Mystery tankard with 617 Squadron crest

Kevin Watts has sent me pictures of a interesting beer tankard which he has recently acquired. One one side is a large 617 Squadron crest, on the other the words:
BOMBS AWAY
17/5/43
KEN’S

I’m not an expert on engraving, but the crest in particular looks to have been done with some skill, using only a simple nail punch and hammer. Kevin has been told that it came from the Blue Bell pub in Tattershall Thorpe at the time it was refurbished in the 1950s, when the many signatures left on the ceiling by wartime aircrew were painted over.

There were only two Kens/Kenneths on the Dams Raid. One of these, Ken Earnshaw, was killed so it can’t be his. It’s possible that someone made it up for the other, Ken Brown, or it could have been done for someone who served in the squadron’s ground crew.

Any further information would be welcome, so if you have any, please add it in the comments box below.

AJ-K crew to get new Dutch memorial

The crew of AJ-K, shot down on the Dams Raid. L-R: Vernon Byers, Alastair Taylor, James Warner, John Wilkinson, Neville Whitaker, Charles Jarvie, James McDowell. 

Vernon Byers and his crew took off on the Dams Raid from Scampton in AJ-K at 2130 on 16 May 1943, as part of the second wave tasked with attacking the Sorpe Dam. Everything seems to have gone smoothly at first but then, as the official record says, nothing more was heard from him. However, crew members in both Les Munro’s aircraft, a minute ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Munro’s bomb aimer Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on his starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300ft ‘off Texel’ at 2257. A post-war Dutch report also stated that an aircraft was seen climbing to about 450ft, having crossed the island.

Despite the fact that he was off course, and had crossed Texel which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that Byers was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100ft but because AJ-K had risen a little in height it must have been a speculative shot from behind which hit it and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen. Two German units stationed on Texel were credited with the kill. This point is disputed by author Andreas Wachtel, who thinks that it was more likely that 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland was responsible.

Byers and his crew were thus the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and died before midnight on 16 May 1943. Six bodies have never been found, but that of rear gunner Flt Sgt James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage some time later as on 22 June 1943 it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No 2. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery. McDowell’s six comrades are all listed on the Runnymede Memorial. They are the only ones of the 53 men lost on the Dams Raid who do not have their own graves and, because AJ-K went down over the sea, there is no land-based plaque to commemorate them.

The 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation would like to rectify this by unveiling a memorial plaque in Harlingen General Cemetery on 23 June 2020. This will be placed near the grave of James McDowell and unveiled on the 77th anniversary of his funeral, as a tribute to all seven crew members of Avro Lancaster AJ-K. It will be a stone with bronze plaque, similar to the AJ-A memorial in nearby Castricum-aan-Zee, which was also erected by the Foundation . For more information about the AJ-A memorial visit the Foundation website.

The goal is to raise €6,000, to include the memorial stone, a bronze plaque, a bronze 617 Squadron badge, placement of the memorial, foundation and stones around the memorial.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up to make it easy for readers to support this very worthwhile cause. This can be found here.

Pic: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation

Gibson in command: rare magazine pictures show his 106 Squadron days

Plt Off James ‘Jimmy’ Cooper at the controls of Lancaster W4118, the famous ‘Admiral Prune’ of 106 Squadron, shown on the front cover of Illustrated magazine, 12 December 1942. [Pic: Clive Smith]

Clive Smith has kindly sent me a three page article from the 12 December 1942 edition of Illustrated magazine which tells the story of a minelaying operation in the autumn of 1942. It was carried out by aircraft from 106 Squadron, then under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson.

The article doesn’t mention Gibson in the text, but he is shown in a photograph on page 5, alongside Gp Capt ‘Gus’ Walker, the commanding officer of the RAF Syerston base. After the article was written, but four days before it appeared in print, Walker was badly injured in an accident on the airfield and lost his arm. (See this post from May 2019.)

Pics: Clive Smith

The magazine notes that the squadron used a number of jokey ‘Admiral’ names and corresponding nose art on its aircraft. This practice had started in 1940 in one of Gibson’s earlier postings, 83 Squadron, invented by a member of this squadron’s ground crew, Douglas Garton (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p61). Gibson liked the nicknames and flew a number of aircraft with nautical names in his later career.

