Pilot Officer Rawdon H. Middleton, VC

Flight Sergeant, R.H. Middleton, VC

Victoria Cross

A new phase in Bomber Command strategy took place during the last two months of 1942 when Italy, which had thus far only been lightly attacked became the centre of a series of heavy attacks on Genoa, Turin, and Milan.

Attacks against these targets generally presented few problems to the crews after the nightmare German defences and because of the inefficiency and gutlessness of Italian gun, searchlight and night–fighter crews, Air Marshal Harris was able to order attacks on moonlit nights. This aided visual recognition of the target and led to unusually good marking by the Pathfinders and very effective bombing results as a consequence.

The first of these attacks undertaken by the squadron was on 28th November, 1942, when they provided 11 crews of a total force of 192 bombers in a raid on the Fiat works at Turin.

The crews could see the bends in the river east and south of Turin clearly outlined by the flares which were well concentrated around the aiming point. All crews reported good results and only Sergeant Brooks' crew had to contend with any degree of belligerence on the part of the Italians. He withstood four separate night–fighter attacks but his rear gunner, Sergeant R. Harris, fought off each one quite successfully.

No record of this particular raid would be compete without reference to the superb courage of Flight Sergeant, R. H. Middleton who, although not a member of 460, was an Australian captain serving No. 149 RAF Squadron. Middleton's aircraft was the only one lost on this particular raid and his valour earned him the first RAAF Victoria Cross of World War II.

F/Sgt R.H. Middleton, VC

On 28 November the target for the squadron was the Fiat works at Turin, which involved a flight over the Alps. Flight–Sergeant R.H. Middleton was flying Stirling BF372 (OJ:H) when, in the low–level attack, he was hit and badly wounded, losing his right eye. Other members of the crew were also wounded. Despite desperate wounds the two pilots flew the aircraft all the way back to the English coast, where Middleton kept the aircraft flying until most of the crew had baled out successfully; Middleton was lost when the aircraft crashed into the sea, but for his bravery he was awarded the VC.

This award was regarded after the war as possibly the finest V.C. of the Second World War and his courage moved an RAF commentator at the time to write: "It doe not seem possible that even death could have had the heart to seek out and destroy such tenacious, valiant and enduring courage…No man will know what force uplifted that tortured body in its last struggle for the lives and liberty of a faithful crew. They had urged him to abandon ship over France while strength was still in him, but he refused to leave them prisoners. Rather, he elected, in that inner wisdom with which suffering transcendentalizes the mind, that in the balance their fit lives against his maimed one were the thing for which he must fight and plan with his last strength.

In proof that his plan succeeded there are now in this country five men ready to fight and fly again. They have in their hearts the memory of perhaps the greatest captain of aircraft under whom any crew will ever have the honour to serve, and of a front gunner and engineer to whom comradeship and company of that captain meant more than the certainty of safety, and who determined to be with him to the end as long as any faint hope of his rescue remained. They stuck to him to the last. …In such men as these is the finest inspiration ever sent to us as people to use our minds and our limbs – not in the same way, for only to the immortals is given such perfection of service – but for the same purpose, and in order that in our victory the foul indignity of war may be wiped forever from the earth."

RAAF Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton, of Yarrabandia, New South Wales, Australia, served in 149 Squadron, RAF in 1942. His promotion to Pilot Officer came after his death, which occurred on 28th November, 1942.

The story of the events in which he earned the Victoria Cross are told in his citation:

Flight–Sergeant Middleton was captain and first pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack the Fiat works, Turin, one night in November, 1942. Great difficulty was experienced in climbing to 12,000 feet to cross the Alps, which led to excessive consumption of fuel.

So dark was the night that the mountain peaks were almost invisible. During the crossing, Flight–Sergeant Middleton had to decide whether to proceed or turn back, there being barely sufficient fuel for the return journey. Flares were sighted ahead and he continued the mission, and even dived to 2,000 feet to identify the target, despite the difficulty of regaining height. Three flights were made over Turin at this low altitude before the target was identified.

The aircraft was then subjected to fire from light anti–aircraft guns. A large hole appeared in the port mainplane which made it difficult to maintain lateral control. A shell then burst in the cockpit, shattering the windscreen and wounding both pilots. A piece of shell splinter tore into the side of Flight–Sergeant Middleton's face, destroying his right eye and exposing bone over the eye. He was probably wounded also in the body or legs; the second pilot received wounds in the head and both legs, which bled profusely. The wireless operator was also wounded in the leg.

Flight–Sergeant Middleton became unconscious and the aircraft dived to 800 feet before control was regained by the second pilot, who took the aircraft up to 1500 feet and released the bombs. There was still light flak, some very intense, and the aircraft was hit many times. The three gunners replied continuously until the rear turret was put out of action.

Flight–Sergeant Middleton had now recovered consciousness, and when clear of the target, ordered the second pilot back to receive first aid. Before this was completed, the latter insisted on returning to the cockpit as the captain could see very little, and could only speak with loss of blood and great pain.

The course was set for base, and the crew now faced the Alpine crossing and homeward flight in a damaged aircraft with insufficient fuel. The possibilities of abandoning the aircraft or landing in Northern France were discussed, but Flight–Sergeant Middleton expressed the intention of trying to make the English coast so that his crew could leave the aircraft by parachute. Owing to wounds and diminishing strength, he knew that by then he would have little or no chance of saving himself. After four hours the French coast was reached, and here the aircraft, flying at 6000 feet, was once more engaged and hit by intense light anti–aircraft fire. Flight–Sergeant Middleton was still at the controls and mustered sufficient strength to take evasive action.

After crossing the channel there was only sufficient fuel for five minutes' flying. Flight–Sergeant Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft which he flew parallel with the coast for a few miles, after which he intended to head out to sea. Five of the crew left the aircraft safely, while two remained to assist Flight–Sergeant Middleton. The aircraft crashed into the sea and the bodies of the front gunner and flight engineer were recovered on the following day.

The gallant captain was apparently unable to leave the aircraft and his body has not been traced.

Flight–Sergeant Middleton was determined to attack the target regardless of the consequences and not to allow his crew to fall into enemy hands. While all the crew displayed heroism of a high order, the urge to do so came from Flight–Sergeant Middleton, whose fortitude and strength of will made possible completion of the mission. His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force.

(Middleton's body was recovered the day after the citation was written.)

149 Sqn. Stirling of R.H. Middleton, 1942
149 Sqn. Stirling of R.H. Middleton, 1942

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