For Valour: Sergeant Thomas Gray and Flying Officer Donald Garland’s Victoria Crosses

Black and white photos of Sergeant Thomas Gray and Flying Officer Donald Garland

In our seventh Victoria Cross blog, we bring you the story of two men who both earnt the Victoria Cross whilst trying to destroy bridges using the Fairey Battle.

Location: 12 May 1940, over Belgium
Who: Sergeant Thomas Gray 563627 VC Royal Air Force, 17 May 1914 – 12 May 1940 and Flying Officer Donald Edward Garland (40105) VC Royal Air Force, 28 June 1918 – 12 May 1940


Joe Barton's Victoria Cross

After 8 months of inactivity on the Western Front, with British, French and German armies facing each other over the Maginot and Siegfried Lines of forts, on 10 May 1940, German forces launched their Blitzkrieg [lightning war] against British and French forces, thrusting into France, Belgium and Netherlands with armour and close support from the Luftwaffe. By 12 May, the British and French armies were in headlong retreat, the former towards the beaches of Dunkirk, with German armour crossing undamaged bridges on the Albert Canal, heading for Brussels. The Advanced Air Striking Force [that element of the RAF supporting the British Expeditionary Force] issued Task 109 at 1315 hrs, ordering 12 Squadron in their Fairey Battles to destroy the bridges “at all costs”. Flying Officer Garland, flying Battle P 2204 coded PH-K, took off at the head of a formation of 5 Battles with Sergeant Thomas Gray as his Observer [Navigator/Bomb Aimer] and Leading Aircraftman Lawrence Reynolds as his Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. All three were killed. Only one Battle returned, badly damaged. The bridges were slightly damaged but within hours, the efficient German Army sappers (engineers) had thrown temporary bridges across the Canal.

A much more comprehensive description of this action, and the history of the Fairey Battle more generally, was published as a blog on 20 January 2023.


“The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the under-mentioned officer and non-commissioned officer, in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:— Flying Officer Donald Edward GARLAND (40105). 563627 Sergeant Thomas GRAY. Flying Officer Garland was the pilot and Sergeant Gray the observer of the leading aircraft of a formation of five aircraft that attacked a bridge over the Albert Canal which had not been destroyed and was allowing the enemy to advance into Belgium. All the air crews of the squadron concerned volunteered for the operation and, after five crews had been selected by drawing lots, the attack was delivered at low altitude against this vital target. Orders were issued that this bridge was to be destroyed at all costs. As had been anticipated, exceptionally intense machine gun and anti-aircraft fire was encountered, and the bridge area was heavily protected by enemy fighters. In spite of this the formation successfully delivered a dive bombing attack from the lowest practicable altitude and British fighters in the vicinity reported that the target was obscured by the bombs bursting on it and in its vicinity. Only one aircraft returned from this mission out of the five concerned. The pilot of this aircraft reports that in addition to the extremely heavy anti-aircraft fire, through which our aircraft dived to attack the objective, they were also attacked by a large number of enemy fighters after they had released their bombs on the target. of the success of this vital operation must be attributed to the formation leader, Flying Officer Garland, and to the coolness and resource of Sergeant Gray, who navigated Flying Officer Garland’s aircraft under most difficult conditions in such a manner that the whole formation was able successfully to attack the target in spite of subsequent heavy losses. Flying Officer Garland and Sergeant Gray unfortunately failed to return from the mission.”

Flying Officer Garland’s Victoria Cross in held in the RAF Museum, Hendon, London.
The location of Sergeant Gray’s Victoria Cross is not recorded.


Citation: London Gazette

Additional biographical details: For Valour: The Air VCs Chaz Bowyer, Grub Street Publishing.

Sergeant Gray: RAF Museum
Flying Officer Garland: RAF Museum
Victoria Cross: RAF Museum
Graves: The War Graves Photographic Project (
Fairey Battle: painting by Roy Cross, courtesy of Airfix.

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.