Clive Smith has also provided the evidence that Admiral Prune (W4118) was not, as some people have claimed, Gibson’s personal Lancaster. Although he liked flying it there are several examples of operations where it was flown by other pilots while he flew a different Lancaster. Altogether, Gibson only flew it on six operations – a similar number of times to the occasions when it was captained by Sqn Ldr John Wooldridge and Sqn Ldr John Searby (six and seven respectively). Future Dams Raid pilots Flt Lt John Hopgood and Flt Lt David Shannon also each flew it once on a 106 Squadron operation. It was finally lost on 5 February 1943 when it crashed near Lyon in France on an operation targeting Turin. Both port engines had failed. The pilot, Sgt D L Thompson survived and became a PoW, as did one of the two bomb aimers on board, Sgt Peter Ward, and the mid-upper and rear gunners, respectively Sgt Richard Sutton and Sgt J Picken. The rest of the crew, flight engineer Sgt Norman Johnstone, navigator Sgt Frank Darlington, bomb aimer Plt Off George Powell and wireless operator Sgt Wilfred Baker were all killed.

Jackson’s remake of The Dam Busters running out of time

Today, once more, a UK TV channel is upholding the Boxing Day tradition of showing Michael Anderson’s 1955 film, The Dam Busters on free-to-air television. This year it’s the turn of More4.

If past experience is any guide, the showing will prompt a number of searches on Google from people wanting to find out what is happening to the remake which was promised by the New Zealand film mogul Peter Jackson almost thirteen years ago, when he and the late Sir David Frost purchased the film rights.

There was a flurry of excitement on this subject a year or so ago, when Jackson was widely reported as saying that he was once more pressing ahead with the project. “It’s always been a great story,” he was quoted as saying, adding that he only had the rights for “another year or two”, so he would have to make a positive move soon.

This was followed in April 2019 by more speculation, which would appear to have come from a briefing by Jackson associate Christian Rivers, that Rivers was “trying to convince Jackson to produce the piece as a ten-part mini-series rather than in a straight movie format.”

Since then, in a scenario which will be familiar to readers of this blog, there has been silence. The failure of Jackson and Rivers’ Mortal Engines film project with a loss of almost $175 million (nominated as one of 2018’s “biggest box office bombs” by Deadline.com) may have focussed their minds.

Michael Anderson died last year at the age of 98. It is fair to say that The Dam Busters was widely regarded as one of his best films, and one which will probably maintain its position in any future list of great war movies. In 2018, the hardnosed film production company StudioCanal spent a lot of money making a new high definition print of the original, and released it nationwide. It would not have done this if it did not think that it remains a commercial proposition. As I have said before, whether Peter Jackson can manage to deliver something as good by today’s standards will be a big test. But a film-maker of his talents is presumably relishing the challenge. And he has a limited time left in which he can make his move.

(If you missed today’s showing, don’t worry. It’s being screened again soon on More4, on New Years’s Day at 5.25pm!)

Tis the season

Pic: Etsy

Casting around some Google images looking for something suitable to illustrate my seasonal message, I came across this – a vintage German brooch of the Möhnesee and the Möhne Dam for sale on the Etsy site. Of course, it’s actually nothing to do with Christmas, but the green and red colours gave it a traditional look.

Let this lovely scene act as seasonal greetings to all readers of the Dambusters blog, wherever you may be. Have a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year. (And there’s no point in to trying to find the brooch on Etsy – I’ve bought it!)

How the Soviet Union reused a wartime 617 Squadron Lancaster

617 Squadron’s Lancaster ME559 photographed in early 1945 after being repaired and converted for Soviet Air Force use. [Pic: Alternative History.]

Frank Pleszak has uncovered and translated a Russian language article from an Estonian blog which gives more information about the fate of one of the 617 Squadron Lancasters used in the September 1944 attack on the Tirpitz battleship, codenamed Operation Paravane.

At this time, the Tirpitz was moored at a base in Kaafjord in the north of Norway. It was out of range for Lancasters flying from a UK base, so it was decided to use a Soviet airstrip in Yagodnik as a refuelling stop. The initial plan had been to land here after the force had conducted its bombing operation but at the last minute the order was changed so that the attack would be launched from Yagodnik. Two 511 Squadron Liberators, carrying several experienced ground crew, a medical officer and spare parts flew there to await the strike force’s arrival.

Thirty-eight Lancasters set off on the operation – 20 from 617 Squadron and 18 from 9 Squadron. Another Lancaster carried an RAF film unit and two journalists. Despite good weather forecasts, the force encountered thick clouds after entering Finnish airspace and this continued for the remainder of the flight. The conditions made navigation difficult, and forced the pilots to fly at a low altitude. Only 26 of the Lancasters were able to locate Yagodnik and land there; the remainder landed at other airfields or crash landed in open spaces. Amongst those that crash landed was ME559, piloted by Sqn Ldr Drew Wyness. The two photographs below show the damage which it incurred.

