26.09.1942 133 (Eagle) Squadron, Spitfire IX BS313, Flt.Lt. Edward G. Brettell, DFC, MiD
Operation: “Circus” to Morlaix, France
Date: 26th September 1942 (Saturday)
Unit: 133 (Eagle) Squadron, RAF
Type: Spitfire IX
Serial No: BS313
Location: Near Brest, France
Base: RAF Great Sampford
Pilot: Flt.Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell, DFC, MiD, 61053 RAFVR Age 29. PoW No. 760 *
DFC awarded on the 29th September 1942. Gazetted on the 25th September 1942.
Citation reads: Acting Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell (61053) Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 133 (Eagle) Squadron. This officer has participated in 111 sorties over enemy occupied territory. He has always displayed the greatest keenness to engage the enemy. On one occasion he was wounded in combat and on recovery, he resumed operational flying with renewed zest. He is an excellent flight commander.
Flt.Lt. Brettell was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) recognizing his conspicuous bravery as a PoW because none of the other relevant decorations then available could be awarded posthumously. Gazetted on the 8th June 1944.
REASON FOR LOSS:
133 Squadron, RAF was the third “Eagle” squadron manned by American personnel. The squadron was initially equipped with Hurricanes at RAF Coltishall. On the 29th September 1942 the squadron transferred to the US Army Air Force (AAF) and became the 366th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group. The American pilots, who were volunteers, had RAF ranks and service numbers were also transferred to the US AAF. This is indicated by the Army Service Numbers (ASN) allocated to the pilots of the squadron which were consecutively numbered; e.g. in the series O-885NNN.
On the 26th September 1942, fourteen Spitfires from 133 Squadron took off from RAF Great Sampford for RAF Bolt Head, near Salcombe in Devon, landing there at 12:30 hrs. At 13:50 hrs, on only the fourth mission on this type, thirteen aircraft were detailed on a “Circus” Mission to Morlaix. Plt.Off. (2nd.Lt.) Don Salvatore Gentile’s Spitfire IX BS445 suffered mechanical problems and did not join the mission. Flt.Lt. Brettell was the acting squadron commander.
Operation Circus: Daytime bomber attacks with fighter escorts against short range targets, to occupy enemy fighters and keep them in the area concerned.
After the squadron formed up over the airfield it headed south to rendezvous with a formation of B-17 Fortresses in mid-channel approximately half-way between Bolt Head and Morlaix which were on a mission to bomb the Morlaix-Poujean airfield (Mission #12) in France. What actually happened is difficult to determine but some Fortresses were seen after they had been in the air for 45 minutes, during which time the squadron had probably flown over the Bay of Biscay several times.
Eleven of the aircraft were lost over the Brest Peninsula due to a combination of navigational errors, weather, German fighters and low fuel. The twelfth fighter, Spitfire IX BS148 flown by Plt.Off. (2nd.Lt.) Richard Norton Beaty managed to reach the English coast but crash landed from fuel starvation in a small field near Kingsbridge some 5 miles inland from the south Devon coastline. He was critically injured but recovered from his injuries.
The other Spitfires and pilots from 133 Squadron that were lost on this mission were:
Spitfire IX BR638 - Plt.Off., RAFVR; 1st.Lt. George B. Sperry O-885120 AAF Age ? PoW *. Ran out of fuel and crashed near Morlaix, France.
Spitfire IX BR640 - Plt.Off., RAFVR; Capt. Charles A. Cook Jr. O-885112 AAF Age ? PoW *. Lost in the Brest area for unknown reasons.
Spitfire IX BS137 - Plt.Off. Dennis David Smith RAFVR Age 22. Killed. Ran out of fuel and crashed near Morlaix, France. Buried as 2nd.Lt., O-885128 AAF at the Brittany American Cemetery Plot D, Row 18, Grave 8. Purple Heart.
Spitfire IX BS138 - Plt.Off., RAFVR; 2nd.Lt. Gilbert G. Wright O-885139 AAF Age? PoW *. Ran out of fuel and crashed near Morlaix, France.
