Andrew Charles Mynarski

World War II Hero

Andrew C. Mynarski, V.C.

A Short History


Andrew Charles (Andy) Mynarski was born in Winnipeg on October 14, 1916 the son of recent Polish immigrants. He had five other siblings, two brothers and three sisters. He was educated at King Edward and Isaac Newton Elementary Schools and at St. John's Technical School. To help support his family after his father's death when he was 16, he worked as a chamois cutter for a furrier in Winnipeg. He was well regarded by the furrier as he turned out to be good with his hands. He later built furniture and models in a workshop that he built in the basement.

In 1940 he joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles that were a militia unit and served only a short time. In September, 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was posted to No. 3 Manning Depot in Edmonton. After iniation he went to No. 2 Wireless School in Calgary but had trouble with learning Morse Code. He was then posted to No. 3 Bomb and Gunnery School at MacDonald, Manitoba, graduating just before Christmas as an air-gunner earning his AG "Wing".
He was promoted to temporary Sergeant in Halifax just prior to going overseas in January, 1942.

In England he went into a "manning pool" called No. 3 Personnel Reception Depot and was eventually sent to No. 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU) for gunnery training in Wellington bombers and then on the more advanced Halfax bombers at No. 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). In this unit he was promoted to Flight Sergeant. After training he was posted to No. 9 Squadron, RAF that was flying Vickers Lancasters. After a month he was posted to No. 1668 HCU, then to a Replacement Depot and later to No. 1664 HCU at Dishforth, Yorkshire in March 1944. The reasons for this series of transfers hasn't been explained, although it is unusual for a man to be transferred out of an operational squadron unless he is injured, wasn't fitting in, or needed further training. However, at this time the RCAF was demanding that the Canadian bomber squadrons in England be manned primarily by Canadians. As 6 Group, to be staffed with Canadian bomber squadrons, flew from Yorkshire it may have been the process of collecting Canadians for the "Canadianization" program that caused Andy to be shifted around in non-operational units.

It was while he was in No. 1664 HCU that he met up with the other members of his new crew. They were: Art de Breyne - pilot, Roy Vigars - flight engineer, Pat Brophy - rear gunner; Jim Kelly - wireless operator; Jack Friday - bomb-aimer; and Robert Bodie - navigator. They had just lost Ken Branston their mid-upper gunner and Andy was posted as his replacement. The course on conversion to Halifaxes was intense as the sole object was to familiarize the crew with the aircraft for operations.

Crew of VR-A 419 RCAF badge
Crew of VR-A, L-R: Pat Brophy, Jim Kelly, Roy Vigars, Art de Breyne, Andy Mynarski, Jack Friday, Bob Bodie. 419 RCAF Squadron badge

They were then posted to No 419 "Moose" Squadron, RCAF flying out of Middleton-St. George, Yorkshire. Their first operational flight came only after Art de Breyne made two fairly easy trips as a 2nd pilot (called a 2nd dickie) with other aircraft. Their first and last flight in a Halifax Mk II was to bomb the marshalling yards at Laon, France. For them it was uneventful although there was lots of action all around them. The squadron received new AVRO Lancaster Mk Xs from Canada and spent several days familiarizing themselves with their new bombers. They flew many different aircraft in training and on ops, including the now famous KB726 coded VR-A.

VR-A

They had arrived just in time for the implementation of Eisenhower's Transportation Plan, in which the USAAF and RAF would systematically destroy western Europe's rail, road and bridge networks in order to prevent the Germans from bringing reinforcements up to the Normandy beachheads. The invasion of the continent was only two months away.

Their first trip in a Lancaster was to St. Ghislain marshalling yards and it was a resounding success. Further raids were made to Ghent, Boulogne and Louvain marshalling yards. They also did one raid to Aachen that was a standard "area" attack on a German city, as Air Marshall "Bomber" Harris was loath to quit his strategic attacks against Germany. They participated in a 3-minute attack on a German military camp in Belgium at Bourg Leopold that caused a lot of casualties for the Germans. There was also a raid on the Mt. Couple radar station at Cap Griz Nez.

