b. 05/02/1913 Folkestone, Kent. d. 24/01/1996 Rustington, West Sussex.
Roderick Alastair Brook Learoyd (1913-1996), the son of Major R. B. Learoyd from Littlestone, Kent, was born on 5th February 1913 in Folkestone, Kent. Educated at Hydreye House Prep School, Baldstow, Sussex, and Wellington College, Berkshire, Learoyd then attended the Chelsea College of Aeronautical and Automobile Engineering.
Following his schooling, he spent two years in Argentina as a fruit farmer, before a short period as a motor engineer, before he decided to join the RAF to learn to fly. Accepted in March 1936 for a short service commission, he received his elementary training at Hamble AST, and his Service training at Wittering; graduating in December 1936 and being posted to 49 Squadron, equipped with Hawker Hinds at Worthy Down aerodrome.
In March 1938, 49 Squadron moved base to Scampton where it became the first RAF Squadron to re-equip with the new monoplane Handley Page Hampden bombers. Sharing the airfield was 83 Squadron, which began conversion from its Hawker Hinds to Hampdens in October 1938, and was completely re-equipped with the type by early January 1939. The change from biplanes to all-metal monoplane bombers gave both units many months of necessary practice flying though, strangely, virtually no night-flying was undertaken – indeed, it was only on the outbreak of war that the Hampden crews had their first experience in flying Hampdens with full bomb loads.
After the declaration of war on 1st September 1939, the Scampton Hampdens were ordered to bomb up a flight of aircraft each, and at midnight general mobilisation orders were issued throughout the RAF in Britain. By dawn of the 3rd September, the war-loaded Hampdens were still at standby and, at 6.15pm, six Hampdens from 83 Squadron and three from 49 Squadron left Scampton on an “armed reconnaissance” over the North Sea, seeking German naval ships to bomb.
During the next ten months Learoyd participated in 23 more bombing sorties, apart from various other types of operations, proving himself to be a cool-headed pilot, seemingly imperturbable in the most dangerous situations. One target he attacked was a vital waterway, the Dortmund-Ems canal – a heavily defended objective which received considerable attention from RAF bombers in mid-1940. And it was this canal that was to be Learoyd’s target on the night of 12th August 1940.
On 12th August 1940 eleven Hampdens – six from 49 Squadron, five from 83 Squadron – were detailed to destroy the old aqueduct carrying the canal over the river Ems, north of Münster. Flight Lieutenant Learoyd was one of the pilots briefed to bomb. Learoyd was detailed as pilot of Hampden P4403, “EA-M”, and his crew comprised Pilot Officer J Lewis (Observer), Sergeant J Ellis (wireless operator-gunner) and LAG Rich (ventral gunner).
Of the other Hampdens which made the attack that night, two were destroyed and two more were badly hit. Flight Lieutenant Learoyd took his plane into the target at only 150 feet, in the full glare of the searchlights and flak barrage all round him. After commencing its bombing run Learoyd’s aircraft was badly damaged, including a ruptured hydraulic system, resulting in inoperable wing flaps and a useless undercarriage. Wing damage, though serious, had fortunately missed the wing petrol tanks. Despite this damage the bombs were duly dropped and Learoyd managed to get his crippled plane back to England where he decided that a night landing would be too dangerous for his crippled aircraft and so circled base until first light, finally safely landing without causing injury to his crew or further damage to his aircraft.
Post-raid intelligence showed that the raid was successful, and Learoyd was awarded a Victoria Cross, gazetted on 20th August 1940. The award was a popular one to the men of Scampton who held “Babe” Learoyd in high regard for his “unflappability.” The VC was presented on 9th September 1940 at Buckingham Palace, and he was then taken off operations, and was promoted to Squadron Leader, and was acting as personal assistant to Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham. In November 1940 he was further honoured by receiving the Freedom of the Borough of New Romney, Kent.
On 28th February 1941 he rejoined the operational scene when he was appointed Officer Commanding 83 Squadron at Scampton, but in June he left 83 to take up a new post as Wing Commander Flying at 14 OTU, Cottesmore. In December, after six months on instructing, he succeeded to command of 44 Squadron at Waddington; the first operational Avro Lancaster unit. He was still commander of 44 when one of his flight commanders, John Nettleton, led the epic Lancaster daylight raid on Augsburg in April 1942, which brought Nettleton his VC; but in the following month Learoyd was posted to 25 OUT, Finningley on further instructional duties.
From 1943 until the end of hostilities in Europe, he remained non-operational, with postings to Air Ministry in January 1943 – an attachment to the PRO Branch, giving various talks and lectures about the RAF in what was termed the “Line-Shoot Squadron”; and further postings to 109 OUT in December 1944, and 107 OUT at the end of March 1945. In May 1945 he returned to flying when he joined 48 (Dakota) Squadron, and a month later moved overseas to West Africa to fly with No 1314 Flight’s Dakotas at Accra. He was demobilised on 14th October 1946 and was transferred to the RAF Reserve as a Wing Commander.
For his first three years as a civilian he joined the Malayan Civil Aviation Department, becoming personal pilot to succeeding governors of Malaya; and on expiry of his contract in 1950 he returned to the UK and accepted a position in a tractor and road construction company. In January 1953, he became an export sales manager to the Austin Motor Company, and stayed in the profession until his retirement.
Learoyd died on 24th January 1996 in Rustington, West Sussex, aged 82, and was cremated at Worthing Crematorium and his ashes interred in Plot 34-35. His medal group was purchased privately in 1989 by Michael Ashcroft and are now displayed at the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON
BURIAL PLACE: WORTHING CREMATORIUM, WEST SUSSEX. ASHES INTERRED PLOT 35/34.
Kevin Brazier – Image of the internment plot at Worthing Crematorium.
Stewart May – Image of framed picture at Yorkshire Air Museum.