Article by Rich Thistle ©
Born in 1910 in Toronto, Canada, Hornell was almost ten years older than the average pilot when he joined the RCAF in January of 1941. After almost three years service in Canada, he joined No. 162 Squadron of Eastern Air Command and in December of 1943 he was posted with his Canso Squadron to Iceland, Ireland and finally to Scotland, at Wick, under RAF Coastal Command for antisubmarine duties.
It was from this base, at 7:00 PM on June 25, 1944, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion, that Canso 9754 "P", with F/L Hornell at the controls, was nearing the end of a ten-hour patrol about 250 miles north of the Shetlands, halfway between Iceland and Norway. The weather was beginning to deteriorate, with lowering cloud base and roughening seas as the crew of eight began to think of the return to Wick or the only possible diversion to Iceland, more than 500 miles away.
Then, in the gathering gloom, a fully-surfaced U-boat was spotted by the gunner in the port fuselage blister. Without hesitation, F/L Hornell turned to attack U-boat 1225, a long-range, oceangoing submarine bent upon disrupting allied supplies to the invasion armies in France. The heavily-armed submarine did not dive but changed course and opened fierce and accurate fire on the attacking aircraft. Finally within range, the fire was returned as Hornell's crew opened up from the nose and blister positions. Almost immediately, the Canso absorbed major hits as two holes opened in the starboard wing and the starboard engine, shattered by a canon shell, began pouring oil and burst into flames.
As Hornell tried desperately to hold the violently-shuddering Canso on an attack course, the German crew ceased fire, thinking they had been victorious, and the submarine turned broadside to reduce the target they presented.
In my painting PRESS ON REGARDLESS we see the moment of Hornell's perfect depth-charge straddle of the U-boat. He had brought his crippled aircraft into perfect position a mere 50 feet above the boat, knowing that the chance for escape for him and his crew was growing ever more slender. The explosions lifted the bow of the U-boat well out of the water, and as the on-deck crew jumped and were thrown into the water, the boat began to sink.
With singular determination, Hornell brought the nose of Canso "P" into the wind and prepared to ditch in the heavy swell. Badly damaged, and blazing furiously, the aircraft settled rapidly as the crew scrambled for the one serviceable rubber dingy. In less than five minutes, they pushed away from the flaming Canso which slid below the waves about ten minutes later. Thus began the second ordeal, a 21-hour trial by sea. The winds and seas rose to even greater heights, threatening to swamp the perilously-overburdened dingy. Crew members, including Hornell took turns in the icy water to provide room to bail, and although they were spotted by a Norwegian Catalina, efforts to drop a lifeboat proved frustratingly fruitless.
By the time a high-speed rescue launch reached the downed crew, two were dead from exposure and Hornell himself was blinded and completely exhausted. Throughout the ordeal, he had encouraged them by his cheerfulness and inspiring leadership. He died at sea a few hours after being picked up. The surviving crew were decorated including a DSO, a DFC and two DFM's. Hornell was posthumously awarded the second and last Victoria Cross won by the RCAF in World War II, recognizing his steadfast courage and his unfailing bravery, displaying "valor and devotion to duty of the highest order".
PRESS ON REGARDLESS is in the permanent collection of the Huron County Museum in Goderich Ontario. The image was puublished as a collector plate in my series VALOUR OVER DANGEROUS SEAS (Sold Out) PRESS ON REGARDLESS
- limited-edition fine-art print available in catalog