Two pictures of ME559 after it crash landed in Russia. [Top: IWM MH30798. Bottom: Alternative History.] 

After two days, enough of the force had been repaired and on 15 September the Tirpitz was attacked with a mixture of Tallboy bombs and ‘Johnny Walker’ mines. A large explosion was observed but it seemed as though the ship was still afloat. No Lancasters were lost over the target and they all returned to Yagodnik. They flew back to their UK bases over the next few days, although Plt Off Levy and his crew crashed in Norway en route, and all on board were killed.

Of the Lancasters left behind, two of the least damaged were delivered to Kegostrov, where the repaired in the workshops of the Air Force of the Belomorsky Flotilla, under the leadership of the chief engineer Kiryanov.

All weapons were removed and the rear turret was sewn up with duralumin sheets. The damaged nose was changed: the bomb aimer’s blister and front turret were replaced with a single Perspex construction. According to the Russian language blog: “The colour remained the same, English (brown-green top and black bottom), only the identification marks were painted over with our green paint (which differed in tone) and red stars in a black border were applied on top. Both aircraft were redone the same way.”

ME559 was given the number 01 and went to the 16th Transport Detachment (TRAO), where it operated from the end of January 1945. The commander of the aircraft was V. Evdokimov and the navigator V. Andreev. The 16th TRAO was the successor to the 2nd air group, I.T. Mazuruk, formed at the beginning of the war from polar pilots. Although this was described as a transport unit, it was used not so much for transporting people and goods, but for escorting convoys, ice reconnaissance, and on patrols. The only known photograph of Lancaster 01 (ME559) is shown at the top of this article and this illustration recreates its colour scheme:

Pic: Alternative History

The Russian/Estonian blog tells us what is known about the aircraft’s final days: “In August 1945, this machine was sent to the Pacific Ocean, but in Krasnoyarsk it got stuck due to lack of fuel. While waiting for gas, the war with Japan ended. In the summer of 1946 this “Lancaster” was transferred to Riga, to the aviation technical school, as a visual aid. Its further fate is unknown.”

[Thanks to Frank Pleszak for this story.]

Martin and Leggo at the Palace

Jack Leggo and Mick Martin pose for a picture outside Buckingham Palace in February 1943. [Pic: AWM UK2008]

Blog reader Cliff Harding has kindly sent me the text of a letter which turned up in the papers of his late mother-in-law, Marjorie Roberts, a cousin of the Leggo family. The original is a carbon copy of a letter which was sent by Flt Lt ‘Mick’ Martin to his parents. It describes the Buckingham Palace investiture at which Martin and Jack Leggo received DFCs, having both completed a tour of operations on the RAAF’s 455 Squadron.

The investiture took place on either Tuesday 16 or Tuesday 23 February. It would seem that Guy Gibson was also at the palace for this occasion, receiving the DSO for a number of operations in 106 Squadron. It is likely that this is where Gibson and Martin made each other’s acquaintance and discussed low-flying techniques.

The letter reads:

25th February, 1943
My dear Mum, Dad and kids,

Your letter posted just after Xmas arrived yesterday. At that, there appears in your letter a certain degree of panic as to the safety of Leggo and myself. You may rest assured that both he and I are still very much alive and free. However the root of the evil may lie in the fact that three members of my crew are now missing – they are Jimmy O’Neill, Harry Smith, and my Flight-engineer, Frankie Martin.

Unfortunately when I went on rest with Leggo, Foxlee and Simpson who have been with me on Hampdens and Manchesters, the other three lads were posted to another pilot to finish their tour of operations before they, too, went on rest. But as for being shot down at Milan – is rubbish. I would be furious if I fell to the Italians. It’s only good luck, and not ability, if they get anybody down, apart from the odd one or two, who fall to the German gunners.

Recently Jack Leggo and myself, went up to town to collect our “Gongs”. The next page or so I will more or less copy from my diary.

We arrived in London on a Monday afternoon and took up residence at the Strand Palace Hotel. I detest the place really but it was so central, and furthermore the tariff is quite reasonable. I met John in the lounge at 6 o’clock, with a friend of his, Frankie, and I had Beverley and Bill Sellars with me. Sellars was a solicitor in the Canadian Pacific Railway before the war, and is now a control officer. He has been extremely good to John and me during the whole of our tour. For that matter he still is. You know the type – a big lumbering Cannuck, with a fatherly air.

