Sunday, 31 August 2014

Avro Heroes - Andrew Mynarski VC and 'The Great Zura'

Following on directly from the last post on Avro Canada, inspired by the visit of Vera the Canadian Lancaster to these shores, here is a post about two flying heroes connected to the Avro story.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Last weekend I got my chance to see the two Lancasters flying for myself at the Little Gransden Airshow in Cambridgeshire. What a sight! Before the appearance of the Lancasters, a brief memorial service was held for those who gave their lives in the air during the Second World War. Three Lancaster veterans who were present received the heartfelt applause of the crowd. After the traditional words of remembrance, the crowd stood for a minute's silence in contemplation of the bravery of those who flew and those who did not make it home. As the silence drew on, the hum of engines steadily grew louder until, perfectly on cue as the sound of a lone piper signalled the end of the silence, the two Lancasters appeared over the tree tops.

Vera and Thumper in formation
The crowd remained hushed as the Lancasters made four passes over the airfield. The loudest sound we made was the snapping and whirring of cameras as everyone took in the glorious sound of eight Rolls Royce Merlin engines and the sight of the two aircraft flying together. It was a sight that everyone appreciated and one that we may not see again in our lifetimes. As the two aircraft finally headed away to their next appointment, I looked around me to see that almost everyone had a tear in their eye. Everyone there felt part of something special.

During the minute's silence, I had thought about the bravery of Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions of the night of 12th June 1944. The Canadian Lancaster affectionately known as Vera is more properly known as the Mynarski Memorial Lancaster in his honour and is painted in the markings of the aircraft in which he lost his life. Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner aboard a Canadian built Lancaster Mark X, KB726-VR-A, serving as part of 419 'Moose' Squadron. During a raid on Cambrai, the 13th mission for the crew, the Lancaster was hit by fire from a JU88 night fighter and was swiftly engulfed in flames.

Vera the Canadian Lancaster

Mynarski's Victoria Cross citation reads:

Pilot Officer Mynarski was the mid-upper gunner of a Lancaster aircraft, detailed to attack a target at Cambrai in France, on the night of 12th June, 1944. The aircraft was attacked from below and astern by an enemy fighter and ultimately came down in flames. As an immediate result of the attack, both port engines failed. Fire broke out between the mid-upper turret and the rear turret, as well as in the port wing. The flames soon became fierce and the captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Pilot Officer Mynarski left his turret and went towards the escape hatch. He then saw that the rear gunner was still in his turret and apparently unable to leave it. The turret was, in fact, immovable, since the hydraulic gear had been put out of action when the port engines failed, and the manual gear had been broken by the gunner in his attempts to escape. Without hesitation, Pilot Officer Mynarski made his way through the flames in an endeavour to reach the rear turret and release the gunner. Whilst so doing, his parachute and his clothing up the waist were set on fire. All his efforts to move the turret and free the rear gunner were in vain. Eventually the rear gunner clearly indicated to him that there was nothing more he could do and that he should try to save his own life. Pilot Officer Mynarski reluctantly went back through the flames to the escape hatch. There, as a last gesture to the trapped gunner, he turned towards him, stood to attention in his flaming clothing, and saluted, before he jumped out of the aircraft. Pilot Officer Mynarski's descent was seen by French people on the ground. Both his parachute and his clothing were on fire. He was found eventually by the French, but was so severely burnt that he died from his injuries. The rear gunner had a miraculous escape when the aircraft crashed. He subsequently testified that had Pilot Officer Mynarski not attempted to save his comrade's life, he could have left the aircraft in safety and would, doubtless, have escaped death. Pilot Officer Mynarski must have been fully aware that in trying to free the rear gunner he was almost certain to lose his own life. Despite this, with outstanding courage and complete disregard for his own safety, he went to the rescue. Willingly accepting the danger, Pilot Officer Mynarski lost his life by a most conspicuous act of heroism which called for valour of the highest order.

It was a privilege to pay tribute to his bravery by watching the Lancaster that still flies in his honour.

Andrew Mynarski VC

In my previous post on the eventful history of Avro Canada, I mentioned their star test pilot Janusz Zurakowski, who flew the famous Arrow. Zurakowski was a veteran of the Second World War and had served in the defence of Poland and the Battle of Britain. At the outbreak of war Zurakowski was a serving officer in the Polish air force as a flying instructor in Deblin. Flying an obsolete PZL-P7 armed with 2 WW1 Vickers machine guns fired from the cockpit, he was involved in actions against German Dorniers and succeeded in possibly downing one of them.

After the fall of Poland, Zurakowski escaped to Romania and then made his way via Syria to France and then to Britain where he joined the RAF, 234 Squadron. Flying a Spitfire, Zurakowski got his first of three kills on 15th August 1940 when he downed an ME110 which he was chasing at treetop level. On another occasion he downed an ME109 which had gone into a vertical dive to evade him, pursuing the enemy aircraft in a blind dive with his cockpit windshield frozen and opening fire at point blank range.

The PZL-P7 as flown by Zurakowski in the defence of Poland

Zurakovski was moved to a training role following the Battle of Britain and ended the war as the leader of 306 'Polish' Squadron. Unable to return to Poland, Zurakowski remained in Britain and enrolled as a test pilot with the Fleet Air Arm. In 1947 he became chief test pilot for the Gloster Meteor, undertaking over a thousand flights in the aircraft. In 1951 he demonstrated the new ground attack variant of the Meteor at the Farnborough air show, where he wowed the crowds by performing an entirely new aerobatic manoeuvre, the 'Zurabatic Cartwheel'. His feats earned him the nickname, the Great Zura.

Zurakowski in a Meteor 1951

Zurakowski moved to Canada in 1952 where he became chief test pilot for Avro Canada. In December of that year he took a Mark 4 CF-100 through the sound barrier in a vertical dive. Two years later he was forced to eject from an out of control CF-100 and broke his leg on landing. Nevertheless he was soon back in the cockpit. In 1955 he took the aircraft to Farnborough and once more amazed the crowds to the extent that the Belgian air force decided to buy fifty of the fighters, snubbing the British and Americans.

Zurakowski was the main test pilot on the Arrow programme and took the third prototype to Mach 1.89 in September 1957. He retired from flying the following year. When Avro Canada closed down in 1959, Zurakowski opened a small tourist resort and settled down to a much quieter life. He died in 2004 aged 89.

Avro Arrow

Footage of the Zurabatic Cartwheel at approx. 2 mins 30 secs.

This site is in Polish but has some great photographs

More on Zurakowski

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