Bradford-born Flight Sergeant Stan Greaves was only in his early twenties when he took off with his equally young crew from RAF Linton in Yorkshire on 24 July 1941 to attack the infamous German battleship ‘Scharnhorst’.
The Scharnhorst was in the port of La Rochelle, France, and posed a serious threat to the vital allied Atlantic convoys. A daring daylight raid was planned using the RAF’s latest weapon - the new four-engined Halifax bomber.
The attacking force comprised just 15 of the new aircraft from Linton-based 35 Squadron and 76 Squadron flying from RAF Middleton St George.
Arriving at the target area it was evident that the Germans had spotted the approaching bomber force. Thirty-one enemy fighters were counted circling the area and, as the bombers neared the Scharnhorst, they were met with a murderous barrage of flak.
Despite the formidable opposition, the formation carried on to attack as planned. The giant ship was protected by its own 51 anti-aircraft guns as well as those of its destroyer escort.
Flight Sergeant Greaves’s crew pressed home their attack and the bomb aimer scored five direct hits on the Scharnhorst. Three of them penetrated the armour-plated deck and went through the bottom of the ship without exploding.
The other two damaged the starboard shaft tunnel and No 4 dynamo room, causing a major fire to break out. The Scharnhorst was out of action and no longer an immediate threat. The repairs were to take four months and the ship was later sunk by the Royal Navy in the Barents Sea.
After successfully bombing the Scharnhorst, Flight Sergeant Greaves’s Halifax was encircled by seven Messerschmitt 109s which took it in turns to attack the bomber. During this battle, only the bomb aimer, Sergeant ‘Sammy’ Walters, and the front gunner, Sergeant ‘Bert’ Henery, were left unscathed.
By this time three engines were on fire and the fuselage was peppered with shrapnel. With one engine functioning Flight Sergeant Greaves fought desperately to keep the aircraft on an even keel as the enemy fighters kept up their merciless attacks. With the fires spreading he gave the order to bale out.
Despite their injuries all the crew managed to leave the stricken bomber. Flight Sergeant Greaves had only just cleared the aircraft when it exploded.
On reaching the ground, or in some cases the sea, the crew were taken prisoner. Those needing medical treatment were taken to hospital to be patched up before being sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, Poland and East Prussia, where they were to spend the next three years and nine months.
Thanks to the skill of German surgeons the sight of Sergeant ‘Gilly’ Gillbanks, the rear gunner, was saved.
Six years after the raid, on 29 December 1947, Flight Sergeant Greaves was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his ‘marked display of determination and coolness in pressing home a successful attack on the German battleship Scharnhorst on 24 July 1941, in the face of considerable anti-aircraft and fighter opposition’.
This was one of the last decorations of the war.
Flight Sergeant Greaves always regretted that he hadn’t managed to return his crew safely back to base and so years after the war ended he set about putting that right by tracing his old crew and asking them to meet up for a reunion on the anniversary of the date they were shot down.
This they duly did, albeit 40 years late. As a permanent memorial to this brave crew, the Sergeants’ Mess at RAF Linton-on-Ouse commissioned an oil painting of Flight Sergeant Greaves’s aircraft, ‘TL-U’, which takes pride of place in the mess.
The story reached full circle last month when, seventy years to the day that Flight Sergeant Greaves and his crew took off from Linton, in a small ceremony, Flight Sergeant Greaves’s son Roger scattered his father’s ashes on the same dispersal that Halifax L9512 ‘TL-U’ left from. Roger said:
Many thanks to RAF Linton-on-Ouse for all that you did collectively for us on Sunday. I was delighted with all aspects of the day and am sure that Dad would not have done anything differently should he have actually arranged it himself!
Flight Lieutenant David Williams, from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, said:
It was a great honour for the station to receive Stan’s ashes and to be his final resting place. The story of Stan and his crew is extraordinary, and we do all we can to keep the memory of Stan and airmen like him alive.
The Sergeants’ Mess are rightly proud of the crew of ‘TL-U’ and we are looking at expanding the memorial in the mess to include his medals and log book which the family have kindly loaned to the station.