Yahya El-Droubie has kindly sent me some more pictures from the Douglas Webb collection. These were taken at Biggin Hill, probably in 1967, and show Lancaster NX611 sometime after it arrived back from Australia. This is the aircraft which is now known as Just Jane, the centrepiece of the Panton family collection at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire.
NX611 was built at the Longbridge works in Birmingham by Austin Motors in April 1945, and was scheduled to join the RAF Tiger Force in the Far East against the Japanese. However, these operations were cancelled and after several years in storage it was one of 54 Lancasters sold to the French government in 1952 for maritime reconnaissance. After ten years of flying over the Atlantic it was then flown out to the Far East and based in the French colony of New Caledonia.
In the mid 1960s, it was purchased by the UK Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) and brought back to Britain, landing at Biggin Hill on 13 May 1965. Some of the stages on this 12,000 mile journey were painted onto its side, under the cockpit.
At this point it was repainted and rebadged, and given the code letters HA-P – an authentic Second World War code used by 218 Squadron, which also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named ‘Guy Gibson’ and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6 May 1967.
It must have been some time shortly after this date that these photographs were taken because by the following March it was relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk.
Doug Webb was the front gunner in Bill Townsend’s AJ-O on the Dams Raid, and received the DFM for his part in the operation. He became a successful photographer after the war, working mainly in the film and glamour industries. One of his most famous models was Pamela Green. They later became partners, although they never married, and they retired together to the Isle of Wight in the 1990s.
These pictures are from a series of transparencies taken on a visit to Biggin Hill, probably in the summer of 1967. The brilliant colours are very typical of the Kodachrome process which was probably used to develop the slides. Some of the shots show Pamela Green as well as Douglas’s mother:
The HA-P code can be seen on this side view. Note that the lettering is rather thinner than that used in wartime.
These names are probably of organisations who helped in the aircraft’s restoration:
This close up of the front shows quite clearly that the barrels of the guns have been removed, and possibly the whole guns. It is interesting that the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre say that the guns weren’t completely removed until NX611 was at Blackpool, in October 1971. This obviously needs to be checked.
All in all, a fascinating set of photos. All pictures © Douglas Webb collection, about which there is more information on the Pamela Green tribute website. (Warning: contains nudity!). Many thanks to Yahya.
Information about NX611 from On Target Aviation. Thanks guys!
Yesterday morning dawned bright and clear across most of Britain and Ireland, but apparently not in deepest darkest Lincolnshire. This must have caused great despondency amongst the planners at the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby because yesterday, Saturday 6 September, was the first day in a weekend which had been scheduled for months to be the one of the busiest for the world’s last two flying Lancaster bombers. One of these (nicknamed Thumper) belongs to the BBMF and lives at Coningsby, the other (Vera) is owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and has been over in Britain for the last month visiting its cousin and participating in a number of joint displays. Crowds up and down the country have oohed and aahed as the pair have swooped low over wartime airfields. Black tie dinners have been held under their wings. Grown men have been seen in tears.
But yesterday, all flying had to be cancelled as it was far too foggy and wet for the pair to be allowed to take off. Much consternation up and down the land. Twitter was abuzz. Facebook was full of queries.
Fortunately, there is nothing that our chaps in the services like more than a challenge. Could they shoehorn most of the BBMF’s scheduled appearances over two days into one busier-than-ever Sunday? Well, of course they could. Here is a map showing just how much of northern England, southern Scotland and northern Ireland the elderly pair covered just this afternoon. Bear in mind they had done a similar loop between 0900 and 1300 this morning.
From my point of view, I was particularly pleased that the hour taken to fly the two Lancasters and their Spitfire escorts across the Irish Sea to display to a huge crowd on Portrush Strand had remained in the schedule. This was the only chance that anyone living on the island of Ireland would have to see them – and their appearance this side of the water was a fitting tribute to the hundreds of aircrew from north and south who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. One of these was a native of Portrush itself, rear gunner Richard Bolitho, who took part in the Dams Raid and was killed when his aircraft, piloted by Bill Astell, collided with a pylon near Marbeck in Germany, en route to the Möhne Dam.
