Just a week after D-Day and in what promised to be a relatively routine night-time bombing mission, the crew of an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber took off bound for northern France.
They were a closely-knit, seven-strong crew who had been on many sorties together.
Two gunners, Warrant Officer Andy Mynarski and Pilot Officer Pat Brophy, had formed a particularly strong bond, isolated as they were from the rest of the crew in their positions towards the tail of the aircraft.
Every time they successfully returned from a mission, they celebrated by having a slice of their favourite lemon meringue pie, made by one of the cooks on the base.
Before going to bed, Mynarski, an NCO, liked to give Brophy, an officer, an exaggerated salute and say: “Good night, Sir!”
As the bomber took off late on June 12, 1944, from RAF Middleton St George, Co Durham, where the Canadian crew had been posted to 419 “Moose” Squadron, there was nothing to suggest the airmen would be at the centre of one of the most remarkable stories in the entire 163-year history of the Victoria Cross.
The Lancaster bomber was soon en route for the marshalling yards at Cambrai destined to take part in President Dwight Eisenhower’s Transportation Plan in which the USAAF and the RAF were to carry out strategic bombing aimed at destroying Western Europe’s rail, road and bridge networks to prevent the Germans bringing reinforcements to the Normandy beachheads.
As the Lancaster approached its destination, it was intercepted by a German Ju-88.
The enemy fighter plane streaked under the Lancaster and opened fire.
At 12.13am precisely on June 13, three explosions rocked the Lancaster and, realising that both of the aircraft’s port engines had failed, Captain Art de Breyne gave the signal for the crew to bale out.
Just as Mynarski, the mid-upper gunner, was about to jump to safety, he observed that Brophy, the rear gunner, was struggling to free himself.
Mynarski crawled on his hands and knees towards the tail of the plane.
However, when the Lancaster had been hit, its hydraulics system had been shattered, locking the rear turret at such an angle that it was impossible for Brophy to escape.
With an axe and his bare hands, Mynarski frantically tried to free Brophy but by this point flames had engulfed much of the aircraft, including the port wing and the area between the mid-upper turret and the rear turret.
“Go back, Andrew! Get out!” shouted Brophy to his friend.
Mynarski, seeing that he could do no more and obeying what was, after all, an order, crawled back to the escape hatch and with clothes and parachute pack ablaze glanced towards Brophy.
As he had done so many times before, he saluted and whispered something under his breath.
Amidst the cacophony of the stricken plane Brophy could not hear but he did not need to: he knew for sure his friend had said three words: “Good night, Sir.”
By this point, Brophy was alone in the burning plane and was hurtling toward what seemed to be certain death – especially as there were five tons of explosives barely 50ft from where he was trapped.
It seemed pointless but, as the Lancaster was about to hit the ground, Brophy adopted the crash position.
Miraculously, just before the plane slammed into a field, its port wing hit a large tree.
This not only tore off the burning wing but saved Brophy’s life.
“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,” he recalled later.
“I came to rest against a small tree about 30 to 50ft from the remains of the aircraft. This is when I heard two explosions together. Only when I felt solid earth tremble under me did I realise the crash was over, and somehow I was alive.”
Astonishingly, Brophy suffered just a few cuts and bruises.
Out of the crew of seven who jumped out of the plane, only one perished in the crash.
Tragically it was Mynarski himself. He had survived his parachute jump but he died shortly afterwards as a result of severe burns he sustained trying to free Brophy.
Two airmen were taken as Prisoners of War but four, including Brophy, evaded capture and found refuge with the French Resistance. He never forgot the comrade who tried to save him.
Andrew Charles Mynarski had been born in Winnipeg to Polish immigrants.
In 1940, he had joined the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, a militia unit, but the following year he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
He was 27 years old and single when he died.
When Brophy finally returned to his squadron, the full story of Mynarski’s bravery could be told.
Brophy took part in the campaign to ensure his friend received the Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for courage in the face of the enemy.
Mynarski’s posthumous VC was eventually announced on October 11, 1946, more than a year after the end of the Second World War.
He was also promoted posthumously to Pilot Officer.
The lengthy citation for his award concluded: “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.”
Mynarski became the first member of the RCAF whose actions were to result in the award of the VC.
His gallantry medal is on display at the Air Force Heritage Park Museum in Winnipeg.
After the VC award was announced, Brophy wrote to Mynarski’s mother, Anna, starting his letter: “My dear Mrs Mynarski. It is with a feeling of pride and humility that I write this letter. Pride that Andy’s heroism has at last been recognized with his award of the Victoria Cross. Humility because he is dead now and I’m alive. Whereas it should be the other way around.”
Brophy ended his letter: “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friend. I shall always remember, because of Andy I am alive… My heart-felt sympathy goes out to you and the family. Your courage is wonderful. Goodbye for now and write please. Yours sincerely, Pat Brophy.”
In 1965, Brophy wrote an article about his friend’s death and concluded it with the words: “I’ll always believe that a divine providence intervened to save me because of what I had seen – so the world might know of a gallant man who laid down his life for a friend.”
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