Dambusters and beyond: Oxford exhibition marks school’s RAF connections

Report and pictures by Edwina Towson.

The school in Oxford attended by Guy Gibson is currently joint hosting an exhibition called “The Dambusters and beyond” at the North Wall Gallery. The school, St Edward’s, is set in the leafy suburb of North Oxford and has a solid but progressive look to it in the Victorian manner:

The exhibition collects together a thoughtful selection of photographic, documentary and other material relating to key figures in the school’s history who were also significant contributors to the first 100 years of the RAF (Douglas Bader, Guy Gibson, Geoffrey de Havilland, Adrian Warburton, to pick on perhaps the most famous names). The coverage of those 100 years is supported by material from the Imperial War Museum and other national collections and prints are available of many items.

The exhibition covers all the walls of the North Wall foyer and café area:

The Dambusters section is along one of the larger sections of wall. It includes logbook material (private papers from Flt Lt W C Townsend) describing the raid as “successful”, replicas of Gibson’s medals and, to the left of them, a portrait of him by Cuthbert Orde (a pilot in WWI).

These are in the setting of numerous photographs and documents giving something of the atmosphere of the secrecy and unique nature of the operation, of the extreme risks for the bomber crews (there is a telling photo – just above the medal case – of a captured RAF crewman with his German interrogators after his Halifax was shot down over Bremen) and of the morale-lifting effect of the success of the special bomb.

One of the most personal items is a letter written by Gibson to his headmaster and which has the memorable postscript “Was Awarded V.C. yesterday”.

Another pointed reminder of the operational cost is the May 1943 photo of the surviving captains of the raid – there are not many of them:

The rest of the exhibition contains a wealth of interest covering the origins and development of the RAF and of military flying. The spread is wide, through WWI, the Battle of Britain, the Pathfinders, SOE, the jet age and onward. Allow at least an hour and a half if you want to look at each item. I have given only a tiny taste of what is on offer.

As you leave, you see some posters:

Beside the posters is a tower of mugs, in case the brochure is not sufficient as a souvenir.

The exhibition runs until 17th July (entry is free of charge) and there is more information here:



Tuesday’s events going ahead in Lincoln!

I’m looking forward to meeting other Dams Raid aficionados this coming Tuesday, 10 July, at two events in Lincoln.

The first is at 3pm in the International Bomber Command Centre, Canwick Hill. The second is at 6pm in Waterstone’s Bookshop, High Street. At both events I will be talking about the research that went into my new book, The Complete Dambusters, and also signing copies.

So if you are in the area, do come along. Careful planning (well done, Gareth Southgate!) will mean that you can rest assured that you won’t miss a minute of any football match involving England!

Author on tour: another date added

If you are based in the Lincoln area, you may be interested in another event I am doing on the same day, Tuesday 10 July, as my appearance in Waterstone’s bookshop. This is a talk and book signing which will take place at the International Bomber Command Centre, Canwick Hill, at 3.00pm. My talk and slideshow presentation will be based on the research done for my new book, The Complete Dambusters. Copies will be on sale on the day.

Further details on the IBCC Facebook page.  Entrance is free, but places are limited. If you would like to book a ticket, contact Emily@internationalbcc.co.uk

And if you are worried about whether either of these appearances will clash with certain football-related events in Russia, we now know that if Harry Kane, the other Spurs boys and the rest of the England team win their quarter-final on Saturday, they will play their semi-final on Wednesday 11 July. So come along!

AJ-Z crash site mystery solved: Dutch pilot comes forward

A Dutch pilot now based in Scotland has come forward to say that it was him and his family who placed a wooden cross in a field near Netterden to commemorate the spot where Henry Maudslay and the Dams Raid crew of AJ-Z were shot down early in the morning of 17 May 1943. According to the local newspaper NRZ Emmerich, it was erected by Jens van Gessel.

The article reads (translated from German):

Yesterday, Jens van Gessel contacted the RP editors by phone and said he had set up a memorial in Netterden with his father and son to commemorate the crash of ED937 in 1943.
As reported on Wednesday, the white cross, decorated with artificial poppies and an airplane, was erected recently on the edge of a field in Klein-Netterden. It was clear from the inscription that it was placed there to remember the crash of an airplane on May 17, 1943, but nobody knew who had been involved.
The aircraft with 15 men on board [sic] had flown from England on the night of 16-17 May 1943 to attack the power supply of Nazi Germany. The target of the 19 Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force were six dams in today’s North Rhine-Westphalia and Hesse. The Möhne and Eder dams were breached. ED937 was damaged when attacking the Eder dam, which made it an easy target for German anti-aircraft positions on its return flight. It was shot down over Emmerich.
Another aircraft from the squadron flying on the same operation in May 1943 crashed nearby in Heeren-Herken. The Heimatverein Haldern has set up a memorial plaque at that position.