The two airgunners, Mynarski and Brophy had grown close in their few months together. Despite their different ranks, up to the 12th Mynarski was a Flight Sergeant Brophy a Pilot Officer, they chumed together while off-duty, especially during nightly pub crawls. Mynarski even bailed Brophy out of jail one night after a scrap. What they had in common was a general remove from the rest of the crew, the gunners had to stick together.

Mynarski was in the mid-upper gun position half-way down the fusilage Mid-upper turret and Brophy was almost totally isolated in the rear-turret. Tail gunner in a Lancaster
Both of them were separated from the rest of the crew by a long, narrow passageway over the bomb-bay. This photo is the rear fusilage area of a Lancaster, the step on the left is for the door, the Elsan toilet is in the middle of the fusilage leading to the rear turret. The floor was torn up by cannon fire from a night fighter. Rear fusilage area in a Lancaster Also, the rear-turret had a sliding door that physically isolated it from the aircraft to reduce severe draughts. sliding doors on the rear turret

June 6, 1944. D-Day.

In support of the Allied landings in Normandy Bomber Command tasked the "heavies" for maximum effort raids for three nights in a row. Art de Breyne's crew were tasked first to the heavy coastal batteries at Longues, France five miles west of Arromanches where the Allies wanted to put in a Mulberry port. This was a "hairy" raid conducted at only 1,500 feet! Lancasters were designed for and typically operated at an altitude of 25,000 feet and higher if they could manage it. For the Transportation Plan raids they had to move down to near ground level for increased accuracy to ensure that the targets were destroyed with minimal collateral damage to the French populace.

On June 7th they flew a low-level Lancaster raid to take out the bridge and crossroads at Coutances that was an important target to limit Panzer reinforcements into the Allied bridgehead. The 8th of June saw them on a raid to Acheres marshalling yards. Then they were rested until June 12th. On June 11th all Canadian Flight Sergeants were commissioned as Pilot Officers so the crews could all live and socialize as equals and to increase their pay. This was a long-standing sore point for Canadians flying with the RAF. Officers and men were separate on the ground, but had to fight for their lives together in the air. For Canadians who were used to a very egalitarian society this was particularly difficult to understand or accept. Promoting all men to officers was the easiest and quickest way around the problem. On the 12th they participated in a fighter affiliation and radar test flight. That night, June 12/13 would be their 13th operation as a crew with a raid on the marshalling yards at Cambrai, France.

The Luftwaffe was now moving more day and night fighters into the French theater to try to stem the Allied onslaught. While the German day fighters were swarmed by British Spitfires and American P-51 Mustangs, their night fighters, a mix of Bf-109s, FW-190s, Bf-110s and Ju-88s operated over France, Germany and Holland in relative peace. The larger night fighters, like the Ju-88 shown here, were particularly lethal as they were equipped with radar and a set of 20mm cannons firing explosive shells upwards at 45 degrees. The Germans called this arrangement Schrage Musik or "Jazz Music". They targetted the vulnerable underside of Halifax and Lancaster bombers as they had no belly turrets like American B-24s and B-17s. Ju-88 night fighter with radar

The Cambrai Raid

The raid started out in fine form, it was to be another low level raid at 2,000 feet with a path that would take them nearly over Amiens, Albert, Courcelette, and Thiepval to Cambrai, country terribly familiar to those who survived WWI. The remainder of the encounter is best left up to Pat Brophy, the tailgunner.

"As we crossed the French coast, I saw enemy searchlights sweeping the sky, then lazy puffs of smoke and deceptively pretty sunbursts of sparks. 'Light flak below, Skipper,' I reported.

"Suddenly there was a blinding flash, a searchlight caught us. Other searchlights quickly converged, coning the aircraft. 'Hang on' called Art de Breyne. 'We're coned!' He threw the Lanc into a banking dive, then swung upwards, trying to squirm away from the deadly glare. Then, just as suddenly, we were in the dark again.

"We'd escaped - or had we? The Germans sometimes allowed a bomber to shake loose once their nightfighters had got a fix on the aircraft. It was too soon to tell."

