By Neil Taylor
Buzz Bombs, Doodlebugs, Chuffbombs and Divers – these are some of the names Allied servicemen and civilians called the dreaded German V-1 jet powered flying bombs, the first of Adolf Hitler’s terror weapons. Propelled by a liquid-fueled, pulse-jet engine (which gave it its distinct chugging sound), the 29 foot long V-1 was capable of carrying a 2,000 pound warhead a distance of 300 miles.
First launched against Great Britain from French sites on the night of June 12/13, 1944, only a week after the Normandy invasion, the V-1 was capable of achieving a maximum speed approaching 400 mph. This meant only the fastest Allied fighters could catch it – the latest Spitfires, Tempests, Mosquitos and Mustangs, and the Allies’ first jet fighter, the Meteor.
At first, civilians and airmen alike were unsure of what was happening. The V-1s, trailing a sheet of flame from its jet exhaust, would streak across the sky before the jet engine cut out and the deadly flying bomb would plummet silently to the ground and explode. People soon realized that when the V-1’s engine stopped, they literally had mere seconds to take cover.
The RAF quickly re-assigned resources to deal with the new deadly threat, including RCAF 418 Squadron which was flying twin-engine Mosquito fighter-bombers on night intruder sorties over Europe. During these ops, the Mosquito pilots would attack targets of opportunity, but they were particularly interested in downing enemy night fighters during take-offs and landings at their airfields.
In June 1944, Squadron Leader Russ Bannock was one of the pilots flying with 418 Squadron. Born on November 1, 1919 in Edmonton, Russell William Bahnuk was the son of Austrian immigrants William and Julia Bahnuk who hailed from Stremliche in present day Galicia, Ukraine. In 1938, Russell’s father anglicized their family name to Bannock.
Russ got his commercial pilot’s licence just prior to the war and was hired by Yukon Southern Air Transport based in Edmonton. In 1939, he was invited to join the RCAF where he spent nearly four years as a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan instructor before training to fly Mosquitos. He teamed up with a Scottish-born navigator, Robert Bruce, and in June 1944, the two men were posted to 418 Squadron. Within a week of arrival, they registered their first victory shooting down a Me110.
Later that same week, Bannock and Bruce spotted their first V-1 while heading out on a night intruder mission. Over the English Channel they spotted what they thought was a burning aircraft heading at high speed inbound to England. Upon alerting sector operations, they were informed that they had actually seen a V-1. The next day, 418 Squadron began anti-V-1 patrols over the English Channel.
New tactics were needed to deal with the Buzz Bombs because even the speedy Mosquito had difficulty catching a V-1. Bannock patrolled the Channel at 10,000 feet and, after spotting a V-1 launch in France, he would turn towards London carefully tracking the flying bomb while it overtook him. Once the V-1 was directly below Bannock’s Mosquito he would dive down, achieving speeds of 430 mph, and attack the jet from slightly below and to the side.
On the night of June 19/20, Bannock and Bruce recorded their first V-1 kill, a most terrifying situation as the flying bomb exploded in a brilliant flash that temporarily blinded them as they pulled into a tight turn.
After some unsuccessful chases, Bannock decided to change tactics and chose to intercept the V-1s immediately after launch. One night over Abbeville, France, he spotted a stream of V-1s being launched and in short order downed three of them.
On the night of July 6/7, 418 Squadron achieved its greatest success against the V-1 by downing a dozen in one night. Four of them were attributed to Bannock and Bruce, whose score might have been higher had they not run out of ammunition.
By this time, Bannock had learned some useful tricks. During V-1 attacks, he kept one eye covered or shut so that if the flying bomb exploded blinding his open eye, he could then uncover the other and continue flying. He and his squadron mates also learned to turn on their navigation lights during attacks to avoid running into each other when pursuing the same flying bomb.
On August 12/13, Russ Bannock achieved his final V-1 kill bringing his tally to 19. Later that month, 418 Squadron moved to Hunsdon, north of London, to continue its night intruder operations, but these ops presented little opportunity for V-1 attacks. By late September, however, the worst of the V-1 London barrage ended as Allied ground forces overran the French V-1 launch sites.
418 Squadron claimed 86 V-1 kills during the war making it both the highest scoring Canadian and night intruder squadron against the V-1. Russ Bannock was promoted to Wing Commander and briefly led 418 Squadron before being reassigned to command 406 Squadron.
By the end of the war, Wing Commander Russell Bannock had destroyed 11 enemy aircraft and damaged another 4 in addition to his successes against the V-1. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. At the end of the war, he returned to Canada and became a test pilot and later CEO of de Havilland Canada. He was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983. On November 1st, Russ Bannock celebrated his 100th birthday in Ontario, where he now lives.