On the morning of the 7th June 2012 I was scanning the internet when I discovered a tweet about John Hannah VC. It was the anniversary of his death from TB in 1947. What caught my eye in particular was that his burial place was Birstall in Leicestershire – A place I know well and had once lived for a number of years. I decided there and then to discover more about this man and to go and pay my respects later that day.
John Hannah was a Scot, he was born in Paisley on 27th November 1921. When he left school he took a job as a shoe salesman, but it didn’t stick and in August 1939 he volunteered for the RAF on a six year regular engagement.
After training as a wireless operator and completing a gunnery course he was posted to 83 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire. The Squadron flew Hampden bombers and was at the forefront of an intensive series of day and night operations targeting German occupied ports along the Channel coast.
At 22.30 on the night of 15th September 1940 Hannah and his crew were part of a raid on the port of Antwerp where suspected German invasion barges were gathering.
The Hampden was a medium twin-engine bomber with a crew of four. On board alongside John that night were:
- Pilot Officer C A Connor
- Sergeant D A E Hayhurst (Navigator and Bomb-aimer)
- Sergeant George James (Another Gunner)
All them were experienced on operations, especially Hayhurst who had already notched up 38 combat missions.
Hannah, as Radio Operator, sat in a cramped space facing the tail. In front of him were two Vickers Gas Operated Machine-Guns and by his side were his wireless set and a basket with two carrier pigeons. With bulky flying clothing on it was almost impossible to move around once the aircraft was flying.
A hail of Flak greeted them over Antwerp. As they released their payload a shell struck them in the bomb bay, vicious lumps of shrapnel damaged the left wing, perforated the tail and pierced the wing petrol tanks. There was a huge explosion as the rear of the fuselage blew-up. George James had no option except to bale out as the damage spread and the floor began to melt around him.
Hannah got on the intercom immediately and told Connor that the aircraft was on fire.
“Is it bad?” Asked the Pilot.
“Bad, but not too bad” Replied Hannah’s calm voice.
Meanwhile Hayhurst was unable to reach his colleagues, he saw the fire and also baled out. Hannah was burning from head to toe, suffocating from the fumes and the heat. Fearing that he was going to pass out he opened the Perspex cupola above him and took long gulps of fresh air. Exhausted he used two fire extinguishers on the flames before resorting to his bare hands. As the flames slowly receded the ammunition pans around him began “cooking-off”, bullets whizzing past him in the tiny compartment. He was forced to pick them up and throw them from the plane. He got back on the intercom to Connor, “The fire’s out, Sir.”
For his exploits that night Hannah was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was just nineteen years old, the youngest ever recipient for aerial operations. But unfortunately, as is sadly often the case, winning the VC didn’t fix his life or mend his wounds. While recovering from his burns he contracted Tuberculosis and was medically discharged from the RAF in December 1942. Recently married (to Janet) and with a new family to support he struggled to make ends meet.
On the 9th of June, 1947 he finally succumbed to the TB and was buried in the churchyard of St James the Great Church, Church Hill, Birstall. He left a Wife and three very young daughters.
Touched by John’s story I found the church where he was buried and eventually located his headstone. I was hoping that there may be other bunches of flowers there but sadly mine was the only one. He was a brave man and it is an honour and a pleasure to have had a chance to learn more about him and his exploits.
RIP John Hannah, VC 1921-1947.