Spitfire IX BS140 - Plt.Off. Gene Parks Neville RAFVR Age 24. Killed. Crashed at Guingamp, some 80 km west of Saint-Marlo, from flak damage. Buried as 2nd.Lt., O-885129 AAF in the Brittany American Cemetery Plot I, Row 4, Grave 2. Purple Heart.
Spitfire IX BS275 - Plt.Off. Leonard Thomas Ryerson RAFVR AAF Age 31. Killed. Ran out of fuel and crashed near Morlaix, France. Buried as 2nd.Lt., O-885137 AAF in the Brittany American Cemetery Plot H, Row 10, Grave 5. Purple Heart.
Spitfire IX BS279 - Plt.Off., RAFVR; Capt. Marion E. Jackson O-885117 AAF Age? PoW *. Lost near Morlaix, France, for unknown reasons.
Spitfire IX BS301 - Fg.Off., RAFVR; 1st.Lt. George H. Middleton O-885127 AAF Age? PoW *. Lost near Morlaix, France, for unknown reasons.
Spitfire IX BS446 - Plt.Off. William Henry Baker Jr. DFC. 108626 RAFVR. Age 22. MiA. Lost near Morlaix, France. Remembered as 1st.Lt., O-885113 AAF, Tablets of the Missing, Cambridge American Cemetery. Air Medal, Purple Heart.
DFC awarded on the 6th October 1942. Gazetted on the 2nd October 1942. Citation reads: Pilot Officer William Henry Baker (108626), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, 133 (Eagle) Squadron. Pilot Officer Baker has been engaged in numerous operational sorties over enemy territory. Throughout he has displayed the greatest keenness and enthusiasm for operational work and his courage and determination have been an example of a high order. Pilot Officer Baker has destroyed 2 and probably destroyed 2 other enemy aircraft.
Spitfire IX BS447 - Plt.Off., RAFVR; 2nd.Lt. Robert E. Smith O-885110 AAF Age 23. Evader. Evaded via France, Spain and Gibraltar. Left Gibraltar at 03:00 hrs on the 26th January 1943 and arriving at 10:00 hrs that morning at RAF Portreath in Cornwall.
* Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland.
The following is a statement from 2nd.Lt. Smith upon his return to England.
“I took off from Bolthead [sic] at approximately 16:05 hrs. After forming above the field we started on a southernly course. We had a very strong tail wind and climbed steadily. About ten miles from the coast of England we were above 10/10 cloud which was at about 4,000 feet. We continued to climb until about 28,000 feet. The Fortresses could not be seen and we had been out about 30 minutes when my engine failed, causing me to drop out of the formation. However, my engine picked up again at 22,000 feet and I followed the formation, but turned back when I saw three Fortresses and proceeded to follow them. These Fortresses jettisoned their bombs but no target was in sight at the time as we were still over cloud. In about ten minutes I saw my squadron and attempted to join them and we all came down below the cloud base and found ourselves over water. We could just see the northernly coast of France and the squadron leader took us over the coast.
At this point the weather was bad, poor visibility, a strong north wind and heavy clouds. We flew straight over Brest at 2,000 feet in squadron formation and met very heavy antiaircraft fire. From the RT conversation it was evident that some of the pilots had thought that we were over England.
I received a burst at back of the cockpit in the fuselage and I broke formation and went down low and flew out of the area. Then, having very little petrol left, I climbed up into the clouds at about 4,000 feet, rolled over and baled out. I landed in a small field near Hanbec [sic] (Hanvec, some 25 km east of Brest) at about 18:15 hrs”.
As the formation flew over Brest Flt.Lt. Brettell’s aircraft took a direct hit from flak in the starboard wing root breaking off the wing. He did not have time to bail out of the aircraft which crashed, severely injuring him and leaving him in no condition to escape. Due to the severity of his injuries he was admitted to a Paris hospital. When he had recovered sufficiently from his injuries he was transferred to Stalag Luft 3 after a customary visit to Dulag Luft Oberursel.
