50 Squadron photograph shows 16 Dambusters together

Pic: Frank Pleszak

Of the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid in May 1943, some 26 had previously flown in one of the RAF’s crack bomber squadrons, 50 Squadron based at RAF Skellingthorpe. Of these, Flt Lt Mick Martin DFC and his mainly Australian crew had finished a tour in October 1942, and had gone on to instructional duties. In February 1943 most of the rest were still based at Skellingthorpe, when the photograph seen above was taken. So this represents the largest single group of Dams Raid participants pictured together before the raid.

A recent post on a Friends of Skellingthorpe Facebook page led to the identification of a number of men in the group photograph. Thanks are due to the people who participated in this, and to Christina Spencer who originally posted the picture.

As of 7 October 2020, the following 16 men have been identified [Ranks and decorations as of 16 May 1943]:

Maudslay crew (AJ-Z on Dams Raid)
Sqn Ldr Henry Maudslay DFC (pilot)
Sgt Jack Marriott DFM (flight engineer)
Flg Off Robert Urquhart DFC (navigator)
Flg Off William Tytherleigh DFC (front gunner)

Knight crew (AJ-N)
Plt Off Les Knight (pilot)
Sgt Ray Grayston (flight engineer)
Flg Off Sydney Hobday (navigator)
Flt Sgt Robert Kellow (wireless operator)
Flg Off Edward Johnson (bomb aimer)
Sgt Fred Sutherland (front gunner)
Sgt Harry O’Brien (rear gunner)

Gibson crew (AJ-G)
Plt Off Harlo Taerum (navigator)
Flt Lt Richard Trevor-Roper DFM (rear gunner)

Hopgood crew (AJ-M)
Flg Off Kenneth Earnshaw (navigator)
Flt Sgt John Fraser (bomb aimer)

Shannon crew (AJ-L)
Sgt Brian Jagger (front gunner)

It is believed that the following were still at Skellingthorpe at the time, but they are yet to be identified in the picture:
Sgt Norman Burrows (rear gunner, AJ-Z)
Wrt Off Alden Cottam (wireless operator, AJ-Z)
Plt Off John Fuller (bomb aimer, AJ-Z)
Plt Off Frederick Spafford (bomb aimer, AJ-G)

Please get in touch if you can spot any of these.

[Thanks to Frank Pleszak, Shere Fraser McCarthy, Tamara Sutherland and Jim Heather for help with this.]

Ton up for Benny Goodman

Sqn Ldr Lawrence (“Benny”) Goodman celebrates his 100th birthday today, 24 September 2020. He is well known for his service in 617 Squadron at the latter end of the war, but in fact he had volunteered to join the RAF at the outbreak of war in 1939 aged 18 and was mustered as a pilot in early 1940. After flying training in the UK, he was selected to be a Service Flying Training Instructor in Canada as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

He returned to the UK in late 1942, his ship having been torpedoed mid-Atlantic. As a result of his superlative flying skills, he was selected as one of the few ab initio pilots for 617 Sqn, where he completed 30 operational missions before the cessation of hostilities, dropping Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs on numerous targets, including the battleship Tirpitz and Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s nest’.

After compulsory demobbing in 1945, Benny joined 604 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, flying Spitfire XVIs from RAF Hendon as a reservist. He re-joined the RAF in 1949 during the Berlin Airlift, initially flying Hastings in Transport command and finally retiring in 1963 after a tour on Canberra PR7s.

During his 21 years of service, he flew over 3,500 hours in 22 different aircraft types. He continued to fly as a private pilot until he was over 90 years old.

Since his retirement, Benny has been a great supporter of reconciliation with Germany, becoming a long-standing friend of the city of Arnsberg, whose viaduct he collapsed with a Grand Slam bomb. He has also promoted diversity through the RAF Museum’s Hidden Heroes programme and contributing to the RAF’s oral history. And, of course, he has been the greatest supporter of the 617 Sqn Association.

Benny was presented with a birthday cake and a greetings card by the Chief of the Air Staff at the RAF Museum last week, as shown above.

[Thanks to 617 Sqn Association]

“Dam’ping Their Ardour”: free Trenchard lecture

Historian Victoria Taylor is giving one of this year’s prestigious RAF Museum Trenchard lectures on Thursday 8 October at 6.00pm. It is called ‘“Dam’ping Their Ardour”: Operation Chastise and the “Dambusters” legend in wartime Britain’. The lecture will consider why Operation Chastise became a cornerstone of British wartime mythology, and determine how it became so firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the British public under the blanket of wartime secrecy.

The story of the raid is well known to readers of this blog but much of the nation’s general impressions of the raid, however, have been coloured by post-war British popular culture, from Guy Gibson and Paul Brickhill’s books to Michael Anderson’s enduring film The Dam Busters (1955).

The considerable impact of these post-war resources upon the Chastise legend can be seen in the remark by pilot Flt Sgt Bill Townsend who claimed in the 1980s that ‘until that film was made, it was just another operation, wasn’t it?’