"Once past the coastal defences, we began a slow descent. This was to be a low-level raid from 2,000 feet. We were down to 5,000 feet when I caught a fleeting glimpse of a twin-engine fighter. 'Bogey astern!' I yelled on the intercom. 'Six o'clock!' Instantly, as he'd done to evade the searchlights, Art de Breyne began to corkscrew. Seconds later I saw a Ju-88 streaking up from below: 'He's coming under us!' As I rotated my turret around and opened fire, the white-bellied Ju-88 flashed by with its cannons blazing. Three explosions rocked our aircraft. Two rounds knocked out both port engines and set the wing tank between the two engines on fire. The third tore into the fuselage, starting another fire between Andy's mid-upper turret and mine."

Last Flight VR-A
"Last Flight VR-A" original painting by Lance Russwurm

"I sensed we were losing altitude fast. I listened for orders on the intercom, but it was dead. The red light that was supposed to flash in my turret Morse code the letter P (.--.), the signal to bail out, was silent, as all circuits had been cut by the explosion of the shell. I could tell by the fire in the fuselage that was sweeping towards me, due to the air drafts in the fuselage, that our aircraft A for Able had had it. For some reason I glanced at my watch. It was 13 minutes past midnight, June 13, on our 13th operation! And if I did not do something fast I was going for a Burton with it."

"As recounted by Art, when he finally jumped - from barely 800 feet - he felt sure that both Andy and I had already left the aircraft by the rear fuselage side hatch.

"Unfortunately, he was wrong. To fire my guns I had traversed my turret to port. Now I had to straighten it out so the guns were pointing aft, so I could open the turret dooors to get back into the aircraft fuselage for my parachute and then jump from the rear hatch. There is no room in the rear turret to stow a parachute pack. I pressed the rotation pedal and nothing happened. The hydraulic system had been shattered by the cannon shell explosion, locking my turret at such an angle that I couldn't get out. Meanwhile, from inside the fuselage, flames were sweeping towards me.

"I remember telling myself 'Don't panic. There's still another way out.' I managed to pry open the turret doors a few inches, reached in for my parachute and clipped it on to the harness on my chest. I then tried to hand-crank the turret to a beam position, where I could open the doors and flip out backwards into the slipstream. To my horror, the rotating gear handle broke off in my hand. Now there was no way out. At that moment, imprisoned in the mortally wounded Lancaster, I remembered Andy Mynarski's words: 'Back there, you're completely cut off.'

"Then I saw him. Andy had slid down from the mid-upper turret and made his way back to the rear escape hatch, about 15 feet from me, having received the same P signal to bail out from the skipper. He opened the door and was just about to jump when he glanced around and spotted me through the plexiglass part of my turret. One look told him I was trapped.

"Instantly, he turned away from the hatch - his doorway to safety - and started towards me. All this time the airplane ws lurching drunkenly as Art tried to keep it on an even keel without instruments. Andy had to climb over the Elsan chemical toilet and crawl over the tailplane spar, as there is no room at that part of the fuselage. These cramped conditions forced him to crawl on his hands and knees - straight through the blazing hydraulic oil. By the time he reached my position in the tail, his uniform and parachute were on fire. I shook my head; it was hopeless. 'Don't try!' I shouted, and waved him away.

"Andy didn't seem to notice. Completely ignoring his own condition in the flames, he grabbed a fire axe and tried to smash the turret free. It gave slightly, but not enough. Wild with desperation and pain, he tore at the doors with his bare hands - to no avail. By now he was a mass of flames below the waist. Seeing him like that, I forgot everything else. Over the roar of the wind and the whine of our two remaining engines, I screamed, 'Go back, Andy! Get out!'

"Finally, with time running out, he realized that he could do nothing to help me. When I waved him away again, he hung his head and nodded, as though he was ashamed to leave - ashamed that sheer heart and courage hadn't been enough. As there was no way to turn around in the confined quarters, Andy had to crawl backwards through the flaming hydraulic fluid fire again, never taking his eyes off me. On his face was a look of mute anguish.