The “OKL (Luftwaffe High Command) Fighter Claims for the Reich & Western Front in 1942” records claims for three Spitfires on this day in the vicinity of Brest. The most likely of the three claims that can be associated with Flt.Lt. Brettell’s aircraft is by the Flak unit 5./497, SE of Brest at 19:00 hrs.
Flt.Lt Brettell, working with Flt.Lt. Walenn (Stalag Luft 3’s head of forgery) and Flt.Lt. Picard, produced forged passports, movement orders, railway documentation and all manner of identity papers to move about Germany.
On the night of the escape he travelled in a group of four escapees with Tim Walenn, Romualdas Marcinkus and Henri Picard, who were all posing as Lithuanian workers and they managed to reach a train heading towards Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) before being captured.
They were captured by the Gestapo near Schneidemühl on the 26th March. The four were taken to Stalag 20b, Marienburg (now named Malbork), and spent the night there, their presence being carefully recorded by an unknown British army Sgt.Maj., who issued them with clothing (battle dress) more suited to being a PoW in the hope of avoiding the possibility of them being charged with espionage. The following day they were handed over to the Danzig Gestapo.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Flt.Lt Brettell were established during the second of two trials which was convened at the Curiohaus, Hamburg on the 28th August 1948.
Of the four charges heard by the court the fourth related solely to a Reinhold Brüchardt who was charged alone with committing a war crime in that he in the vicinity of Groß Trampken (now Trąbki Wielkie), some 24 km south of Danzig on or about the 27th March 1944, when a member of the Danzig Gestapo, in violation of the laws and usages of war, was concerned in the killing of Flt.Lt. Henri A. Picard, Flt.Lt. Romas Marcinkus, Flt.Lt. Gilbert W. Walenn and Flt.Lt. Edward G. Brettell, all of the Royal Air Force and PoWs.
Brüchardt was a former Kriminalobersekretär (Chief Detective) with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (2nd.Lt.).
After the reading of the charges the court was adjourned until the 4th October and reconvened on the 11th October 1948 and sat for twelve days.
The court heard, that on the night of the 24th-25th March 1944, 76 officers escaped from the north compound of Stalag Luft 3 which, at that time, held between 1000 and 1500 RAF PoWs. The escape was made by the means of a tunnel. At about 05:00 hrs on the 25th March the 77th PoW was spotted by guards as he emerged from the tunnel.
Very soon after the escape became known, a conference was held at Hitler’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden (also known at the “Eagles Nest”) in Germany, at which a decision was made to shoot more than half of the escapers from Stalag Luft 3. The decision was put into an order by Heinrich Himmler. The order was seen by a witness whose recollection was that it read as follows:
"The increase of escapes by officer prisoners-of-war is a menace to internal security. I am disappointed or indignant about the inefficient security measures. As a deterrent the Führer has ordered that more than half of the escaped officers are to be shot. Therefore I order that Amt V hand over for interrogation to Amt IV more than half of the recaptured officers. After interrogation the officers are to be returned to their original camp and to be shot en route. The shooting will be explained by the fact that the recaptured officers were shot whilst trying to escape or because they offered resistance, so that nothing can be proved later. Amt IV will report the shootings to Amt V giving this reason. In the event of future escapes, my decision will be awaited as to whether the same procedure is to be adopted. Prominent personalities will be excepted. Their names will be reported to me, and my decision will be awaited".
Amt V = Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) Department V = Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police);
Amt IV = RSHA Department IV = Gestapo.
As a result of this order, 50 of the 73 recaptured PoWs were murdered, 15 of those who were spared were returned to Stalag Luft 3, 6 were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and 2 Czech officers were imprisoned by the Gestapo in Prague. Of the 50 killed, 29 were killed in the Breslau Police area and 21 were killed in other places in Germany, in occupied France, in occupied Czechoslovakia and in Danzig.
The four named officers were recaptured in the Danzig area on or about the 27th March 1944. Dr. Günther Venediger* was the head of the Danzig Gestapo and had received the order from Himmler sent out from Amt IV in Berlin by top secret teleprint.