However, this wasn’t so, and how the raid’s success was promoted during wartime is the subject of the lecture, which will draw on contemporary newspapers, newsreels, cartoons and official correspondence.

The lecture is now being held online, but prebooking is essential. Free tickets are available here from the RAF Museum website.

Bonhams sell ‘stolen’ Gibson document in New York for $2167

A week ago today, the hammer dropped on a bid of $2167 for a lot on sale at an internet auction held in New York by the prestigious auction house of Bonhams. The item sold was a single sheet of paper, an RAF Pilot’s Combat Report which documented a night fighter operation carried out on 14 March 1941 by a crew from 29 Squadron – the successful shooting down of a German Heinkel 111 bomber.

What separated out this Combat Report from the many thousands filed by pilots throughout the Second World War was that it was completed and signed by a certain Flt Lt Guy Gibson DFC. Just over two years later, he would go on to fame and glory as the first commanding officer of 617 Squadron but, at the time he wrote the report, he was on a tour of duty flying Beaufighter night fighters against incoming German bombers.

Gibson’s report was filed at his base at RAF Wellingore. An intelligence officer read it and added a bit more information of his own, before having it typed up and filed as his own report. The two items eventually passed into the filing system of the Air Ministry, one in a bundle of reports compiled by pilots, the other in a similar bundle of reports from intelligence officers. In due course they were then passed to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives).

Pilot’s combat report dated 14 March 1941, completed and signed by Flt Lt G P Gibson. [pic: Bonhams]

The Gibson report has not been seen for many years, but emerged in the last month for sale at Bonhams auction house in New York. The Air Ministry file number can be seen in the top right corner, seen below in close up:

For confirmation, I sent the image above to a former military specialist in the National Archives. He agreed that this appeared to be a genuine document, and that it was likely to have been amongst the items stolen from the PRO in the late 1980s. The perpetrator in this case was Timothy Graves, a collector specialising in First World War material, but who was also found to have stolen Second World War items, including reports filed by Douglas Bader, Paddy Finucane and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The Times, 23 February 1991

Also included in the Bonhams sale on 7 August were two further sets of Pilot Combat reports. One set of nine documents sold for $2295 and a second group of sixteen went for $3187. It is not known whether they were put up for sale by the same vendor.

It is clear that Graves stole a staggering amount of material. In 2013 Frank Olynk, a contributor to the Aerodrome Forum, described how seven white plastic tubs of documents had been found in his possession, and that a large stack more had been recovered from the USA.

But the experts always suspected that there were many unrecovered documents, probably sold quietly to private individuals. This could be up to ten per cent of the stolen material. As the retired military specialist says, ‘even after 30 years, the legacy of the Graves thefts still causes a ripple in the aviation history world.’

Bonhams were approached for a statement, and commented: ‘As soon as this matter was brought to our attention, we contacted the Public Record Office which is now investigating.’

[Thanks to Carol Davies Foster for help with this article]

A 1950s milk run over the Eder Dam

Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. [Pic: Frank Pleszak]

Frank Pleszak has sent me a lovely story he heard from a family friend, GC, who served in the RAF in the 1950s. He was based at RAF Wahn, which is now Cologne-Bonn international airport.

At that time the British High Commissioner for Germany was a career diplomat called Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. He had been based in the Berlin embassy before the war, where he apparently believed that no business could be done with the Nazis, and after the war became the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under Secretary for Germany. He sat on the Allied High Commission, based in Bonn, which had been established by the USA, the UK and France to regulate and supervise the development of the new Federal Republic of Germany.

Kirkpatrick liked his tea made with fresh milk. However diplomats in the Bonn area were not allowed to drink the local fresh milk as it caused illness, so powdered milk had to be used. Kirkpatrick refused to drink this and when he heard that fresh pasteurised milk was available in the north of Germany he was given a twice weekly 400km round trip milk run from RAF Wahn to RAF Bückeburg (between Osnabrück and Hannover) using his RAF-provided De Havilland Devon aircraft. A milkman’s wireframed four-pint milk bottle carrier was acquired for the purpose.

Normally the flight would just involve Kirkpatrick’s personal pilot, an ex-WW2 Squadron Leader with a significant set of medals. GC got talking to the pilot one day and he invited GC along for a jolly, happy for the company. On the 200km flight north-east from Wahn to Bückeburg the topic of the Dams Raid came up. The pilot asked GC if he would like to see one of the dams from the air. Who would turn down that opportunity? GC wasn’t about to.

On arrival at Bückeburg the pilot retired for lunch in the officers’ mess whilst GC had to make do with the NAAFI. The pilot returned a few hours later complete with the four pints of fresh milk. As they got back into the Devon GC was entrusted with the precious cargo and told in no uncertain terms “Look after the milk. Don’t spill a drop”.

On the way back they diverted to the Eder Dam and flew very low along its lake and over the dam at about 60 feet. They then pulled round for another view, where GC was able to see the damage from 1943, now repaired.

A great story. Read it in full on Frank Pleszak’s blog.

