Russ Bannock was Canada’s 2nd highest scoring ace of WWII, destroying 19 V1 rockets and 11 German night fighters for a total of 25 1/2 aircraft. He was a native of Edmonton, Alberta, yet he is unheard of in the city. There are no parks, or statues of him or anything to remind Canadians of his contribution to winning WWII. Even during the war he was unknown to the country.
He was born Russ Bahnuk on Nov. 1, 1919. His father changed the family name to a quintessential Canadian name, Bannock in 1939, which was just as well as they were originally Austrian. He could have had problems with a Germanic name during the war. Especially with two cousins in the Luftwaffe.
Growing up in Edmonton, he did the usual praire stuff, playing hockey and baseball. But he did something unusual as well, he dreamt of becoming a pilot. In a 1989 interview he said:
"I grew up in Edmonton and Edmonton was always known for aviation in those days. I was fascinated by the famous Canadian bush pilots Punch Dickens and Wop May. Wop May is actually the person who gave me my first reference to get into the air force. I went up to Yellowknife and got a job (prospecting) with an excavation crew. I came back to Edmonton for three months in the winter of 1938 and got my private pilot’s license, and took a couple of mining courses at the university."
He had a commercial pilot’s license by the following April and got a job with Yukon Southern Air Transport. In September, 1939 the war started.
"As the war rolled arouind, every commercial pilot in Canada received a telegram from the Minister of National Defence, inviting us to become RCAF pilot officers. That was the day war started and I promptly replied "yes". Three or four days later, I was sent to Vancouver to learn instrument-flying and aerobatics. I flew the Gypsy Moth, an open-cockpit biplane, and wore leather helmet and glasses. They were fun to fly, but I was sent from there to Trenton Officer School and then to Camp Borden, which was the only service flying school, flying Harvards and Fairey Battles."
He earned his wings and was posted to 112 Sqdn, RCAF which was to go with the First Canadian Division, but France was defeated and the Allies pulled out of mainland Europe. He was sent to become an instructor. For three years he taught students the basics of flying eventually earning promotions to chief instructor and squadron leader.
In 1943 he was posted to an operational training unit at Greenwood, Nova Scotia to learn the new Mosquito fighter/bomber. Following that he was posted to 418 (City of Edmonton) Squadron at Holmsley, southern England in June 1944. Three days later the Germans started what is called the Second Battle of Britain, using their new V1 rockets ("Vergeltungswaffe" or "retaliation weapon") to bomb London and southern England. The terror these new weapons caused was huge. Each bomb delivered 2,000 lbs of high explosive, and were aimed only roughly at targets, so there was no knowing, on the part of the English, where or when they would fall. They had a pulse engine that made a putt, putt, putt sound, until the fuel ran out and then they fell to earth to detonate. On June 13, a single buzz-bomb destroyed a church in the centre of London, killing 119 and injuring 141 more. And there were lots of them. The city of Croydon, Surrey, for instance, received 141 of them.
The Mosquito was one of the few aircraft with the power to intercept the buzz-bombs, and 418 Sqdn flew "Mossies". They were thrown into the battle with instructions to intercept and destroy them over the English channel if possible. Every V1 knocked down over the channel counted as a whole kill, over English territory they were counted as half a kill. This was to encourage pilots to engage them over water where their explosion and fall wouldn’t hurt anything. Bannock and F/L D. MacFadyen developed tactics to combat the V1s at night. As the rockets flew at 300 to 3,000 ft at up to 370 mph the Mosquitos had to remain at 10,000 feet. Once spotted the Mosquito pilot flew on the same heading as the rocket, when it passed the Mosquito the pilot dove at a vector that would bring the Mosquito behind and below the rocket at about the same speed (425 mph). A shot from directly astern was extremely dangerous as the explosion could engulf the Mosquito. The pilot had 30 seconds to plan and set up a defection shot. Bannock’s keen eyes and reflexes gave him a distinct edge. He would close one eye to protect his night vision from the flash of the explosion. As soon as the highly flammable fuel erupted the pilot had to haul his plane away from the debris, usually down and away while at low altitude. MacFayden made the first "Diver" kill, several others and Bannock followed closely after on June 19 for his second kill.