"When Andy reached the escape hatch, he stood up. Slowly, as he'd often done before in happier times together, he came to attention. Standing there in his flaming clothes, a grimly magnificent figure, he saluted me! At the same time, just before he jumped, he said something. And even though I couldn't hear, I knew it was 'Good night, Sir.'

Now Pat Brophy was alone in the Lanc, going down less steeply than before, but he knew it would hit the ground in a matter of seconds, with five tons of explosives barely 50 feet from where he was trapped in his turret. He remembers bracing himself in the prescribed position for a crash landing and waiting for the impact.

In his words: "Time froze while I was struggling inside the turret and Andy was fighting to get me out alive, a minute or more had flashed by like a second. Now the last agonizing seconds were like eternity. Prayers and random thoughts raced through my mind. Hail Mary, full of Grace ... I hope Andy got down okay ... Pray for us sinners ... The boys back at the squadron would probably say, 'Brophy? Oh he went for a Burton over Cambrai.'

Suddenly time caught up. Everything happened at once. The ground came up, the aircraft slammed into the earth, like the sound of a thousand sledgehammers and the screeching of ripping metal. Just as the Lanc went bellying into a field, it hit a thick tree with its port wing, which tore off the flaming wing and engines and spun the aircraft violently to port or left - in one final lurch. This violent impact with the tree and the ground, the resulting whiplash effect on the tail of the aircraft, snapped my turret around and the doors flew open, freeing me from my potentially explosive and flaming prison. I came to rest against a small tree about 30 to 50 feet from the remains of the aircraft. That is when I heard two explosions together. Only when I felt solid earth tremble under me did I realize the crash was over, and somehow I was alive.

"Slowly and reluctantly, I moved my arms and legs, as you always think that you will not be able to move them and do not want to know, but the force of life makes you nevertheless. Much to my surprise, nothing hurt. I sat up and found I wasn't even scratched. It was as if some gentle, unseen hand had swept me out of my turret, now somewhere in the twisted and blazing wreck of our aircraft less than 50 feet away. Incredibly, and lucky for me, only two of the Lanc's 20 bombs had exploded. But fear had left its mark: when I hauled off my helmet a patch of hair came with it" (he suffered a scalp condition that caused him to lose patches of hair).

The seven crew members were now all on the ground, six were in fairly good condition, one had been knocked out while trying to bail out. Unfortunately, Andy Mynarski was not. He had landed alive with his clothes still on fire. French farmers who had spotted the flaming bomber found him and hustled him off to a doctor but he died shortly of his severe burns. He was buried in a local cemetary.

Four of the crew members were hidden by the French and returned to England shortly after the crash. The others were captured by the Germans and were interned until they could be liberated by American troops. It wasn't until 1945 when Pat Brophy was reunited with Art de Breyne and could tell the others what happened to himself and Andy that anyone knew the story. Art de Breyne started the process by recommending an award for Andy and enquiring about the location of his grave at the end of 1945. The recommendation worked it's way up the command structure of the RCAF and RAF until it was decided upon, a Victoria Cross would be awarded for "valour of the highest order".

SECOND SUPPLEMENT

TO

The London Gazette



FRIDAY, 11 OCTOBER, 1946

Air Ministry, 11thOctober, 1946
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: - Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski (Can./J.87544) (deceased), Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 419 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron.

Pilot Officer Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner of a Lancaster aircraft, detailed to attack a target at Cambrai in France, on the night of 12th June, 1944. The aircraft was attacked from below and astern by an enemy fighter and ultimately came down in flames.

As an immediate result of the attack, both port engines failed. Fire broke out between the mid-upper turret and the rear turret, as well as in the port wing. The flames soon became fierce and the captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft.

Pilot Officer Mynarski left his turret and went towards the escape hatch. He then saw that the rear gunner was still in his turret and apparently unable to leave it. The turret was, in fact, immovable, since the hydraulic gear had been put out of action when the port engines failed, and the manual gear had been broken by the gunner in his attempts to escape.

