January 3, 2001

Wing Commander Douglas Bagnall


WING COMMANDER DOUGLAS BAGNALL, who has died aged 82, led many of the most daring and effective bomber attacks of the North African and Mediterranean campaigns.

At a time when the twin-engine Wellington "Wimpy" bomber was being superseded over Germany by the Avro Lancaster and other four-engine bombers, Bagnall led successful Wimpy operations in support of Allied forces in the North Africa desert, Sicily and Italy.

Designed by Barnes Wallis and Rex Pierson of Vickers Aviation, the Wimpy - which derived its nickname from Disney's cartoon character J Wellington Wimpy - valiantly withstood the dust, rough landing grounds and minimal maintenance of desert conditions. Those who flew and maintained the aircraft frequently had cause to bless the strength provided by the geodetic construction - a criss-cross of airframe members - which Wallis had invented.

Bagnall survived more than 70 sorties, many of them against heavily defended positions. For his part in an attack on the marshalling yards at Battipaglia in 1943, he was awarded an immediate DSO, to add to an earlier DFC. The citation described him as an inspiring leader whose bombing was outstandingly accurate.

The tenacity with which Bagnall hurled his obsolescent Wellingtons against strategic and battlefield targets was further illustrated two months later, in November 1943, when his Squadron, No 40, attacked a railway viaduct linking two mountain tunnels at Recco, east of Genoa in Italy. The viaduct was so far from the squadron's base at Kairouan in Tunisia, that they had to refuel in Sardinia. Arriving over the target in the dark, they dropped flares to illuminate the scene, and Bagnall was able to direct a 4,000lb bomb slap on to the viaduct.

But the flares caused only alarm to his rear gunner, who was suddenly able to see how perilously close to the towering cliffs of stone the aircraft was, and reported that trees rooted therein were flashing by his turret. "Stick to the dark," he begged, as he looked in horror at the hazards revealed by the flares.

Douglas Rivers Bagnall was born at Auckland, New Zealand, on September 23 1918. He was educated at King's Preparatory School and King's College before reading commerce at Victoria University College, Wellington. Accepted in 1937 for training as an RAF pilot, he was commissioned the next year. In May 1939, he was posted to No 216, a bomber transport squadron flying Vickers Valentia biplanes at Heliopolis in Egypt. Bagnall appreciated the obsolete Valentia for the fine views of African wildlife he gained from its open cockpit. After the outbreak of war, however, No 216 was re-equipped with Bristol Bombays which combined transport duties with bombing.

Early in April 1940, Bagnall piloted a Bombay to Habbaniya, near Baghdad, to ferry an Iraqi delegation, accompanied by an armed escort, to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Ibn Saud at a desert camp outside Riyadh. After he had landed alongside the royal tents the King hailed Bagnall as a "fellow warrior".

In August 1940 Bagnall was ordered to fly General Godwin-Austen to Berbera in British Somaliland. The journey involved stages at Wadi Halfa, Port Sudan and Aden, where he picked up an escort of Bristol Blenheims. One of the Blenheims was shot down by Italian CR 42 fighters but Bagnall safely delivered the general and returned to Aden after 12 hours flying.

All to no avail: shortly afterwards the general and British troops were evacuated. While the evacuation was taking place, Bagnall, in the same aircraft he had flown to Berbera, was more than 2,000 miles away, bombing Derna in Cyrenaica.

Bombing from a Bombay could be somewhat unorthodox. During General Sir Archibald Wavell's desert campaign in the New Year of 1941 Bagnall lobbed grenades on Sidi Barrani from the cockpit. He also took part in the ill-fated operations in Greece and Crete. During an enemy attack on Heraklion airfield his aircraft was machine-gunned on the ground; while under fire he managed to save valuable stores from the burning aircraft.

In August 1941 Bagnall joined No 108 Squadron which was forming with Wellingtons at Fayid in the Canal Zone. The posting placed him within two hours' flying time of the fluctuating war in the Western Desert. The following February he took over as a squadron leader. For three months he commanded a large detachment of the squadron as an independent unit operating from advanced landing grounds in support of troops and armour.

From June 1942 Bagnall was rested on a combined services course at the Haifa staff college in Palestine. That November he received an operations staff post at headquarters in Cairo, which did not appeal. "I was living in the fleshpots of Cairo," Bagnall remembered. "The Long Bar of Shepheard's Hotel was adjacent, as well as the Gezira Club, but apparently I was not satisfied as I kept agitating for a return to operational flying."

In March 1943, he obtained his wish. Promoted to wing commander at the age of 24, he was posted to take over No 40 Squadron and its Wellingtons from Wing Commander Norton, a fellow New Zealander. For the next 12 months the squadron, which became part of the US 15th Air Force in General Carl Spaatz's North West African Air Force, supported Allied troops in the final Tunisian battles. They then moved on to the Sicilian and Italian landings and campaigns.

Shortly before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Bagnall returned to Britain to help with planning at Headquarters Allied Air Expeditionary Forces. He subsequently served at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.

After the war, Bagnall elected to remain in the RAF, reverting briefly to the rank of flight lieutenant. He was also able to resume the enthusiasm for rugby he had developed at school and university, playing regularly for Wasps. Following a spell at Defford, Worcestershire, as a radar experimental pilot he was posted to Singapore as an intelligence officer.

He returned in 1953 to take part in the planning of the Coronation Review, and the next year served with the US Air Force's 20th Fighter Bomber Wing. Resuming staff duties in 1957, he was posted successively to the Vulcan V-bomber base at Scampton, Lincolnshire, bomber operations at the Air Ministry, and the Lightning station at Wattisham, Suffolk.

In the course of his career Bagnall had flown 56 types of aircraft, including most jets of his era. He retired in 1965 as a wing commander and, accompanied by his wife, for the next 16 years cruised the world in their 60-foot ketch Tirrenia II. Eventually, he settled in Herefordshire and enjoyed his golf. He retained a link with the service as President of the 205 Group Association.

In addition to his DSO and DFC, Bagnall was also awarded the American DFC in 1943. He married, in 1945, Caroline Welham, who survives him with a son and a daughter.

Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

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© 2001 by Neil Mishalov