Royal Air Force
Aug. 12–13, 1943
In 2001 the citizens of Leeds, England, erected a bronze statue in honor of Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, an RAF bomber pilot and Leeds’ only World War II Victoria Cross winner. Unveiled by the last survivor of Aaron’s crew, the statue depicts the pilot standing beside a tree, up which climb three children, representing the generations that have enjoyed freedom because of his and others’ sacrifice. “In appalling conditions he showed the greatest qualities of courage, determination and leadership,” Aaron’s VC citation reads, “and though wounded and dying, he set an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equaled and never surpassed.”
In March 1941 Aaron was a student on scholarship at Leeds School of Architecture when he became one of 23 founding cadets of the Leeds University Air Squadron. He trained as a pilot at the No. 1 British Flying Training School in Terrell, Texas, earned his pilot’s wings in June 1942 and subsequently joined the No. 218 “Gold Coast” Squadron at RAF Downham Market airfield in Norfolk.
Aaron dropped antiship mines off the Dutch and German coasts before serving as commander of a Short Stirling heavy bomber in raids against such heavily defended German targets as Dortmund, the Ruhr and Hamburg. Anti-aircraft fire struck his aircraft on several occasions, and on one mission a Stirling in Aaron’s formation dropped an incendiary bomb onto Aaron’s plane, setting it afire. Aaron survived those close calls and, after completing 19 missions, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. But on Aug. 12, 1943, over Turin, Italy, his luck took a turn for the worse.
During the night raid Aaron’s bomber took punishing hits from gunfire, possibly friendly fire from another Stirling. The incoming rounds damaged two engines and put another out of commission, shattered the windscreen, took out the front and rear turrets, and damaged the aircraft’s elevator control, making the Stirling difficult to control. The gunfire also killed the navigator, Canadian Cornelius A. Brennan, and wounded several other members of the crew. Aaron was among the most seriously injured: Shrapnel had ripped into one lung and his right arm, torn up his face and broken his jaw. The wounded pilot slumped forward over the control column, and the Stirling fell several thousand feet before the flight engineer managed to regain control, at 3,000 feet.
Unable to speak due to his injuries, Aaron gestured for the bomb aimer to take over the controls. The crippled Stirling turned for the nearest Allied base in North Africa as crewmembers helped Aaron to the rear of the aircraft and gave him morphine. After a brief rest, he insisted on returning to the cockpit. Lifted back into his seat, the severely wounded pilot tried to resume control of the aircraft but was simply too weak. His men persuaded him to again relinquish the controls, but Aaron remained in de facto command, using his uninjured left hand to scrawl out instructions for the five surviving crewmen.
Five nerve-racking hours after leaving the target, still in darkness and with the fuel dangerously low, the crew spotted the flare path at Bone Airfield in Algeria. Aaron, though in great pain and near exhaustion, directed the bomb aimer to bring in the plane for an emergency belly landing. Nine hours later Aaron died of his injuries in the station hospital. It was Friday, Aug. 13, 1943.
“Had he been content, when grievously wounded, to lie still and conserve his failing strength, he would probably have recovered,” his VC citation reads, “but he saw it as his duty to exert himself to the utmost, if necessary with his last breath, to ensure that his aircraft and crew did not fall into enemy hands.” Aaron was 21 years old when he died. He is buried at the Bone Military Cemetery in Annaba, Algeria.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.