On 27 May 1947 the London Gazette reported award of a DFC to 185434 F/O Charles Rene George Ryan, No.405 Squadron. There was no citation other than "in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations”, but Air Ministry Bulletin 24184 had a long account. However, the story of how he came to be honoured, more than two years after VE Day, makes an interesting story in itself. We begin with a recommendation for DSO to another officer, Squadron Leader Campbell Haliburton Mussells, RCAF, drafted on 23 May 1945 by Air Vice-Marshal D.G.T. Bennett, Air Officer Commanding, No.8 Group. This in itself was unusual, for normally the process would have been started by Mussells’ squadron commander or station commander. Initiation of an award at Group HQ was not the norm. The recommendation read:
On the 10th April 1945, this officer was the pilot of an aircraft detailed to make a daylight attack against Leipzig. Whilst orbiting the target to complete a second run the aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter. The rear turret and the starboard rudder were completely shot away, the port rudder shattered and both elevators damaged to such and extent that they offered no control surface. The Mid-Upper Gunner was severely wounded in the combat.
The aircraft lost speed suddenly, and almost completely out of control, dived some 4,000 feet. Squadron Leader Mussells attempting to pull out of the dive, found the trimming controls completely useless, but with considerable difficulty and with his full strength eventually pulled out and the control column then had to be lashed back with rope to keep the nose of the aircraft up. The aircraft would only turn to port but by using the ailerons could be eased to starboard, though a constant tendency to port still persisted.
By his sound judgement and skilled airmanship, Squadron Leader Mussells regained partial control of his aircraft and set course for base. For the first hour of the return journey he flew at 13,000 feet, crossed the Belgian coast at 10,000 feet and eventually crossed the English coast at 5,000 feet, when he instructed his crew, with the exception of the Mid-Upper Gunner, to bale out. He then carried out a masterly landing at Woodbridge without flaps, and with the control column still lashed right back. On landing the tail could not go down and the aircraft did four very big bounces before finally coming to rest.
The great feat of airmanship performed by Squadron Leader Mussells is amply endorsed by a comment by Sir Roy Dobson at A.V. Roe and Company Limited, when he saw the photographs of the Lancaster and report on the damage. This remark was, “How the machine go home at all is entirely beyond us here.”
Squadron Leader Mussells showed complete disregard for his personal safety and a high sense of duty in bringing the aircraft back to this country, so that his crew, except the wounded gunner, could bale out in home territory, and further in attempting almost hazardous landing which was the only practical means, if successful, of enabling his wounded crew member to receive adequate medical assistance.
This officer’s perseverance in the face of great odds, together with his exceptional skill and resources, has set an inspiring example, and I strongly recommend him for the immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order.
This was endorsed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris on 30 May 1945. The DSO was gazetted 17 July 1945 with the following abbreviated account being published:
In April 1945, this officer piloted an aircraft in an attack against Leipzig. Just after making his first run over the target, the aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter and sustained serious damage. The rear turret and the starboard rudder were shot away. The port rudder was smashed and both elevators were badly damaged. The aircraft dived out of control. As Squadron Leader Mussells fought to regain control he found that the trimming controls were useless. Nevertheless, he succeeded in levelling out after considerable height had been lost. To keep the nose of the aircraft up, the control column had to be lashed back. In circumstances of the greatest difficulty, Squadron Leader Mussells flew the crippled aircraft back to this country. After crossing the English coast, he ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft and, with the exception of the mid-upper gunner who was seriously wounded, they left by parachute. Squadron Leader Mussells flew on to the nearest airfield with his wounded comrade. With the control column still lashed back and without the aid of flaps, this officer showed superb skill in bringing the crippled aircraft down safely. Throughout a most trying experience this officer displayed the highest qualities of leadership, skill and courage. His example was outstanding.
However, this was not the full story of that sortie. On 22 August 1946, 185434 Flying Officer Charles Rene George Ryan, RAF wrote to Air Ministry as follows:
1. I have the honour to request that attention be given to the publication of a paragraph which appeared in the issue of “Flight” dated 23rd August 1945. I have just been made aware of this.
2. At present I am on release leave, so that I cannot make application through my Commanding Officer.
3. The paragraph in question concerns the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Squadron Leader C.H. Mussells, RCAF, No.405 (RCAF) Squadron.
4. On the operation mentioned I was a member of the crew, flight engineer. The citation states that “Squadron Leader Mussells flew the crippled aircraft back to this country.” In point of fact, both the pilot and myself were at the controls the whole way back. I lashed cord around the control column and thus took considerable part of the strain by pulling on the cord, and at the same time attempting to maintain level flight.
5. The citation further stated that Squadron Leader Mussells “ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft and, with the exception of the mid-upper gunner who was seriously wounded, they left by parachute.” This is untrue. I was ordered by Squadron Leader Mussells to remain in the aircraft, as it would not have been possible for him to land the aircraft on his own. Squadron Leader Mussells and myself landed the aircraft at Woodbridge airfield on 10th April 1945.
6. This misrepresentation of the facts has just been brought to my notice. As the incorrect version of the incident has been published publicly, you will appreciate my position. I do not wish to detract from anything that may have been said about Squadron Leader Mussells’ ability and courage. I do feel, however, that your attention should be drawn to this incident.
Air Ministry acted fairly quickly. Ryan was informed on 13 September 1946 that the matter was “being investigated.” That same day the issue was brought to notice of Bomber Command Headquarters, noting that A/V/M Bennett’s recommendation had made no mention of Ryan. On 3 October 1946, that Headquarters reported that Ryan was essentially correct, but in determining whether an award could be made to Ryan, it would be “necessary to obtain a statement from Squadron Leader Mussells, clearly indicating whether he did or did not order his Flight Engineer to abandon the aircraft, and the extent to which the services of the Flight Engineer - F/O Ryan - were necessary in carrying out the flight in the crippled aircraft.”