Replacement of Scampton plaque should be welcomed

RAF Scampton from the air. [Pic: Harvey Milligan/Wikipedia Commons]

The RAF has made the correct decision to replace the plaque at RAF Scampton which marks the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog with a new one: one which does not use the dog’s name. It did this quietly, without any fanfare, but of course as soon as the news leaked out a furore ensued. As I write this, at lunchtime on Friday 17 July, the number of comments on the Daily Mail’s online report has exceeded 700, mostly disagreeing with the decision. And a poll on the Lincolnshire Live website asking “Were the RAF right to remove the name of Guy Gibson’s dog from its gravestone?” is running at 91% voting No.

The point that those suffering such apoplexy don’t seem to have noticed, however, is that things have changed. The changes may seem to have happened very quickly, in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in far-away Minnesota, but in reality the issue of racism has been under the surface but ignored for too long. We may have had different attitudes in the past, covering everything from the erection of city centre statues of philanthropists without questioning where their fortunes came from to the use of racial stereotypes in TV comedy programmes, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes are acceptable now.

So, suddenly, we have started to rethink. Four years ago, the influential US National Football League refused to allow players to “take a knee” at the beginning of a game to protest against racism and police violence. It changed its policy – just like that – with the league’s commissioner admitting that they were wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier”. And now, on this side of the Atlantic at every professional football match since the end of lockdown, there is a moving moment at kick off when all the players and officials take a knee.

It is in this context, I believe, that the decision to change the Scampton plaque was taken. The authorities have started listening. The name which was always offensive to black people is now recognised as such by the majority of the UK’s population. In the 1940s or 50s it was probably regarded by most people as being merely descriptive of the colour of a dog’s coat or a tin of shoe polish. That is not a justification for its continued use in the 2020s.

The decision may have been sudden, it may still be too quickly taken for some, but to my mind it is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to rethink how things are memorialised. We need to reappraise our historical narrative. I’m not saying that every statue should be pulled down or every plaque removed. However, there needs to be an evaluation of what each item represents and whether the item would be more appropriately consigned to a museum where the full story can be told.

There are signs that our institutions, from universities to the armed forces, have now begun this process and are now engaged in both listening and learning. And this is to be welcomed.

The change should start in the nation’s schools. One of the key writers pushing for an updated curriculum is the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the Black and British: A Forgotten History series on BBC TV. Since these programmes were aired, he says that his life has “become a constant impromptu focus group. I am stopped in the street by people who want to talk about the histories those documentaries explore. Most of those people are young, and a great many, but not all, are black or mixed race. This is the generation who have led the Black Lives Matter protests and they, quite rightly, expect more from their schools than I did from mine.” See this Guardian article.

Olusoga hopes that change is coming. I also like to believe that this is so. The small matter of the modification of a memorial plaque in Lincolnshire is a necessary step along the road.

Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be moderated.

Byers logbook up for auction

Pic: Spink Auctions

Update 15 July 2020:
Sold for £16,000

The pilot’s logbook belonging to Plt Off Vernon Byers is coming up for sale by Spink Auctions next week, on Wednesday 15 July. Also in the lot are his medals, his wings and other badges.

Byers, a Canadian from Star City, Saskatchewan, was the most inexperienced of the pilots who joined 617 Squadron in March 1943. He had flown as a pilot on just three operations, along with two more as ‘second dickey’, when he and his fledgling crew were posted out of 467 Squadron. However, he demonstrated enough ‘press-on’ attitude in his new posting to impress his commanding officer Guy Gibson, who recommended him for a commission on 17 April 1943. So he was given a place in the second wave, targeting the Sorpe Dam, flying in Lancaster AJ-K. He took off from RAF Scampton at 2130 on 16 May 1943.

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid, shot down on the Dutch coast at 2257. Despite the fact that they were off course, and had crossed Texel island which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that they were very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen.

The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today.

Oancia uniform jacket preserved for posterity

Steve Oancia, the bomb aimer in Ken Brown’s crew on the Dams Raid, came from a tiny farming community near Stonehenge in the south of Saskatchewan province, Canada. He crewed up with Ken Brown during training, and stayed with the crew until it disbanded in May 1944. Brown was also a “prairie boy”, born and brought up in the town of Moose Jaw, some 70 miles from Stonehenge. Oancia received the DFM for his role in dropping AJ-F’s Upkeep mine at the Sorpe Dam. The weapon did some damage to the dam but it failed to breach it.

Oancia returned to Canada after the war and became a civil engineer after studying at the University of Alberta. He died in 1999. A few years later, his cousin Clarence Oancia was clearing out the family farmhouse after it was sold and came across his RCAF uniform jacket, hanging in a closet in the attic. Fortunately for posterity, he retrieved it, and now the family have decided to donate it to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. The full story is told in a post on the blog of Canadian writer Ted Barris, author of Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid against Nazi Germany (HarperCollins 2018).

Bernie Wyatt, a cousin of Steve Oancia, presents Oancia’s wartime uniform jacket to Erin Napier of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Pic: Bernie Wyatt

More information about Oancia on Bernie Wyatt’s blog. Part One. Part Two.