Without hesitation, Pilot Officer Mynarski made his way through the flames in an endeavour to reach the rear turret and release

the gunner. Whilst so doing, his parachute and his clothing up to the waist were set on fire. All his efforts to move the turret and free the rear gunner were in vain. Eventually the rear gunner clearly indicated to him that there was nothing more he could do and that he should try to save his own life. Pilot Officer Mynarski reluctantly went back through the flames to the escape hatch. There, as a last gesture to the trapped gunner, he turned towards him, stood to attention in his flaming clothing, and saluted, before he jumped out of the aircraft. Pilot Officer Mynarski's descent was seen by French people on the ground. Both his parachute and his clothing were on fire. He was found eventually by the French, but was so severely burnt that he died from his injuries.

The rear gunner had a miraculous escape when the aircraft crashed. He subsequently testified that had Pilot Officer Mynarski not attempted to save his comrade's life, he could have left the aircraft in safety and would, doubtless, have escaped death.

Pilot Officer Mynarski must have been fully aware that in trying to free the rear gunner he was almost certain to lose his own life. Despite this, with outstanding courage and complete disregard for his own safety, he went to the rescue. Willingly accepting the danger, Pilot Officer Mynarski lost his life by a most conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.

The 6 Group monthly report for June, 1944 summarized their work "June has seen the opening of the Allied invasion on the Western Front. We at 6 Group can all ... take sincere satisfaction from the big contribution we have been able to make towards this momentous undertaking... We are told that the bombing of Arras resulted in one Panzer Division arriving at the beach head with no tanks, owing to the traffic tie-up. This was 6 Group's target on the night of 12/13th June ..."

The last words belong to Pat Brophy:

I'll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen, so that the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend.

In Memoriam

Andrew Mynarski's Victoria Cross is on display at the Air Command Headquarters in Winnipeg and his name is dedicated in various spots across Canada. At CFB Penhold the married quarters were called Mynarski Park and a chain of three lakes in Manitoba has been named after him by the Geographical Placenames of Canada. Canadian war artist Paul Goranson was commissioned to paint this often-seen piece from Mynarski's RCAF photo. He was also honoured in 1973 when he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame and his native Winnipeg created a park of 8 hectares in his memory. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum has reconstructed the Lancaster VR-A (seen above) from several other Lancasters and regularly fly it from their base at the Hamilton Airport, Ontario. They have produced an excellent book on Mynarski and on the reconstruction of the aircraft, titled "Mynarski's Lanc".

He is buried in plot number 40, British Plot, Méharicourt Communal Cemetary, Méharicourt, Somme, France.
Mynarski by Paul Goranson Mynarski's Headstone

Canadian Aces Home Page

References:

The Mynarski Lanc. Compiled and Edited by Bette Page. 1989. The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

Pat Brophy's story originally printed in:
Brophy, Fl/Lt G.P. and MacDonald, D. "The Thirteenth Mission," Reader's Digest, December, 1965. And
MacDonald, D. and Brophy, G.P. "Andrew Charles Mynarski, V.C." Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal. June, 1984.

RCAF Personnel - Honours and Awards - 1939-1949. Compiled by Hugh Halliday and presented on website "http://www.airforce.ca/citations/wwii/index.htm" as of June 24, 2001.

6 Group monthly report from Larry Milberry. "Canada's Air Force At War and Peace, Vol 2." CANAV Books, Toronto. 2001.

Images From:

Photo of Andrew Mynarski from DND, plate 38261, used with permission.

Photo of Lancaster VR-A from Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, with their permission.

Photos of Andrew Mynarski and the crew of VR-A taken from: "Mynarski's Lanc", compiled and edited by Bette Page. 1989. Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. Original photos by Art de Breyne.

Images of the mid-upper gun position, the tail turret, the rear fusilage area and the tail turret doors from: "The Lancaster at War" by Mike Garbutt and Brian Goulding, 1971. Photos originally by Imperial War Museum and Radio Times Halton Picture Library.

Painting of VR-A on fire by Lance Russwurm, with the artists permission. Check out his art work at: Art by Lance Russwurm

Painting of Andrew Mynarski by Paul Goranson, war artist. Canadian War Museum.

Photo of Mynarski's headstone courtesy Terry MacDonald of Calgary, with permission.