On 15 November 1946, Air Ministry referred the matter to the Air Officer Commanding in Chief, RCAF Overseas Headquarters, asking that Squadron Leader Mussells be informed. RCAF Overseas Headquarters in turn referred this to AFHQ, Ottawa, on 19 November 1946. On 3 December 1946 it was directed to the Air Officer Commanding, No.2 Air Command, Winnipeg, where Mussells was then serving. On 10 December 1946, he provided the following statement confirming the story as related by Ryan:
1. In accordance with para three of the above referenced letter, the following detailed account of an operational sortie against Leipzig on the 10th April 1945, is submitted.
2. Flying Officer Ryan was Flight Engineer in my crew which was detailed to make a daylight attack against the above-mentioned target. Whilst orbiting the target , we were attacked by an ME-163, which inflicted considerable damaged to the aircraft.
3. The Rear Gunner was shot away and the Mid-Upper seriously wounded. The aircraft went out of control, and due to the inability of the Captain to prevent the aircraft from continuing its dive, Flying Officer Ryan was ordered to the rest bed position to get the dinghy rope. He then assisted in lashing the controls so as to obtain a mechanical advantage and by this means the aircraft was righted. Due to the damage sustained in the control surfaces, the aircraft would only turn to port, but by using the ailerons, could be eased to starboard. Course was then set for the Front Lines which were approximately one hour’s flying away.
4. Flying Officer Ryan controlled the elevators by manipulation of the rope. This was a very difficult task due to the fact the stalling speed of the aircraft had increased to approximately 150 knots, and above 165 knots, the aircraft continued to disintegrate. Cloud was encountered on the homeward journey, which caused the aircraft to go out of control twice, but through Flying Officer Ryan’s ability to interpret the aircraft’s reactions, it was decided, after crossing the Front Lines, to set course for Woodbridge. It required great physical exertion to maintain a straight and level flight, and Flying Officer Ryan’s hands were noticed to be bleeding by the time the English coast was reached.
5. The aircraft crossed the English coast at 5,000 feet, approximately three hours after setting course from the target. By this time dusk had fallen. The Captain made known his intention to land and ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft, with the exception of Flying Officer Ryan and the Mid-Upper Gunner who was lashed down on the rest bed. The undercarriage was lowered at approximately 3,000 feet, upon which the aircraft commenced to descend at 2,000 feet per minute, although the control column was lashed fully back. Fortunately a successful landing was made.
6. It is very doubtful if the Captain of the aircraft could have been able to reach England and land the aircraft on his own had it not been for Flying Officer Ryan’s assistance at the controls.
7. This officer, as a member of my crew, at all times, regardless of circumstances, was cheerful and obedient, and set a fine example to all the members of his Squadron.
8. I have read Flying Officer Ryan’s letter to Air Ministry and concur in his statements. I seriously regret this misrepresentation of facts in my citation. It is obvious from reading a copy of Air Vice-Marshal D.G.T. Bennett’s recommendation which I have just seen for the first time, that errors and omissions on the Interrogating Officer’s Report must have been made.
9. I sincerely hope that some steps are taken to rectify this situation and that Flying Officer Ryan receives just recognition for his outstanding part in this operational sortie.
Steps were taken (as noted above) and Ryan was belatedly awarded a DFC; Air Ministry Bulletin 24184 had the following citation:
Flying Officer Ryan was flight engineer of a Halifax aircraft which took part in a daylight raid on Leipzig on the 10th April 1945. During the second run over the target, en enemy fighter attacked and caused severe damage to the aircraft. The rear turret and starboard rudder were completely shot away, the port rudder shattered and both elevators damaged to such an extent that they became almost useless. In the course of the attack, the mid-upper gunner was seriously wounded. The aircraft immediately dived out of control and only by means of the able assistance of this flight engineer - Flying Officer Ryan - was the pilot able to regain control. The control column was then lashed fully back. During the return light it became increasingly difficult to maintain speed at which the aircraft neither stalled nor continued to break up and, until the English coast was reached, it was only just under control because Flying Officer Ryan anticipated its reactions to turbulent weather with exceptional skill and accuracy. As the coast was crossed, the captain ordered the crew, with the exception of Flying Officer Ryan and the wounded mid-upper gunner, to abandon the aircraft while he attempted a crash landing. Flying Officer Ryan’s hands were by this time torn and bleeding, lacerated by the rope with which he was manipulating the control column. Despite this he showed no discouragement but remained cheerful and continued to give his captain the maximum of cooperation. When the undercarriage had been lowered the aircraft commenced to descend very rapidly but a successful crash landing was made. Up to the last moment, Flying Officer Ryan helped the pilot by every means in his power. Without his assistance it would have been impossibly to fly the aircraft back to this country. He also knew that the crash landing, which was the only means of saving the lie of the wounded gunner, was an extremely dangerous operation. This, however, did not deter him in any way. He readily agreed to all risks in order to help the pilot and it was largely due to his efforts that the aircraft was flown safely back to the United Kingdom and that the crash landing was successful.
That is an amazing tale of what was a very serious misrepresentation being finally put to rights. It seems incredible that the captain was unaware of the actual wording of his citation, although he probably already thought he knew it (after all, he had been through the full interrogation himself) so never bothered to read the final, published version. Anyway, good to know that the truth was finally outed, by the efforts of the other person concerned - must have been a strange feeling to have to put himself through all this! I wonder how many other errors in published citations remain with us to this day - probably more than a few.