On 15 September 1940, Flight Sergeant John Hannah was the wireless operator and air gunner in a Hampden bomber the same as he’d been countless times before. On this day him and his crew were carrying out a raid on German invasion barges at Antwerp, Belgium.
After releasing its bombs, the bomber quickly came under attack from anti-aircraft guns. It took a direct hit, which started a fierce fire that soon engulfed the whole fuselage.
Gunner George James bailed out after the floor melted beneath him in the intense heat. Surrounded by flames, Hannah would have been justified in following him. But instead he began trying to put out the fire with the aircraft’s two fire extinguishers.
When those were empty, he used his log book and then his own hands to stop the spread of the blaze. He worked for ten minutes in the blistering heat, as ammunition exploded all around him and another member of the crew bailed out of the stricken aircraft.
Miraculously Hannah managed to stop the inferno, but suffered burns to his eyes and face in the process. He then crawled through to the pilot, Connor, to tell him the fire was out.
On discovering they were the only two left on board, severely injured, Hannah took over the navigation while Connor flew the badly-damaged bomber (pictured above) back to their base.
Hannah was taken to hospital for emergency treatment where he learned on 1 October that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross (VC), the highest decoration for gallantry, for his incredible bravery.
He was just 18 years old at the time. Hannah recovered and remained in the RAF, but contracted tuberculosis and was discharged in 1942. He died just five years later and is buried in Leicester.