The article goes on to explain Jens van Gessel’s motivation. He is a pilot, originally from the Dutch town of ‘s-Heerenberg, but he has lived in Scotland for six years, flying helicopters in the oil industry. He used to be a member of the Emmerich Flugsportverein (Flying Club).

He had heard about the aircraft shot down over Emmerich and started to investigate it. He concluded that much of what is written on the internet about the crash is not true. After reading many books about the aerial war on the Lower Rhine he is convinced that: “If the plane had not come down here in Emmerich, it would have crashed over ‘s Heerenberg and possibly would have claimed more victims there, because the city is exactly on this route.”

So this was the reason why he set up the cross up in Klein-Netterden. Not for personal reasons, but to remember the crash and the larger catastrophe which was avoided that night. Whether the pilot of ED937 might have intentionally crashed his bomber into a field to avoid a crash over an inhabited area, Jens van Gessel cannot say. It would be possible. “But of course we cannot prove that,” explained the Dutchman.

Mystery tribute at AJ-Z crash site

This tribute to the Dams Raid crew in Lancaster AJ-Z, piloted by Henry Maudslay, has recently been placed in a field near the German town of Emmerich, close to the site of the aircraft’s fatal crash after being shot down on the night of 17 May 1943.

Local people, including members of the local group who have recently come together to raise funds for a permanent memorial, would like to know who erected this cross. The local newspaper, NRZ Emmerich is also investigating the matter. There is no indication on the cross itself, and no clues other than the only word “May” is spelt in English rather than German.

If anyone has any information, they are asked to contact the organiser of the local group Marcel Hahn via his Facebook page or the NRZ journalist Christian Schmitt. The Dambusters blog would also like to know, so please add a comment below if you can shed any light on the matter!

Les Knight tribute planned for September in Holland

On 16 September this year it will be 75 years since Dams Raid pilot Les Knight was killed after his aircraft was badly damaged on an operation to attack the Dortmund-Ems canal. He was flying with the same crew with which he had successfully attacked the Eder Dam, and was also carrying an extra gunner, Sgt L C Woollard.

Knight jettisoned his bomb and then stayed at the controls struggling to keep the aircraft airborne while his crew baled out. He nearly succeeded in a forced landing, but the aircraft hit a bank running across a field and exploded. All seven of the rest of the crew landed safely. Five evaded capture, while two became PoWs. There is no doubt that they all owed their lives to their young pilot, something that they never forgot.

Knight’s crash occurred just outside the village of Den Ham, and he is buried in its general cemetery. Because he managed to avoid the built-up area of Den Ham, Knight is still regarded as a hero in the village.

Local people are now organising a weekend commemoration of Les Knight and are bringing together members of his family, the families of all the men in his crew, and local people to honour his name. Also present will be members of the families of the local underground resistance movement which helped several members of the crew evade capture and return to England. The event has already been discussed in the Australian parliament and it is hoped that its government and service representatives will also attend.

The event will take place over the weekend of Friday 14 to Sunday 16 September 2018.

More information about the appeal on this website .

Les Knight and his crew, photographed at RAF Scampton in July 1943. Back row, left to right: Sydney Hobday, Edward Johnson, Fred Sutherland, Bob Kellow, Harry O’Brien. Front row: Les Knight, Ray Grayson. [Pic: IWM CH11049]

Above: Members of the family of Sgt L Woollard, one of the men who baled out safely, pictured on a recent visit to Den Ham. 

In Lincoln, for one night only

If you are based in or near the city of Lincoln, you are welcome to come along to a talk and signing session I am doing at the city’s Waterstone’s bookshop on Tuesday 10 July at 6.30pm. 

I will be telling some of the family stories I came across while researching my Complete Dambusters book as well as showing some pictures which weren’t used in the final publication. I will also be debunking some of the often-repeated mythical stories about how the men who took part in the Dams Raid were chosen.

Tickets cost £3, but you get the money back if you buy a book on the day! More details here on the Waterstones Lincoln Facebook page. Tickets from the shop or by email from lincoln@waterstones.com

[This event prompts me to say that if readers know of any other outlet or society who would like me to do a talk and/or signing then I will be happy to oblige. Contact me by email here.]