b. 21/04/1917 Saltcoats, Scotland. d. 06/04/1941 Brest, France.
Kenneth “Ken” Campbell (1917-1941) was born on 21st April 1917 at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, the youngest of a family of six children, and attended Sedbergh School before gaining entrance to Clare College, Cambridge, to study for a degree in Chemistry. Joining the Cambridge University Air Squadron, he had been commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 23rd August 1938, and eventually mobilised for RAF service on 25th September 1939.
A brief course of Service training at RAF Cranwell commenced on 21st October 1939 and was followed by a move to RAF Abbotsinch on 20th April 1940; by which time Campbell had been promoted to Flying Officer. On 8th June, he completed his training with a posting to No 1 OTU; and on 28th September 1940 joined 22 Squadron to start his operational career. The non-stop Battle of the Atlantic then being waged saw him quickly introduced to the role of 22 Squadron; attacking enemy shipping at every opportunity.
On 6th April 1941, over Brest Harbour, France, Flying Officer Campbell attacked the German battleship Gneisenau. He flew his Bristol Beaufort through the gauntlet of concentrated anti-aircraft fire from about 1000 weapons of all calibers and launched a torpedo at a height of 50 feet (15 m).
The attack had to be made with absolute precision: the Gneisenau was moored only some 500 yards (460 m) away from a mole in Brest’s inner harbour. For the attack to be effective Campbell would have to time the release to drop the torpedo close to the side of the mole. That Campbell managed to launch his torpedo accurately is testament to his courage and determination. The ship was severely damaged below the waterline and was obliged to return to the dock whence she had come only the day before, she was out of action for 6 months, which thus allowed allied shipping to cross the Atlantic without any threat.
Generally, once a torpedo was dropped an escape was made by low-level jinking at full throttle. Because of rising ground surrounding the harbour Flying Officer Campbell’s Beaufort was forced into a steep banking turn, revealing its full silhouette to the gunners. The aircraft met a withering wall of flak and crashed into the harbour.
When the aircraft was later salvaged the Germans found the body of “Jimmy” Scott, the Canadian navigator, in the pilot’s seat, normally occupied by Campbell. All four crew members were buried by the Germans in the grave of honour in Brest Cemetery. Reports of Ken Campbell’s devotion to his designated task, and the courage he showed in completing his attack in the face of unnerving odds filtered through to England from local French patriots; and on 13th March 1942 Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, which his parents received from King George VI at an investiture on 23rd June 1943. A memorial was erected in his memory at Sedbergh where he spent his schooldays.
His medal was held within the family until 7th April 2000, when in a ceremony in Saltcoats, the family and in particular, Ken’s elder brother James, aged 90, handed over his VC to Wing Commander David Simpson, the Officer commanding 22 Squadron, RAF. The medal is not on public display.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: 22 SQUADRON, ROYAL AIR FORCE.
BURIAL PLACE: BREST CEMETERY, FRANCE.
PLOT XL, ROW I, GRAVE 10
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map
Thomas Stewart and Brian Drummond – Images of Sedbergh School, St Clements Danes Church, London and Saltcoats War Memorial.