Murray Peden, a Canadian pilot with 214 Squadron of Royal Air Force Bomber Command, wrote in his book, A Thousand Shall Fall, that the most terrifying moment for any bomber crew during the Second World War was being coned — lit up by searchlights from the ground. For Andrew Mynarski of Winnipeg and the crew of a Lancaster bomber of 419 Squadron, that is exactly what happened on the evening of June 12, 1944, just six days after the Allied landings on D-Day.
“As we crossed the French coast (on the way to Cambrai), I saw enemy searchlights sweeping the sky, then lazy puffs of smoke and deceptively pretty sunbursts of sparks,” related Pat Brophy, a member of the aircrew serving on the Lancaster with Mynarski.
“Suddenly there was a blinding flash, a searchlight caught us. Other searchlights quickly converged, coning the aircraft. ‘Hang on,’ called (pilot) 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?” said Brophy, a tail-gunner on the aircraft. He said the Lanc descended to 5,000 feet and then he caught a glimpse of a twin-engine fighter. He opened fire on the nightfighter ... “the white-bellied Ju-88 flashed by with its cannons blazing. Three explosions rocked our aircraft.”
It was the events following the attack that earned Mynarski a Victoria Cross, the highest military honour awarded in the British Commonwealth. Mynarski is a local hero with a school, a park, a cadet squadron and a memorial dedicated to him in Winnipeg. In addition, a chain of three lakes in Manitoba has been named for him by the Geographical Placenames of Canada. In 1973, he was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton calls its restored Lancaster bomber — one of only two capable of flying in the world — “Mynarski’s Lanc.”
A memorial to Mynarski was erected on June 12, 1994, at the park named in his honour, and was initiated by members of Legion Branch No. 134, which is also named in his honour, and members of the Polish Combatants Association Branch No. 13.
Today, Friday, June 12, at Vimy Ridge Memorial Park, the new Andrew Mynarski VC Memorial Statue will be unveiled at a public ceremony, beginning at 1 p.m.
“After a decade-long fund-raising campaign (chaired by Bill Zuk), known as “Bringing Andrew Home,” local artist Charlie Johnston was commissioned to design and create a statue to honour the Victoria Cross recipient from Winnipeg’s North End,” announced the official notification of the unveiling.
Mynarski has also been honoured by others. A campaign instigated by a letter from Betty Amlin to the Northern Echo, a British newspaper, which undertook the challenge to raise funds to erect a statue of the Winnipegger at his former airbase at Middleton St. George, Yorkshire, renamed Durham Tees Valley Airport in 1964. The response was immediate and highly successful, as over $98,000 was raised for the statue.
“We will always remember our forgotten hero,” was the message from the children of the Middleton St. George Primary School at the ceremony dedicating the 8-foot-6 bronze statue.
Mynarski was born in Winnipeg on October 14, 1916, to Polish immigrants. After enlistment in 1940 and training, Mynarski was eventually posted to 419 “Moose” Squadron, a heavy bomber unit with 6 Group, which was the Canadian arm of the RAF. While at Middleton St. George, he met the young men who would serve with him as the aircrew of Lancaster VR-A — Pat Brophy, rear gunner; Jim Kelly, wireless operator; Roy Vigars (the only Englishman among the crew), flight engineer; Art de Breyne, pilot; Jack Friday, bomb-aimer; and Bob Bodie, navigator.
On June 12, the aircrew was to fly its 13th mission. Before taking off and while sitting on the grass beside their Lancaster, Mynarski spotted a four-leaf clover, picked it and handed it to his friend, saying, “Here, Pat. You take it.”
Brophy said two rounds fired by the Ju-88 knocked out both port engines and set the wing tank between the engines on fire. The third round ripped into the fuselage, starting a fire between “Andy’s mid-upper turret and mine.” Brophy said the Lancaster began to lose altitude and the intercom was dead. Brophy pressed the rotation pedal in the rear turret, but nothing happened. He tried the rotating gear handle, but it broke off. He was trapped.
“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 by the skipper. He opened the door and was just about to jump when he glanced around and spotted me through the plexiglass part of the turret. One look told him I was trapped.”
Mynarski then climbed on his hands and knees into the fire fuelled by hydraulic oil. “By the time he reached my position in the tail,” said Brophy in the 1965 Reader’s Digest article, “his uniform and parachute were on fire. I shook my head; it was hopeless. ‘Don’t try!’ I shouted, and waved him away.”
Brophy said Mynarski ignored him and grabbed a fire axe to smash the turret free. “It gave slightly, but not enough.”
On fire, Mynarski then grabbed at the turret with his hand. It was futile.“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 the two remaining engines, I screamed, ‘Go back, Andy! Get out!’”
Mynarski realized that he could do nothing for his friend ... “he hung his head and nodded, as though he was ashamed to leave — ashamed that sheer heart and courage hadn’t been enough ... When Andy reached the escape hatch ... Standing there in his flaming clothes, a grimly magnificent figure, he saluted me!”
When Mynarski jumped, Brophy was the only crew member remaining in the Lancaster — still trapped with the airplane in flames and going down fast.
What happened as the airplane hit the ground was miraculous, as Brophy survived without a scratch. The four-leaf clover he received from his friend was indeed lucky. All seven crew members were on the ground and with the exception of Mynarski they were in fairly good shape. French farmers said both his clothes and parachute were on fire. He landed still alive and was whisked off to a doctor, but he died at age 27 from his severe burns and was buried in the local cemetery.
In 1945, Brophy and de Breyne started the campaign for Mynarski to receive an award for his valour. Mynarski’s story made its way up the chain of command and a decision was made that the award should be the VC, which was awarded posthumously to Mynarski on October 11, 1946.
Thanks to local efforts, a statue has finally been erected to this Winnipeg hero.