Original Shannon and Burpee negatives found in Times archive

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Back in January, Malcolm Peel kindly sent me a link to an interesting article in The Times which for a while was not behind a paywall. Sadly, it has now been removed from free-to-view, but if you have a subscription then you will still be able to see it.

The writer, Mark Barnes, has unearthed four original glass negatives and several prints in Times Newspapers photographic archives. These were some of a set of images taken by the photographer William “Billy” Field of several 106 Squadron crews on their return from a raid on Berlin. This was the operation in which Richard Dimbleby of the BBC flew in the squadron commanding officer Guy Gibson’s aircraft. They took off in the late afternoon of Saturday 16 January 1943, returning in the small hours of the Sunday. Some of the airmen are not wearing their flying gear in the photographs and it is daylight, which suggests that the shots were taken later the same day

I have written about these images before, because they appeared in the Daily Express on Tuesday 19 January 1943. However, it would seem that photographer Billy Field must have been actually working for the Sunday Times, as the glass negatives are marked as belonging to “Kemsley Newspapers”, the names of the wartime owners of this newspaper. Quite why the pictures appeared first in another newspaper remains a mystery. Indeed, Barnes doesn’t say whether they ever appeared in the Sunday Times.

According to Barnes, three of the negatives are in good or reasonable condition but the fourth, of Shannon and his crew and shown at the top of this article, was badly damaged. Barnes has digitally repaired the image.

In his article, Barnes correctly identifies the first five correctly: (L-R) Sgt Wallace Herbert (bomb aimer), Sgt Cyril “Joe” Chamberlain (flight engineer), Sgt Arnold Pemberton (wireless operator), Flg Off David Shannon (pilot) and Flg Off Douglas McCulloch (mid-upper gunner). However it is now believed that the sixth man is Sgt John William Donald (“Don”) Robin DFM RAAF, the rear gunner in “Jock” Cassels’ crew, and that the seventh man is Flg Off Frank (not Dave) Whalley, the navigator.

Here is the restored photograph of Lewis Burpee and his crew:

Pic: William Field/Kemsley Newspapers/Times Newspapers

Barnes correctly identifies these men who are (L-R): Sgt Gordon Brady (rear gunner), Sgt William (“Ginger”) Long (mid-upper gunner), Sgt Guy (“Johnny”) Pegler (flight engineer), Flt Sgt Lewis Burpee (pilot), Flt Sgt Edward Leavesley (wireless operator), and Sgt George Goodings (bomb aimer). Leavesley and Goodings both left the Burpee crew before it moved to 617 Squadron. This crew have simulated the “just finished an operation” look by wearing their flying boots and carrying various bits of kit. However, they aren’t in either the flying jackets or one piece suits in which they would probably have been dressed for a high level attack on Berlin on a cold January night.

Although the images have been seen before, I don’t believe that both the name of the photographer and the fact that the negatives still exist are well known, so we have Mark Barnes and his colleagues to thank for another small contribution to Dams Raid history.

Thanks to Malcolm Peel

Flg Off Basil Fish

Flt Sgt Basil Fish (top left) was the navigator in the crew of Arthur Joplin.
Back row (L-R): Fish, Flt Sgt Loftus Hebbard (bomb aimer), Sgt Frank Tilley (flight engineer), Flg Off Bob Yates (mid-upper gunner). Front row (L-R): Sgt Gordon Cooke (wireless operator), Flg Off Arthur Joplin (pilot), Sgt Norman Lambell (rear gunner). On 21 December 1944, the night the crew crashed after a raid on Politz, Hebbard and Lambell were replaced by Flt Lt Arthur Walker and Flt Sgt Jim Thompson. [Pic: 617 Squadron Association.]

I’m sorry to have to report the death on 26 February 2020 of Flg Off Basil Fish, one of the few remaining wartime members of 617 Squadron.

