Flt Lt. David Ernest Hornell

Flight Lt. David Ernest Hornell

Shetland Islands, U.K. – June 25, 1944
Royal Canadian Air Force


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 itself was hit, two large holes appearing in the starboard wing.

Ignoring the enemy’s fire, Flight-Lieutenant Hornell carefully manoeuvered 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 the aircraft and crew was now desperate. With the utmost coolness the captain took his aircraft into the wind and, despite 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 skillful and successful attack against fierce opposition, with his aircraft in a precarious position, and by fortifying and encouraging his comrades in the subsequent ordeal, this officer displayed valour and devotion to duty of the highest order.

David Ernest Hornell was born in Toronto Island, Ontario on the 26th of January 1910. He received his early education in Mimico and later went to the Western Technical School in Toronto. He then joined a Canadian rubber company. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on the 8th of January 1941, receiving his pilot’s wings on the 25th of September of the same year. After further instruction in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, he was posted to the Royal Canadian Air Force station on northern Vancouver Island. The action described in the citation took place on the 24th and 25th of June 1944. He is buried in Lerwick Cemetery, Shetland Islands. His medal is on loan to the Air Command Headquarters in Winnipeg.

1 Response

  1. A true hero he was. I studied about him in school in the 60’s. We are so indebted.

    My father, was in the same squadron, 162 and flew a Canso as well.

    He was Flight Lieutenant Robert E. (Sam) MacBride. He was more fortunate than Mr. Hornell. He was awarded the DFC for he and his crew’s sinking of a U-boat and participating in the sinking of a second one as well.

    I appreciate this site. Thanks for this.

    Michael MacBride

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