418 Sqdns major role was as night intruders in continental Europe. Intruders were intended to harass night fighters either before they took off at their bases or when they returned. If little was happening at the fields they selected, then they would shoot up anything else that looked tempting, especially trains, bases and vehicular traffic. With the Mossie’s long endurance and heavy fire power it excelled at this role. The navigator would get them to the site using compass, primitive radar and dead reckoning. Then the pilot would circle slowly in the dark while they both kept watch for aircraft. His first had been a Messerschmidt Bf110 night fighter he caught at Avord, France. The 110 started to take off to intercept the bomber stream and turned on his navigation lights. Bannock had been quietly circling the airport in the dark waiting for a plane to show itself. He quickly banked and caught the Bf110 just as it was touching down, sending it and the three men in it to their doom.
He decided the best way to stop V1s was to catch them at their launch pads. On July 3, 1944 he and F/O R.R. Bruce headed for Abbeville, France. He arrived to see a stream of V1s starting to take off. Despite heavy flak they repeatedly attacked the site destroying three. Three days later they intercepted and destroyed four in one night. Two nights later he shot down two more. By mid-July the squadron moved to Hurn and turned to intruding again. He chased one night fighter they picked up on radar for 70 miles before catching and destroying it. Later the same night they caught one while it was landing.
"There was a lot of emotion to shooting down a German night-fighter. But all you were trying to do is bring down the machine. A lot of the emotion was getting there and getting back and getting the job done. The trouble was you were being shot at from the ground. We took a lot of fire and that gets your adrenalin up."
By August 12 he had downed 9 more "buzz-bombs" After that he Squadron moved to an area where there were few V1s, so they went back to hunting night fighters. He gave ample credit to the navigators
"it was teamwork, very much so. The navigator ran the radar and tried to pick out targets and that was difficult because, low down, tow-thirds of the radar screen was blocked out."
On August 29 circling above Vaerlose airfield near Copenhagen, he jumped a Junkers Ju 88 and a Bf110, destroying both of them. Four days later he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By this time he had completed his tour of 35 sorties and should have been rotated out of operational flights for 6 months. But he applied for and received a second tour as he had been an instructor for three years.
In Sept, 1944 the Germans started to launch their latest weapon, the ballistic V2 rocket. He and Bruce spotted several taking off one night, but they had extremely fast acceleration at a near vertical angle and they couldn’t do anything about them. Most of the activity was in bomber support attacking night fighter bases, called "Flower" patrols and "Ranger" patrols where they were given a free hand to shoot whatever they wanted. These operations literally ranged over most of continental Europe, from Norway to Italy to Poland.
At dawn of Sept 27 he and R.R. Bruce, his usual navigator, arrived over Parrow air base to see six Messerschmidt Me108 trainers doing touch and goes. These were rookie pilots, and were not likely to be armed, a very tempting target. In moments he downed two of the aircraft in flames, without the pilots realizing what had happened to them. One of the agile 108s swung around and headed right for them. Russ rolled right to avoid the collision, just then an old Me109 fighter came up behind them and fired into one of their wings. The engine promptly lost coolant, overheated and caught on fire. Swerving and diving to tree-top level he escaped from the 109. He feathered the prop and headed for home, a long and tense 7 and a quarter hours away. He was awarded a second DFC for this work.
In October, 1944 he was promoted from Squad Leader (S/L) to Wing Commander (W/C) and took over 418 Squadron. It was only for a short time however, 418 Sqdn changed roles from intruders to ground support for the invading Allied troops as part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Bannock was took over 406 Sqdn that continued in the intruder role. Obviously his reputation as an ace hunter of night fighters was well regarded by Staff. Despite paper work and desk duty, he continued to specialize in jumping night fighters. He downed a Heinkel 111, a Focke-Wulf 190, an unidentified aircraft and a Ju88 by April, 1945. 406 Sqdn eventually destroyed 80 German aircraft for 7 losses of their own. Tensions were releaved in a variety of ways. One was to decorate the noses of the 418 and 406 Sqdn planes with characters from the cartoon strip Li’l Abner. His was Hairless Joe.
Shortly after the war, Russ Bannock received the Distinguished Service Order. The citation noted that he had destroyed at least 11 German planes and 19 V1 rockets while causing considerable disruption to the enemy’s line of communications. Under this officer’s inspiring leadership his squadron has obtained a fine record of success".
He returned home to join De Havilland Canada as a sales director and test pilot. As of 1990 he was still alive and healthy in Toronto, Ontario.
Canadian Aces Home Page
Images From: A. Vaughn, 418 Squadron History
Quotes From: D. McCaffrey, Air Aces