The Morlaix Show - 26 September 1942
Though sometimes referred to as the first mission flown by the 4th, officially it's the last mission flown by the Eagle Squadrons before being transferred to the 8th Air Force. This mission became famous not only because of the terrible losses suffered by 133 Squadron but also because of the means by which they were incurred. In the end, eleven pilots and all twelve aircraft sent on the mission were lost.
With the orders for the transfer of the Eagles to the US forces already issued, personnel from the three squadrons were being sent in groups to London to be sworn into the USAAF. Not wanting to miss a show, 133 Squadron Leader Carroll McColpin had repeatedly delayed his trip. Finally, on 25 September a reluctant McColpin was ordered to London to be sworn in as a major in the USAAF. Taking his place for the mission was Edward Gordon Brettell, considered "competent but not particularly popular with the Americans." The 133 Squadron lineup consisted entirely Spitfire MK IX's, the only mission flown by the Eagles in this kite. After transferring to the USAAF, they returned to their customary Spitfire Mk Vb's
A Flight B Flight
F/Lt E.G. Brettell ES 313 F/Lt M. E. Jackson BS 279
P/O L.T. Ryerson BS 275 P/O R. E. Smith BS 447
P/O W.H. Baker BS 446 P/O C.A. Cook BR 640
P/O D.D. Smith BS 137 P/O R.N. Beaty BS 148
P/O G.B. Sperry BR 638 P/O G.H. Middleton BS 301
P/O G.G. Wright BS 138 P/O G.P. Neville BS 140
P/O D.S. Gentile BS 445 (scratched)
From the official mission entry in 133 Squadron's history:
The Squadron along with 401 was detailed to support a formation of Fortresses who were to bomb Morlaix. 14 aircraft and pilots took off From Gt. Sampford for Bolthead, Devonshire and landed there at 1230 hours. At 1350 hours, after a rather sketchy briefing, The 12 aircraft took off with 401 to make a rendezvous with the Fortresses in mid-channel at a point approximately half-way between Bolthead and Morlaix. It is not yet clear as to what exactly happened but some of the Fortresses were seen after our aircraft had been flying for 45 minutes. The pilot of one aircraft (P/O Beaty) alone returned from this operation and owing to petrol shortage crash landed in a small field near Kingsbridge, Devon. From his account and what he overheard on the R/T it seems probable that the rest of the Squadron force landed on the Island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. It was known subsequently on good authority that 5 of the pilots are now prisoners of war.
As the more details of the events began to filter in, the true magnitude of this tragedy became clear. Climbing above a sold overcast the Spitfires encountered extremely high tailwinds aloft but with the cloud cover below were unable to judge their ground speed. The forecast had been for a 35 knot headwind but the pilots instead encountered a 100 knot tailwind. P/O Beaty aborted early and managed make it back to England just as his fuel ran out.
When the B-17s, which were far ahead of the Spitfires, finally flew past the edge of the overcast they were over the Pyrenees Mountains on the Spanish border and immediately reversed course. Well beyond their range, the Spitfires had no hope of returning to England. As they dropped below the overcast the Spitfires immediately became targets for enemy Focke Wulf FW190 fighters and anti-aircraft gunners11 Spitfires went down on the Brest Peninsula. Four pilots were killed and six taken prisoner.
One pilot, Robert E. Smith managed to evade capture and eventually made it back to England. F/Lt. Gordon Bretell would later take part in the "Great Escape" and be executed on 29 March 1944 after being re-captured by the Nazis.