For Valour: Flight Lieutenant David Ernest Hornell (Can/J.7594) VC

A black and white portrait of Flight Lieutenant D.E. Hornell in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. He is smiling slightly, with a mustache, and wearing a cap with an insignia.

Location: 24 June 1944, over  North Atlantic

Who: Flight Lieutenant David Ernest Hornell (Can/J.7594) VC Royal Canadian Air Force 26 January 1910 – 24 June 1944

During the Second World War, the primary air-launched anti-submarine weapon was the depth charge. Exploding under water, if near enough to the submarine, the shock wave would cause major internal damage and start leaks, even if it did not rupture the submarine’s pressure hull. But to be effective, the attacking aircraft should ideally fly at 45° to the submarine’s track, and at low level for accuracy, to achieve a “straddle” – depth charges dropped each side of the vessel. In the early years, a U-Boat would submerge as soon as an aircraft was sighted. But the Kriegsmarine [German navy] realised how vulnerable the attacking aircraft were so started mounting extensive anti-aircraft guns on the submarine, more powerful and longer-ranged than the modest aircraft armament. And so, instead of diving when attacked, they would stay on the surface and fight back.

The VC medal

In the summer of 1944, Flight Lieutenant Hornell was a member of No. 162 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, which at the time was based in Reykjavik, Iceland, but with a single flight detached to Wick, Scotland and equipped with Canso aircraft. Cansos were Consolidated Catalina PBY5A amphibious maritime patrol aircraft built under licence in Canada by either Boeing Canada or Vickers Canada; Hornell’s was from Vickers. On 24 June 1944, he was captain and pilot of Canso serial 9754 coded P and bearing the name Mary K [origin unknown]. He and his crew of 7 took off at 0930 from Wick and headed north on anti-submarine patrol. Canso/Catalina aircraft had a very long endurance – the record was more than 27 hours – and after almost 10 hours in the air, Hornell was well north of the Shetland Islands, preparing to return to Wick, when the crew spotted a surfaced submarine, Type IXC/40 U-1225, which they attacked.

Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat named 'MARY K.' with serial number '8754,' featuring a person standing near the engine on land.

Hornell’s Canso at RCAF station Yarmouth, Nova Scotia Summer 1944. Credit: Library Archives, Canada.

A black and white photograph capturing the moment an explosive charge hits near a German U-boat on the surface of the ocean. Water sprays up from the impact.

German submarine U-980 under attack by an aircraft of 162 Squadron, North Atlantic. Hornell’s combat photos were lost with the Canso.

A black and white photograph showing the aftermath of a successful attack on a German U-boat. The image captures a large, dark, circular oil slick on the surface of the ocean, indicating where the submarine has sunk.

London Gazette Friday 28 July 1944

‘The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under-mentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: — Flight Lieutenant David Ernest HORNELL (Can/J.7594) (deceased), R.C.A.F. 162 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron. Flight Lieutenant Hornell was captain and first pilot of a twin-engined amphibian aircraft engaged on an anti-submarine patrol in northern waters. The patrol had lasted for some hours when a fully-surfaced U-boat was sighted, travelling at high speed on the port beam. Flight Lieutenant Hornell at once turned to the attack. The U-boat altered course. The aircraft had been seen and there could be no surprise. The U-boat opened up with anti-aircraft fire which became increasingly fierce and accurate. At a range of 1,200 yards, the front guns of the aircraft replied; then its starboard gun jammed, leaving only one gun effective. Hits were obtained on and around the conning-tower of the U-boat, but the aircraft was itself hit, two large holes appearing in the starboard wing. Ignoring the enemy’s fire, Flight Lieutenant Hornell carefully manoeuvred for the attack. Oil was pouring from his starboard engine which was, by this time, on fire, as was the starboard wing; and the petrol tanks were endangered. Meanwhile, the aircraft was hit again and again by the U-boat’s guns. Holed in many places, it was vibrating violently and very difficult to control. Nevertheless, the captain decided to press home his attack; knowing that with every moment the chances of escape for him and his gallant crew would grow more slender. He brought his aircraft down very low and released his depth charges in a perfect straddle. The bows of the U-boat were lifted out of the water; it sank and the crew were seen in the sea. Flight Lieutenant Hornell contrived, by superhuman efforts at the controls, to gain a little height. The fire in the starboard wing had grown more intense and the vibration had increased. Then the burning engine fell off. The plight of aircraft and crew was now desperate. With the utmost coolness, the captain took his aircraft into wind and, despite the manifold dangers, brought it safely down on the heavy swell. Badly damaged and blazing furiously, the aircraft rapidly settled. After ordeal by fire came ordeal by water. There was only one serviceable dinghy and this could not hold all the crew. So they took turns in the water, holding on to the sides. Once, the dinghy capsized in the rough seas and was righted only with great difficulty. Two of the crew succumbed from exposure. An airborne lifeboat was dropped to them but fell some 500 yards down wind. The men struggled vainly to reach it and Flight Lieutenant Hornell, who throughout had encouraged them by his cheerfulness and inspiring leadership, proposed to swim to it, though he was nearly exhausted. He was with difficulty restrained. The survivors were finally rescued after they had been in the water for 21 hours. By this time Flight Lieutenant Hornell was blinded and completely exhausted. He died shortly after being picked up. Flight Lieutenant Hornell had completed 60 operational missions, involving 600 hours’ flying. He well knew the danger and difficulties attending attacks on submarines. By pressing home a skilful and successful attack against fierce opposition, with his aircraft in a precarious condition, and by fortifying and encouraging his comrades in the subsequent ordeal, this officer displayed valour and devotion to duty of the highest order.”