Charles Basil Renshaw Fish was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1922. He went to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn and then on to Manchester University to study engineering. He joined the university air squadron in 1941 and then decided to put his studies on hold for the war and volunteered for the RAF. He undertook part of his training in South Africa and qualified as a navigator in 1943. He then crewed up with a young pilot from New Zealand called Arthur Joplin.

The crew were trained first on the Short Stirling heavy bomber, but then moved across to the more versatile Lancaster. They were then astonished to find that their first operational posting was to 617 Squadron, based at Woodhall Spa. This was a special duties squadron and normally only took on experienced crews who had already survived a tour of 30 operations. However, as an experiment, some new crews who had demonstrated above average ability were posted directly to the Squadron.

They arrived on the Squadron in mid-August 1944, at first feeling rather overwhelmed. Their concern was unfounded since they were soon absorbed into the routine of extensive practice and training in order to achieve the precision for which the Squadron was renowned. It was a steep learning curve, but they found support and encouragement. The crew’s first operation came on 27 August 1944, no easy “milk run” but a daylight attack against shipping in the heavily defended port at Brest.

Two more operations followed and then on 29 October the crew found itself on an operation to attack the Tirpitz, flying from Lossiemouth in Scotland. Although the battleship was damaged, it seemed from photo reconnaissance to be still afloat, and so a second operation was launched a fortnight later. On this occasion, Joplin’s crew dropped their own bomb into the smoke and observed one direct hit and two near misses. The Tirpitz was seen to capsize later, before the force left the area.

Several more operations followed and then on 21 December 1944, the squadron mounted an attack on an oil refinery at Politz, near Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland. The outward flight was uneventful and the crew reached the designated area, but found that the target marking appeared haphazard. After releasing their Tallboy they headed for home, setting course for their designated diversionary base in Scotland, which would have not only the advantage of clear weather, but would also shorten the length of the flight. However, they were then ordered to return to Lincolnshire. As they crossed the coast it became apparent that Lincolnshire was still shrouded in fog and a further instruction was received for all aircraft to land at the first available airfield.

It seemed that Joplin, Fish and their colleagues were in luck, for very soon they saw a glow through the murk which was identified as Ludford Magna airfield. This was one of a small number of airfields equipped with FIDO – burning petrol to disperse fog on the runway approach to enable aircraft to land in such conditions. Joplin homed in on the glow and circled, calling up and asking permission to land. There was no reply. The crew were now in a perilous position as they were running out of fuel.

They needed to land as soon as possible and were also aware of the rising ground beneath. A few minutes later, the port wing brushed a hillside and they crashed. Joplin was trapped in his seat while Frank Tilley, the flight engineer, had broken a leg but managed to drag himself to safety.

Fish had been knocked unconscious but coming round he managed to rescue Joplin, who had broken both legs. The rear gunner, Jim Thompson, had survived but had fractured his spine and the wireless operator, Gordon Cooke, had a fractured skull. The other two – mid-upper gunner Bob Yates and bomb aimer Arthur Walker – were both dead.

Realising that he was the least injured and the only one of five survivors with any degree of mobility Fish set off across the fields in search of assistance, having briefed Tilley to listen out for a series of whistle blasts that would signal his return. It took nearly three hours for him to locate help and bring it to the crash site, but luckily the four others were able to recover.

Fish recovered well enough from his own injuries to be back flying by February 1945. Altogether he had flown on 24 operations by the end of the war, and had been commissioned. In early 1946 he applied for early release in order to complete his degree, and went back to Manchester University. He qualified as an engineer in 1947, and worked in industry until his retirement.

For many years, Basil Fish was an active member of the 617 Squadron Association but recently he had been living in a care home near Harrogate. In 2018, to mark the 74th anniversary of the sinking of the Tirpitz, members of the current 617 Squadron presented him with a commemorative photograph of their current aircraft.

The funeral will take place at 1340 on Monday 16 March at Harrogate Crematorium, Wetherby Road Harrogate HG3 1DE

[Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.]

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:

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!)