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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Last Mission of the Excalibur

Born in June 1921, Cyril Joe Barton was educated in Surrey. When he reached the age of 16 he was accepted as an apprentice draughtsman at the Parnall Aircraft factory in London. This meant that he was in a reserved occupation at the outbreak of the Second World War. Barton endured the Blitz, still working at the Parnall factory, helping to build the trainer aircraft that company produced. In 1941, at the age of 19, he resigned from his reserved occupation, and joined the RAF Reserve. He was formally enlisted to the RAF in April 1941.
Cyril Joe Barton
Training pilots in the UK was tricky. At any moment a brand-new pilot could stumble into a German and the weather was mostly uncooperative. In addition, as an operational theatre the skies were quite crowded with friendly aircraft. Thus, the UK found overseas locations to train the pilots. One of these schemes was based in the US and was called the Arnold Scheme. Leading Aircraftman Barton arrived in the US on the 17th of January 1942 and took his first flight on the 19th. Barton graduated as a Sergeant Pilot in November, by March 1943 he was back in the UK and part of a series of training squadrons flying Whitley's.

In late July he had his first operational sortie, as a second pilot on a Halifax heading to Hamburg, a trip he repeated shortly afterwards. In August he first got his hands on a Halifax himself, but remained on operations as a second pilot.
Between then and March 1944 Barton rose through the ranks to Pilot Officer, and made nineteen sorties, four of which were to Berlin. On one mission his aircraft was shot up by flak and got lost in cloud, however, PO Barton made several attempts to locate and bomb the target. On another mission the aircraft was once again holed by flack and had to make an emergency landing.
At 2214, 30th March 1944, PO Barton's Halifax bomber, named Excalibur, took off from the ill-named RAF Burn. His target for tonight was Nuremberg as part of the Battle of Berlin. 794 other aircraft were involved in the raid, 572 Lancaster's, 213 Halifax's and a small number of pathfinder Mosquito's. This was to be one of Bomber Command's worst ever nights with 95 aircraft failing to return. Excalibur's flight was largely uneventful until they were just 70 miles from the target.
At that point a Ju 88 night-fighter made an attack on Excalibur. The first burst destroyed the intercom. Almost immediately a Me 410 joined in the attack. Repeated salvoes from the fighters ripped into the aircraft. One of these hits destroyed the power supplies to the turrets meaning the crew couldn't fight back, another burst damaged one of the engines, others ripped into the wings.
During the shouted confusion, trying to relay orders, one of PO Barton's commands was misinterpreted and the navigator, flight engineer and bombardier bailed out.

PO Barton had a choice, continue ploughing onto the target, or turn for home. He knew that over the target the burning city below him would silhouette his plane, and any night fighter could find them. Equally his plane was utterly defenceless.
Despite this he carried on to the target, his damaged engine vibrating all the time, slowly getting worse.
A picture showing that the risk of silhouetting was very real. Here a damaged Avro Lancaster has dropped below the height of the bomber stream over Hanover in 1943.
The vibration in Excalibur's damaged engine peaked and then the propeller ripped itself apart. To make matters worse the fuel tanks on the other wing had been badly holed and had leaked all their fuel out, starving the engines on one side of the plane.

Now with only one engine, no defences, half a crew, and a badly damaged aircraft PO Barton finished his trip to the target and turned for home. But how to find home? He had no navigator. Equally, the navigator would guide aircraft around danger zones such as flak hotspots, and here he was deep in Germany surrounded by several of these danger areas.

By dead reckoning PO Barton managed to navigate his way out of Germany. This was made harder by a strong head wind. He also successfully avoided the flak and enemy fighters, all with only one engine. It took him nearly five and a half hours. In the first rays of dawn the crew could see the coast of England ahead. Remarkably they had arrived back in the UK just 90 miles from their home base.

As Excalibur crossed the coast, the last engine began to splutter, a clear indication it was nearly out of fuel. The plane was too low to be abandoned, so PO Barton ordered his crew to crash positions, and began to cast about for a landing site, all the while losing altitude. PO Barton saw that they were heading towards Ryhope Colliery, near Durham. At the time the colliery was surrounded by the houses and schools of the miner’s families. PO Barton wrestled his aircraft over a row of cottages, when the last engine spluttered and died. In the silence Excalibur dipped towards the end house, just clipping it, as she ploughed onwards the rear fuselage with the three crewmen in side it, became detached and skidded to a halt. All three crewmen survived. The forward section carried on its rampage, at some point a local miner heading to work was hit by debris from the plane and killed. PO Barton was rescued from the plane alive, but did not survive his injuries, and died before reaching hospital.
Excalibur's tail section, when it came to rest, with the three surviving crew inside.
For his actions Cyril Joe Barton was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Image credits:
ww2today.com, ww2aircraft.net, aircrewremembered.com, vcgca.org and www.bombercommandmuseum.ca