A white and blue amphibious aircraft, identified as a Canso, flies over the ocean. The plane has two propellers and distinctive pontoons for water landings.

This Canso is painted in the camouflage colours and serial of that flown by Hornell. It is owned and operated by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, Mount Hope, Ontario, Canada.

Aerial view of a rescue boat in rough seas, with crew members pulling a person in a rescue raft towards the boat.

Survivors of Hornell’s crew being rescued by RAF Air Sea Launch. Photo taken from Sunderland which guided launch to dinghy. [NOTE negative was heavily retouched at the time]. Credit: Library Archives Canada

A close-up of a gravestone marking the final resting place of Flight Lieutenant D.E. Hornell VC. The text reads: 'Flight Lieutenant D.E. Hornell VC, Pilot, Royal Canadian Air Force, 24th June 1944, Age 34'. The gravestone features an emblem and the Victoria Cross.

In his painting ‘First Sighting’, artist Robert Taylor captures the spirit of Air Sea Rescues: for Hornell and his crew, a Sunderland guided a high-speed rescue launch to their location.

Most of the crew were able to take to a dinghy but they were not rescued for 20 hours and 35 minutes. During that time, several of the crew succumbed to exposure. Although Hornell was rescued by an Air Sea Rescue launch, he died of exposure some 20 minutes after being taken aboard. His body was returned to the Shetland Islands and he is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s plot in Lerwick New Cemetery.

[NOTE: a very comprehensive account of their ordeal at sea is to be found in ‘For Valour’ – pages 371-377 see references below.]

A close-up of a gravestone marking the final resting place of Flight Lieutenant D.E. Hornell VC. The text reads: 'Flight Lieutenant D.E. Hornell VC, Pilot, Royal Canadian Air Force, 24th June 1944, Age 34'. The gravestone features an emblem and the Victoria Cross.

Flight Lieutenant Hornell’s Victoria Cross is displayed at Air Command Headquarters, Winnipeg, Canada. In addition, other crew members received one DSO, DFCs and DFMs (Crosses for officers, medals for NCOs). As well as two Mentioned in Despatches.


Citation: London Gazette 28 July 1944
Additional biographical details:
For Valour: The Air VCs Chaz Bowyer, Grub Street Publishing.
Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (

Flight Lieutenant Hornell: RAF Air Historical Branch via Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
Original Canso: RAF Museum
Flying Canso: Rick Radell/Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (
Grave headstone: The War Graves Photographic Project (
Painting ‘First Sighting’ property of author
U-Boat photos: RAF Museum

About the Author

Norman Brice: Volunteer

Volunteer Norman Brice

It all started very many years ago when, lying in my pram, I was awoken by what I later knew as Spitfires on their finals to RAF Biggin Hill, just a handful of miles away. As a schoolboy I was captivated by the annual September Battle of Britain Days at Biggin Hill with a vast range of visiting aircraft, including all three V-Bombers in gleaming anti-flash white.

Fast forward very many years past retirement I joined the RAF Museum London as a volunteer as a Vulcan and Cold War tour guide.