first and second tour were stark: the lonely, uncomfortable existence of a pseudo hermit exchanged for the warm comforts of an officers’ mess and beer on tap. The long flights over a barren desert contrasted with shorter but equally dangerous trips over northern Europe.
‘We flew, ate and drank as a crew, each one depending on the other. We were like a family, a unique bond that couldn’t be broken. Perhaps, as nearly all of us were officers, it was different as we could mess together. But it was more than that. It was a different culture. More inclusive. We felt we belonged. We counted. We hadn’t been forgotten’.
John arrived on the Squadron just a few weeks after the invasion of Europe. It was an intense period of operations, attacking flying bomb sites, and tactical targets in support of the ground troops attempting to break out from the beachheads. As his tour progressed and the Allies advanced, they returned to the bombing of German cities. They also started bombing in daylight. One raid, John remembers in particular, was an attack on the Ruhr:
‘Hyland-Smith was leading the formation and as we crossed the coast, ‘Smithy’ instructed me to go to the astrodome behind the cockpit and look out for fighters and other aircraft in the vicinity… We were part way across Holland, en route to the target, when the rear gunner came onto the intercom to say that two of our aircraft were inching closer and closer to our tail. ‘Smithy’ acknowledged the call and inched the throttles slightly forward to give us more speed…
I am not sure precisely what happened next but I did see the result. Somehow the two aircraft that were gaining on us collided with one another and I saw them go down. It was terrible watching the two-aircraft twisting and turning like sycamore leaves as they fell to the ground. I reported what I was seeing to the skipper and he told me to watch for parachutes. Sadly, I didn’t see anyone make it out’.
With so many aircraft in the sky at once, collisions were a constant threat, as were the German night fighters and flak:
‘On one night, I had a clear warning of trouble. A blip appeared on my fighter warning radar at a range of about 4,000yds. I watched it closing quickly to around 2,000yds at which point I warned the skipper to ‘corkscrew’ to port. ‘Smithy’ then flung the aircraft into a series of left-handed dives and turns in a corkscrew motion and the fighter was lost. Although we would occasionally be splattered by flak, this was the only occasion we were intercepted by a fighter. Compared to many others in the Squadron, we seemed to live a charmed life’.
Preparing to take off on another raid, John had a more amusing experience:
‘As the aircraft in front took off and disappeared into the haze, ‘Smithy’ pushed the throttles forward, assisted by the flight engineer to ensure that the levers did not slip back and lose vital power at the critical time. The torque generated by this huge surge of power needed to be controlled by use of the rudders to keep the aircraft straight and level but on this occasion, the Halifax swung so suddenly and violently that we veered dangerously close to the control tower, causing the CO to jump back in alarm and fall off his feet. He was, as you can imagine, not very happy with us and told us on our return that he would ‘have our garters for a necktie!’
Happily, the wing commander did not carry out his threat. John came closest to death, however, while on a training flight, in a brand-new Halifax:
‘We took off and made height, climbing through the cloud to get above it and into clear sky. With the altimeter reading 20,000ft, we were still in cloud, and Smithy said that he would continue to climb until we were through it. No sooner had he called out our height than the aircraft appeared to stall and fall into a spin. The dive became faster and the spin more deadly, the centrifugal forces pinning me under my table…
‘‘Smithy’ was fighting a losing battle with the controls and ordered us to prepare to bale out. I tried to raise my right arm to unclip my parachute but could not move it. (Parachutes for everyone except the pilot were in two parts. The individual wore a harness to which the separate ‘pack’ had to be attached before baling out.) I just thought, well this is it and waited for the end…
The altimeter showed we had fallen more than 18,000ft before ‘Smithy’ was at last able to regain control of the aircraft at around 2,000ft as the ice on the wings melted away, and the flying characteristics of the aircraft returned. It was one of the only times I had been truly afraid…
We arrived back at Breighton and landed without further issue. The following day the engineering officer reported that some of the wing bolts and engine mountings had been sheered off. The fuselage and tail fins were also twisted. The aircraft was declared a write off and I believe it was later scrapped’.
John says that he never feared death, other than how he might be killed:
‘If I were afraid of anything then it was how I would die. Would I be blown to pieces or burn to death? Would I be trapped in the aircraft by centrifugal forces, fully conscious and waiting for the impact? I hoped, as I think we all did, that if we did have to die that it would be quick, and we’d know nothing about it. The Halifax had a better survivability rate than the Lancaster, but it was never discussed. No-one ever thought they would die’.
Happily, John completed his second tour of operations in March 1945, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for bravery. His citation mentions that he had completed 63 operations in total, including those in the Desert. The war ended shortly afterwards, and John opted for a permanent commission. In later life, he became an archivist and librarian, before finally retiring to live in Bedfordshire. He died on 20 April 2017 aged 96, and was at the time the last surviving wartime member of the Goldfish Club. Before he died John told his story to Seán Feast who then published the story in Coming Down in the Drink – the Survival of Bomber ‘Goldfish’ John Brennan DFC.
Seán Feast is the author/co-author of 15 titles for Grub Street, Fighting High and Woodfield, and has an established pedigree and audience. He has a particular specialism in Bomber Command with books such as Master Bombers, Heroic Endeavour, and A Pathfinder’s War. He was one of the main authors to contribute to the official book released in conjunction with the unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial. He is also a regular contributor to various aviation magazines, primarily FlyPast and Aeroplane Monthly, and a volunteer for the International Bomber Command Centre.
Professionally, he is a journalist by training, and runs an international PR and Advertising agency with key clients in military and defence.