During the throes of World War II, acts of valour were not uncommon. However, few can compare to the sheer bravery displayed by Flight Sergeant John Hannah on a fateful day in September 1940.
This article sheds light on Hannah’s extraordinary act of courage, which saw him extinguish flames on his aircraft with his bare hands, an act that earned him the Victoria Cross.
A Young Airman’s Journey
John Hannah was born on November 27, 1921, in Paisley, Scotland. He joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an apprentice shortly before the outbreak of the war, eventually becoming a wireless operator and air gunner in the RAF’s No. 83 Squadron.
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However, it was a particular mission onboard a Handley Page Hampden bomber on September 15, 1940, that would etch his name into the annals of military history.
The Fateful Night of September 15, 1940
The mission was a night-time bombing raid against enemy barges in Antwerp, Belgium, a strategic target as German forces prepared for an invasion of Britain. Hannah’s Hampden bomber was one of 216 RAF aircraft that took to the skies that night.
The Handley Page Hampden, also known as the “Flying Suitcase” due to its cramped crew conditions, was a British twin-engine medium bomber that served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the early years of World War II.
It was a key part of RAF Bomber Command’s arsenal, alongside the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and the Vickers Wellington.
As they approached the target, the aircraft came under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
A shell exploded inside the bomber, igniting the fuselage and the rear gunner’s cockpit. The explosion filled the aircraft with smoke and flames, injuring the second pilot and rendering the wireless and rear guns inoperable.
An Act of Unparalleled Bravery
With the aircraft ablaze and in imminent danger of exploding, Hannah, just 18 years old at the time, had a choice. He could bail out and save himself, or he could attempt the near-impossible: extinguish the fire and save his crewmates.
Choosing the latter, Hannah discarded his parachute to make room.
Despite the flames and the risk of the aircraft exploding, he tackled the fire.
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The flames were so intense that his face, hands, and clothing were severely burned, but Hannah persisted, fighting the fire with an extinguisher until it was spent. When that was not enough, he resorted to smothering the flames with his bare hands.
The Aftermath and Recognition
Despite his injuries, Hannah stayed at his post, operating the bomber’s front guns and maintaining a lookout. His actions allowed the pilot to navigate the damaged aircraft back to their base at Scampton, Lincolnshire, saving the lives of the remaining crew members.
Hannah’s bravery did not go unnoticed. On October 1, 1940, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award in the British honours system, awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy”.
At the time, he was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross in the Second World War.
The official citation lauded his “unhesitating courage and extreme devotion to duty,” which saved his aircraft and crew. It also noted the severe injuries he suffered in the process, illustrating the extent of his sacrifice.
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John Hannah’s bravery during World War II serves as a shining example of selflessness, courage, and dedication. His story reminds us of the numerous heroes who, often at great personal risk, fought to protect their comrades and their nation during the most significant conflict of the 20th century.
Today, as we navigate the challenges of our time, Hannah’s heroism continues to inspire and remind us of our capacity for courage in the face of adversity.