Richard Bolitho on the left, pictured with colleagues during his gunnery training. [Pic: Bate family]
Was it worth the 300 mile round trip to spend 15 minutes on a beachfront staring into the sky at two aircraft built some 70 years ago? Like hell it was. It was a chance to connect with my family’s history as well as that of the nation, and to reflect on both. The Lancaster bomber has rightly become a symbol of the triumph of freedom over tyranny in a war whose shared memory is now fading from view, as those who fought in it – or even recall it – pass on. Long may this elderly pair soar in the skies – above our islands, and also above the vast Canadian plains and mountains. It was a privilege to see them both on this day, 7 September 2014, and many thanks are due to all those who made it possible.
More pictures from today at Airwaves Portrush from the organisers, Coleraine Borough Council.
Pic: Toronto Globe and Mail
Pilot Don Cheney (bottom row, centre) with the crew of his Lancaster before their ill-fated 1944 mission to bomb Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Top row, left to right: Wireless Operator Reg Pool, Flight Engineer Jim Rosher, Rear Gunner Noel Wait, Mid Upper Gunner Mac McRostie. Bottom row: Navigator Roy Welch, Pilot Don Cheney, Bomb Aimer Len Curtis. Only four members of the Lancaster’s crew survived after the plane was downed by German anti-aircraft fire: Pool, Wait and Welch parachuted from the Lancaster, but died of their injuries. All three were buried in France.
Don Cheney DFC, one of the best known 617 Squadron pilots from the 1944 period, has died at his home in Ottawa, Canada. He was posted to the squadron in February 1944 having completed 22 operations in 106 and 630 Squadrons. He flew on another 15 in the next few months, and became accomplished in the dropping of the 12,000lb Tallboys which had recently become available.
His final wartime mission on 5 August 1944, where he baled out of a blazing aircraft into the sea and was rescued by the French Resistance, was well described by his great nephew, the Canadian journalist Peter Cheney, in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2011:
Don took off on his 40th mission. Against all odds, he had suffered only a single injury so far, when a tiny, red-hot fragment of German shrapnel ripped through the Lancaster’s aluminum skin and hit him in the ankle, knocking his foot off the rudder pedal as he flew. Don said it felt like a bad bee sting. Don always made it back.
Now his luck was about to change. The mission that day was to drop a Tallboy on the Nazi U-boat pens at Brest, on the coast of occupied France. As they made their final approach to the target, the air was filled with flak shells that exploded around them like giant black cauliflowers with flaming centres. Don gritted his teeth and followed the bombardier’s instructions – to hit the submarine pens, they had to go straight through the worst of it.
Their bomb hit the target, but Don’s Lancaster took at least half a dozen direct hits. One of the engines blew up. The wings were filled with holes, and the fuel tanks were on fire. The airplane nosed over into a dive. Don knew that the wings would probably rip off soon, their structure eaten by fire. Or the entire plane might go up in a final ball of fire.
He ordered the crew to bail out. The tail gunner called over the intercom, “Wait for me!” He needed time to escape. Don fought with the controls, and kept the Lancaster flying at it fell apart. One of the hatches jammed, but five of the crew got out. But radio operator Reg Pool was stuck in his compartment, critically injured by flak. Don left the cockpit to help Reg. But as he pushed Reg toward the door, the bomber started plunging into a steep dive. Don climbed back into the cockpit and pulled the plane’s nose back up. Then he returned to Reg, put Reg’s hand on the ripcord, and pushed him out the door.
The Lancaster was dropping into another dive. Don climbed back to the cockpit yet again. Now he was alone. The instrument panel was starting to melt, and a tornado of wind ripped through the disintegrating plane. Don squeezed through a tiny hatch in the top of the cockpit and flashed by the Lancaster’s tail into open air. He deployed his parachute and landed in the ocean, where he had to dodge Nazi machine gun fire. The French Resistance pulled him out of the water.
For the next three months, he was hidden in the home of Resistance leader Aristide Quebriac. Don showed me photos of Quebriac, who later was given the Croix de Guerre by Charles DeGaulle. Don and Quebriac stayed in touch for the next 55 years, until Quebriac’s death 10 years ago.
[Hat tip: Susan Paxton]
Death announcement in Toronto Globe and Mail.
Article in Ottawa Citizen about the wartime portrait of Cheney taken by the famous photographer Karsh.
Transcript of interview with Don Cheney, Canadian War Museum Memory Project.
2012 obituary of Flt Sgt Jim Rosher, Flight Engineer in the Cheney crew. (See page 21 of PDF)
The number of actors left who played parts in the original 1955 film The Dam Busters has been sadly diminished over the last few years with the deaths of Richard Todd, George Baker and Richard Thorp. To this list must now sadly be added Bill Kerr, the Australian actor who played Mick Martin, who died on 28 August.