We dined at Shepards, determined to keep the evening quiet, knowing full well the party that would naturally follow the investiture the next day would be unparalleled. But the chance presence of one or two friends altered the course of the evening, and it was past the hour of midnight before we went to sleep.

Next morning we rose early and bathed, and set course for the Palace, at 10 o’clock. But there was pandemonium first – because I had lost my stud. And do you think I could beg, borrow or steal one. Eventually I wired my collar to my shirt with a hair-pin.

All was set, so we called for a taxi, and with studied nonchalance and thumping heart I said “Buckingham Palace, please.” We drove down the Strand, down Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, to the Palace.

The old cabby would accept no money. We passed through the gates into the Precincts, and joined a line of people up there, apparently, for the same business. Soon we found ourselves in a large room, with people of many types, from many places. We were briefed by an Admiral on the ceremony, and what we were to do. He was Rear Admiral Evans of “Evans of the Broke” fame.

Soon afterwards we filed into a large room, hall or court, and stood in line along a slightly raised platform. Looking up from seated portions were hundreds of upturned faces, belonging to friends and relatives of the men to be decorated. There was silence more poignant then any I have ever known, broken only by the music created from down the hall by an extremely good orchestra. Everyone was a master musician, and everyone playing as he would be expected to play for the ears of the King.

On a platform imperceptibly higher than the one on which we were standing, was the King. He was wearing the uniform of an admiral of the Fleet, and in consequence, was addressed as “Sir.”

A line of people were in front of us, and they were gradually called up and then in a booming sort of a voice I heard “Flight Lieutenant Harold Brownlow Martin DFC. Bomber Command.” I don’t know what stopped my legs from giving way beneath me. I do not remember when I have felt so nervous as I felt during those seconds. Momentarily one pauses, then walks forward, and halts in front of the tiny mark on the carpet; turns left, and bows and then looks into the eyes of the King. He pins your medal on, shakes your hand, and congratulates you on your efforts. You step back, bow, turn right, and march down a gangway, and down a hall through all those faces. Your gong swings and hits a button, and you wonder if it is going to fall off. And so, in a daze, you walk through an archway, when all of a sudden a hand shoots out and grabs your gong. By the time you recover from this assault and the blow on the chest, a figure in uniform is proffering it to you stowed prettily in a little black box, with a silken lining, and you smother your desire to strike this arch sadist, who takes fiendish delight in provoking nervous people, whose systems, if they are anything akin to mine, are near to breaking point. You accept it, smile, and walk on, seeking somewhere seclusive to stand where people won’t see you, and you can allow your face to resume its normal hue. Others are decorated, time passes, and as the last man leaves the dais, the band strikes up “God Save Our King.”

As the last bars die away, he seems to look at everyone momentarily, and then, in the company of Lord Louis Mountbatten, he stops forward into a large doorway, leading to the next room. One then resumes possession of cap, coat and gloves, and makes an effort to join one’s friends. Eventually you find them and make your way across the Palace yard, move again through a multitude of people, and press photographers who want to take your photographs, and the only thing you want in the world is a drink. You look for a taxi – but there isn’t one to be had, and then a kind red-faced cop notices your pallid look and beckons you over. Soon you are in the lounge of the Piccadilly and the Carlton.

Later you turn up to a matinee, the tickets for which you have bought the previous day. The show is half over before you got there, but that doesn’t matter. After the show, back you go to the hotel, a bath, a clean collar and a shave – and then the party – a thousand faces -and you know them all – so it seems. If you don’t you dance and talk just the same. There was fun and laughter, drink and tears, and the night battles of the sky over the province of Europe are remote and far away. Your consolation lies in the fact that this was a wizard party – really a wizard party. You spend the day in the dives of London, meeting this one and that one, and so you call a taxi – your train leaves at ten – “King’s Cross, please, but drive there by St. Paul’s.” And the party is over.

One would gather from the foregoing lines that the whole business was a long Nero debauch, but, believe me, it was far from it – its more or less traditional that one should have a party after an investiture and we sincerely did our best to follow this time-honoured custom. I promise you dear mater, that my D.T.’s of today are not as shattering as those suffered during adolescence; and the occasions are rare indeed when I drink more than I can hold – so let us have peace in the house of Martin.

Remember me kindly to Dr. Marsh and, Dr. Bullock – they are both great guys, and I have a lot to thank them for.

An abundance of love to all at Tamworth – Sophia, Jack, Tom and everyone that asks after me. Lots for you, Mum
Mick