*Venediger was apparently a former Oberregierungsrat (Detective Director) holding the rank of SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lt.Col.).
Evidence presented to the court came from Venediger’s driver, whose name was Peter Bontenbroich, and who was a former Kriminalsekretär (Detective inspector). He had received instructions to drive Venediger to some woods near to the village of Groß Trampken early one morning soon after the four officers had been captured. Arriving at the location at about 07:00 hrs he found Brüchardt and a parked lorry. Venediger and his driver exited the car after which Venediger and Brüchardt went off into the woods whilst Bontenbroich waited by the car.
After a little time he began to be curious, and he and the driver of the lorry, a man named Piontke, went off into the woods in the direction in which Venediger had gone. As they were walking they heard shots and when they rounded a corner, they saw Venediger and Brüchardt returning, and also saw five other members of the Gestapo from Danzig busy doing something.
The five were identified as Julius Hug, Walter Sasse, Walter Voelz, Roehrer and Asal. At least two of them were identified as members of the Kriminalpolizei (Criminal police) based in Danzig.
Bontenbroich and Piontke returned to their vehicles. A short time later Venediger and Brüchardt appeared and Venediger got back into the car. The other Gestapo officials also returned.
Evidence was also presented from a Willi Reimer who was employed as a driver for the Gestapo and who had been instructed by Brüchardt to drive a lorry to the Groß Trampken woods. Arriving at the location he was met by Brüchardt and witnessed the four bodies being carried and loaded onto his truck by the other Gestapo officials. He then drove to the Gestapo offices in Danzig and parked the lorry in the garage after which he reported to Brüchardt and told him that the lorry was in the garage. Later that day he returned and drove Brüchardt by car to the crematorium. Brüchardt returned about 30 minutes later and was driven back to the Danzig Gestapo offices.
Brüchardt’s testimony to the court claimed that he had been informed by Venediger that four British PoWs who had escaped from Sagan (Stalag Luft 3) had been recaptured and in the process of being returned to their camp had been shot and killed near Groß Trampken whilst trying to escape.
He claimed that Venediger had instructed him to take Hug and Sasse and investigate what had transpired and take the necessary steps for the recovery of the bodies. Upon arriving at the scene he met up with four other unnamed members of the Danzig Kriminalpolizei who were standing near the four bodies.
He claimed to having been informed by one of the officials who was an SS-Sturmscharführer (Sgt.Maj) that the four officers, on the pretext of relieving themselves, took the opportunity to escape into the woods. Warning shots had been fired which were ignored and it was then that the four officers were shot and killed.
The remainder of his testimony did not differ materially from that which had already been presented to the court regarding the recovery and cremation of the four officers.
The court rejected Brüchardt’s version of events and relied on the preponderance of evidence from eyewitness accounts that he was instrumental in the murders and was in fact in charge of the squad that shot the four officers.
Brüchardt was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death on the 6th November 1948. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, upon Britain temporarily suspending the death penalty, and then reduced to 21 years. He was released in 1956.
Dr. Günther Venediger was not before the court to answer for his part in the murder of the four officers. However, he was traced in 1948 and sentenced to 2 years imprisonment in December 1957, for having been an aider and abetter to homicide. The prosecutor had to appeal twice against acquittals before winning this sentence.
It was clear that Hug, Sasse, Voelz, Roehrer and Asal were implicated in the murder of the four officers. However, Hug was not traced, Sasse had escaped from an internment camp, Voelz was not traced but it was believed he had been killed. Roehrer and Asal were never identified.
The four officers were cremated in Danzig, their ashes placed into urns and returned to Stalag Luft 3.
Memorial to “The Fifty” near to Żagań (Courtesy: CSvBibra - Own work, Public Domain)
Image: Credit Imperial War Museum. Marker Credit: The War Graves Photographic Project
Flt.Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell, DFC, MiD. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery Collective Grave 9.A. Born on the 19th March 1915 in Chertsey, Surrey. Son of Vivian Brettell and of Eileen Isabella (née Carroll) Brettell, of the Malthouse, Ropley, Alreasford, Hampshire, England.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.