Like the rest of the cast, one of the reasons he was chosen was because of his strong resemblance to the character he would play. The director Michael Anderson said on first meeting him at a casting session at Elstree, “Gentlemen, Micky Martin has just entered the room.” Despite this, the role required him to spend 90 minutes in make up each day, having a wig, moustache and chucks behind his ears fitted, so that they stuck out more prominently.
Being a genuine Aussie allowed him to critique the accents which some of the other actors had to put on – notably the rather posh Englishman Nigel Stock as “Spam” Spafford (“Get a move on skipper, or you’ll miss the bus!”).
Like Stock and Richard Todd, Kerr had actually served in the army during the war, so donning uniform again held no difficulties. He was also one of the better known of the younger actors who took part: he had already played a flyer in the film Appointment in London, and by the time The Dam Busters was released was a regular on the radio comedy show Hancock’s Half Hour.
He returned to Australia in 1979 and played many roles on the stage, and in TV and film. He died, apparently, while watching an episode of one of his favourite TV comedies, Seinfeld.
Obituaries of Bill Kerr in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph.
Sources used: John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003
Pic: Weeks/Douglas family
Flt Sgt H A Weeks
Lancaster serial number: ED921/G
Call sign: AJ-W
Second wave. Aircraft badly damaged by flak on outward flight. Returned to base with mine intact.
Harvey Alexander Weeks was born in 1919 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. Chilliwack is a large town some 60 miles from Vancouver.
After joining the RCAF and qualifying as an air gunner, he crewed up with Canadian pilot Marcel Cuelenaere during training, along with his future Dams raid colleague Jimmy Clay. This crew joined 97 Squadron at Woodhall Spa in October 1942. The Cuelenaere crew had completed almost 30 operations together in March 1943 when their pilot reached the end of his tour. This coincided with the call for volunteers for the new 617 Squadron, which Les Munro and most of his crew had decided to accept. Because Munro’s rear gunner was one of those who declined the invitation, Weeks volunteered to take his place, even though Munro told him and Clay that operations with the new squadron would be ‘probably special, probably dangerous’.
Weeks settled in with his new crew, although he suffered from being jammed into his turret when it was damaged by a plume of water when Les Munro flew too low on a trial drop on 12 May 1943. On the raid itself he was isolated from the rest of the crew when the intercom was severed by flak over Vlieland, and it was only when Percy Pigeon clambered through to the rear of the aircraft that everyone knew he was all right.
The Munro crew’s next operation was some two months later, an attack on an Italian power station. Over the next 11 months, Weeks went on to complete more operations than anyone else in the crew – a total of 60, made up of 33 under Munro’s captaincy and 27 done previously in 97 Squadron.
He was commissioned in November 1943, and received the DFC in June 1944. After being taken off operations, Weeks went to 1690 Bomber Defence Training Flight where Munro had been posted as CO. He returned to Canada after the war.
Harvey Weeks died in Chilliwack, BC, in April 1992.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
John Sweetman, David Coward and Gary Johnstone, The Dambusters, Time Warner 2003
James Holland, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the German Dams 1943, Bantam 2012
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.
Thanks to Alex Bateman, I’m now able to list the mother of four of the Dams Raid aircrew who attended the Premiere of The Dam Busters and were presented to Princess Margaret. They appear in the Pathé News report of the occasion.
The mothers are: top left, Mrs Florence Hatton, mother of Bill Hatton; top right, Mrs Nellie Knight, mother of Les Knight; bottom left, Mrs Dorcas Roberts, mother of Charlie Roberts; bottom right, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholson, mother of Vivian Nicholson.
Pic: Greg Pigeon
Greg Pigeon, son of Percy, has kindly sent me some material from his late father’s collection. It includes this interesting press cutting from an unnamed Canadian newspaper, undated but obviously published in May 1955.
The five Dams Raid participants still serving in the RCAF were all flown to London to attend the Royal Premiere of The Dam Busters. They were Ken Brown, Joe McCarthy, Donald MacLean, Percy Pigeon and Revie (Danny) Walker.
The text of the article contains a number of mistakes, perhaps reflecting the fact that the raid was not so well recalled by Canadians 12 years after it took place. It states that “13 Lancasters” were directed to attack the “Moehne, Eder and Serpex Dams” and implies that all were breached. It also underestimates the casualties – “five of the 13 Lancasters did not return to base”.