THE HEROIC story of a Stratford pilot killed in action during the Second World War has emerged from the archives.
Historian Brian Wright discovered the fateful story of Flight Lieutenant Charles E Brayshaw quite by accident while carrying out research in the National Archives in London.
Mr Wright said: “I was looking for some background details about a fighter pilot who’d fought in Italy. While thumbing through the contents of an old file I found a strange letter and as I read it, the hairs went up on the back of my neck.”
The author of the letter told of his son who had been shot down off the French coast in February 1944.
“The writer included some brief details of their son’s career stating that Flight Lieutenant Charles E Brayshaw RAF had flown many hours in Hurricanes on night-fighter duties over France,” added Mr Wright.
“Intrigued, I decided to delve further in to the RAF records and, with the help of some veterans, went on to piece the story together.”
Ft Lt Brayshaw – ‘Bray’ to his friends – was a member of the 247 Squadron. In the summer of 1942 the unit moved to the Midlands from the south coast to fly Typhoons. These were huge, single-engined aircraft, which although powerful, fast and difficult to handle, were ideal for the RAF’s low level hit-and-run raids in the lead up to D-Day.
But they had a fatal flaw. The large Napier Sabre engine was air-cooled, meaning it had a distinctive ‘chin’ under the nose. If the pilot had to ditch in water, the ‘chin’ rapidly filled with water dragging the aircraft, and often its pilot, down to the depths beneath.
Bray had narrowly escaped death once before. In autumn 1943 his Typhoon suffered an engine failure after take-off, forcing him to ditch in the Channel close to the Kent coast.
The impact knocked him unconscious and when he came to, he found himself trapped in a submerged cockpit. Shocked and bruised, he managed to break out and swim to the surface where he was spotted by a nearby fishing boat. He rejoined his unit and was back flying the next day.
By early 1944 Bray was a Flight Commander and a highly experienced and popular member of the squadron.
On February 21, in preparation for the allied invasion, Bray and his wingman Sgt Ryen accompanied two Mosquitos on a low level photo reconnaissance mission over Normandy.
On the return journey the Luftwaffe’s coastal flak batteries hit Bray’s Typhoon in the tail, severely damaging his elevators. The aircraft pitched into a dive and this time Bray had no chance to get out.
His Typhoon crashed in to the Channel ten miles north of Cabourg. His body was never recovered. Ryen and the Mosquitos returned to base unharmed.
Later that night Bray’s fellow pilots drank to his memory, mourning the loss of a great friend and an officer with a “beaming personality”.
The family were devastated. Bray was 22 when he died and on the verge of promotion to Squadron Leader.
The letter, written by his father, said Bray had done “much great work”, which had gone unrecognised and asked that his service be brought to the attention of the Air Ministry.
A few weeks later Charles Brayshaw was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The date of Bray’s father’s letter was May 6, 1945. It landed at the Air Ministry on VE Day.
Ft Lt Charles E Brayshaw DFC is commemorated on the RAF’s Runnymede Memorial to missing airmen in Surrey, and in the churchyard at Clifford Chambers.
Mr Wright would like to hear from any surviving relatives of Ft Lt Charles E Brayshaw. Email [email protected] for further details.