D.F.M. L.G. 12 July 1940:
‘These officers and airmen were the crew of an aircraft, piloted by Pilot Officer A. W. Dunn, and detailed to carry out a bombing attack on the Ruhr one night in June 1940. After being subjected to heavy anti-aircraft fire for some 15 minutes, during which their aircraft was repeatedly hit, they were attacked by a Messerschmitt 109. The first attack disabled the inter-communication gear and also wounded the Air Observer, Sergeant B. L. Savill, and the Wireless Operator, Sergeant J. M. Dawson. The Rear Gunner, Pilot Officer L. W. J. Watt, was unable to warn the captain of the enemy fighter’s second attack but, by quick reaction and skill in aiming, he delivered a good burst of fire at short range which destroyed the enemy. During this second attack, however, one engine was disabled. Despite these difficulties the target was successfully bombed before a course was set for home. For three and a half hours the aircraft, flying on one engine, steadily lost height until the North Sea was crossed at only 400 feet. During this time, the navigation was ably carried out by Sergeant Savill, despite the pain from his wound, while Sergeant Dawson, operating his wireless apparatus, secured a number of essential homing bearings, thus materially assisting in assuring the safety of the crew. Pilot Officer C. J. D. Montagu, who was the Second Pilot, made necessary preparations for abandoning the aircraft and his personal example of coolness and efficiency was of the greatest assistance to his captain. Pilot Officer Dunn displayed resolution, courage and determination in piloting his badly damaged aircraft, but was forced to land in the sea close to the south coast. This crew showed the greatest determination, courage and gallantry throughout the operation.’
Bernard Leonard Savill, e of Snaresbrook, Essex entered the Royal Air Force in August 1939, aged 20 years, and on qualifying as an Air Observer, was posted to No. 78 Squadron, in April 1940. Shortly afterwards, however, he transferred to No. 77 Squadron, a Whitley unit operating out of Driffield, Yorkshire, and completed his first operational sortie – against an oil refinery at Hanover – on the night of 18 June. His On his second sortie their aircraft ditched just off Hastings and, their S.O.S. call having been picked up, they were rescued by high-powered launches of Coastal Command and resulted in the entire crew being decorated.
One month later, on recovering from his wounds, Savill returned to operations, quickly notching up trips to Borkum and Wismar. Eight further operations were flown between then and September, including targets in France and Italy, in addition to Germany. In a letter to his parents written in mid-September, he explained how successful his latest trip to Italy had been and goes on to say ‘I have yet to go to Berlin, the trip I’m really looking forward to most’. Tragically, as it transpired, that wish was shortly granted.
Assigned to attack the aircraft factory at Spandau, on the outskirts of Berlin, on the night of 23-24 September, Savill and his crew encountered heavy flak in their Whitley as it made its bombing run, a piece of shrapnel from a flak burst puncturing on of the fuel tanks. And despite the pilot’s best efforts to conserve fuel on their return flight, the aircraft steadily lost height as it headed out over the North Sea. In fact, it soon became clear that it would not be possible to reach the English coast and an S.O.S. message was sent out as preparations were once again made for a ditching, this time, alas, in heavy seas – and in a position about 100 miles from Hartlepool. Given the conditions, the pilot achieved a remarkably good landing and all of the crew safely reached their dinghy – the time, according to one crew member’s watch, which had stopped on impact, was 5.50 a.m.
Meanwhile, the rescue services responded quickly, but an early search for the ditched crew by a Hudson proved unsuccessful. Mid-morning, however, another Hudson located Savill and his crew, and stayed over the dinghy for two and a half hours until relieved by a second aircraft, which maintained watch for a similar duration. But a rescue launch sent to the scene had to turn back after taking on water in the heavy seas. Conditions for the ditched crew, of course, were far worse, by now the whole soaked through and suffering from the extreme cold. It was, therefore, all the more crucial that they were able to reach a container of rations dropped by a Hudson that afternoon – they were not, even though it landed about ten yards from their dinghy, such were the prevailing conditions. Attempts to bring succour to the airmen were resumed at first light the next day, but a Hudson guiding two destroyers to the scene had to break off owing to shortage of fuel. Meanwhile, one of the airmen had been lost – cold and exhausted, he had fallen into the sea, even though already plucked to safety by his comrades earlier in the day.
Eventually another Hudson arrived at the scene and circled for several hours, until the afternoon, but a second attempt to drop supplies also ended without result. The survivors now had to endure another night at sea and, as a result of enemy air activity the following day, all attempts to reach them failed. Matters now started to go down hill fast, especially after a third night at sea – one of the airmen, suffering from hallucinations, imagined he was back at the airfield, and stepped off the dinghy and was swept away into the inky darkness.
The following day, in still deplorable weather conditions, it took until early afternoon to re-locate the airmen, only one of whom was seen to be moving, yet he was able to reach the third attempted supply drop. However, the circling Hudson was powerless to intervene, when another airmen fell overboard – so too the remaining two aircrew who were now simply too weak to do anything. At last, later that day, some 84 hours after the Whitley had been ditched, a launch from a destroyer reached the dingy, which by now had drifted 90 miles – sadly, however, one of the airmen, Sergeant Allen, was found to be dead, while the other, Sergeant Riley, was barely alive. The gallant Savill, therefore, must have been one of the three airmen to have been lost earlier.
He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
Sold with the recipient’s original Flying Log Book, covering the period September 1939 to September 1940, the final entries flanked by ‘Royal Air Force Central Depository, July 1946’ and ‘Death Presumed’ stamps, together with a later handwritten inscription by his brother:
‘On the night of 23 September 1940, after bombing an aircraft factory at Spandau, on the outskirts of Berlin, my brother’s plane was damaged with consequent loss of fuel – but tried to get back to England. It failed. My brother, Bernard L. Savill was lost in the North Sea on the night of 25 September after drifting in a rubber dinghy for over two days in rough seas. There was one survivor named Riley. John Savill.’
Also sold with an original letter from the recipient to his parents, dated 13 September 1940 (as partly quoted above) and an R.A.F. Christmas card for 1939, signed “Bernie”.