Channel 5’s Dambusters pipedream

Presenter Dan Snow uses a pipe to channel the spirit of Guy Gibson while sitting in his Scampton office.

Filmed and put together in the summer and autumn of 2020, the first part of Channel 5’s new three-episode documentary The Dambusters Story was shown on UK television tonight. All in all, it was a competent and well-organised retelling of Operation Chastise, and introduced a few new faces into the normal cast of talking heads.

As it was shot during lockdown, the producers only got limited access to the operation’s real life locations. Fortunately these included RAF Bomber Command’s 5 Group headquarters in Grantham, now a private house, so presenter Dan Snow could describe how Guy Gibson had to wait outside his CO’s office by sitting down himself on a chair in the actual hallway. Much of the rest of the action took place at RAF Scampton, both inside and outside (a Red Arrow could be glimpsed in the distance in some external scenes) and at East Kirkby airfield where a genuine wartime Lancaster is preserved. This gave many different shots for Snow to exploit. He used the aircraft both as a prop – a pat on the fuselage, a push on the propellor – and as a stage from which to address the camera, sitting in the cockpit and the front and rear turrets. The German dams themselves were too far to travel for the rest of the exterior shots, so Snow was reduced to delivering many of his lines from the much smaller British dam in the Peak District which had been used for target practice, and while standing on a beach which frankly could have been anywhere.

There was also plenty of reliance on CGI, especially for the raid itself, and those slow motion reconstructed shots much loved by modern directors of actors doing things – smoking, chatting, lying on the grass, climbing in and out of aircraft, and talking on the intercom while in flight. These were added to with heavily repeated use of the few bits of archive newsreel footage featuring Gibson, and also with stock wartime film of Lancasters in flight and RAF chaps going about their business.

The script stuck heavily to the familiar narrative. Barnes Wallis, a ‘maverick inventor’ (neither word being one which I suspect Wallis himself would be happy with), designed a literally revolutionary weapon which could be used to attack Germany’s great dams. Sceptical civil servants and RAF chiefs were eventually persuaded to back his project, but gave him only about two months in which to get the work finished. A special bomber squadron was set up, given the number 617, and commanded by the young Wing Commander Gibson, who was widely respected even though he could be a tyrannical leader. Almost 150 men were posted to the squadron (the solecism that they were all ‘hand-picked’ by Gibson was fortunately not repeated). The raid was largely successful, but 53 of the 133 men who took part were killed. There was tremendous loss of life on the ground, with hundreds of captured women forced into a labour camp being the most egregious. Wallis was desolated at the loss of life.

There were some things that jarred. We were told about Cyril Anderson and his crew who returned with their bomb and were then sent back to their original squadron, “in disgrace”. No mention, however, of how they had a jammed rear turret and couldn’t see the target because of fog. Or that Anderson’s crew were devoted to him – all six of them never flew with another pilot. The whole crew went on to undertake 14 more operations and they died together when they were shot down by a German night fighter four months later.

This repetition of the same old narrative of the Dams Raid makes one hanker for the producer who one day will go for its many untold stories, and explore them in a TV documentary.

Some of these were hinted at here, but others were passed over. There were at least four men who had pregnant wives, and two of these died. A number had only flown on a handful of operations – one, on his first, won the DFM for his meticulous navigation. There was also a wireless operator due to get married the following week and a navigator who had been asked by a doctor whether a recent case of VD had been acquired from an ‘amateur’ or a prostitute. The only child of Anderson, mentioned above, and his wife died aged four months just three weeks before he was sent to 617 Squadron. These are the personal stories, but there are questions about the tactics as well. Why wasn’t sufficient thought given to the method of attacking the Sorpe Dam? And why weren’t the post-operation repair works targeted later in the year? The latter was mentioned by Max Hastings in one of his contributions, but the subject deserves a lot more research and the answer may well be buried in files at the National Archives.

A three pipe problem, indeed, for today’s band of TV historians to get stuck into.

There are two more episodes, to be transmitted on Wednesday and Thursday. This review has been compiled after watching all three.

New Channel 5 documentary airs this week, starting tomorrow

If you live in the UK — and have access to Channel 5 — you can catch a new three part TV documentary this week. Airing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 9pm each night it is presented by Dan Snow with contributions from Max Hastings, Robert Owen and Victoria Taylor amongst others.

The series was filmed in lockdown conditions earlier this year. Come back to this website tomorrow at 9pm for an exclusive review!

 

Johnny Johnson: 99 and counting

Pic: IWM

Today is Johnny Johnson’s 99th birthday!
Sqn Ldr George Leonard Johnson MBE, DFM: we salute you.

Above: Six of the men who flew in the crew of AJ-T on the Dams Raid on 16/17 May 1943. From left to right: Johnny Johnson (bomb aimer), Don MacLean (navigator), Ron Batson (front gunner), Joe McCarthy (pilot), Bill Radcliffe (flight engineer), Len Eaton (wireless operator). Absent on day of photograph: Dave Rodger (rear gunner). Photograph taken in July 1943.

Maltby’s lucky landing, May 1942

From left: Harvey Legace, Lyle Humphrey, Max Smith, Eric Grimwood, Harold Rouse, George Lancey, David Maltby. This 97 Squadron crew flew on 10 operations together between January and May 1942. They are standing alongside Avro Manchester L7474, in which they flew only twice, on training flights on 3 and 8 January 1942. They flew on one operation in another Manchester and the rest in the new Avro Lancasters, which replaced it. [Pic: Rouse family.] 

I started researching my uncle David Maltby’s wartime RAF career in 2006, and soon came across the names of the men who made up his crew in 97 Squadron during much of his first tour of operations in 1942. Maltby had started his pilot career in the summer of 1941 flying the Hampden medium bomber, undertaking 12 operations, but in the autumn the Avro Manchester heavy bomber became available, and he flew four operations as a second pilot. By December he was ready to become a first pilot, and he took on six men fresh out of training in order to build a new crew.

The crew is shown in the photograph above, and was made up of Sgt George Lancey (second pilot, RCAF), Sgt Max Smith (navigator, RAAF), Sgt Eric Grimwood (wireless operator), Sgt Harold Rouse (2nd wireless operator/air gunner), Sgt Lyle Humphrey and Sgt Harvey Legace (air gunners, both RCAF). The trades of bomb aimer and flight engineer did not exist at this stage in the war.

In 2006, I made some effort to track down the men who flew with David Maltby with the help of the 97 Squadron historian, Kevin Bending. I was lucky in that George Lancey’s son in Canada sent him an email which he forwarded to me. The Lancey family were then kind enough to send me crew pictures and some other material.

Sadly, at this time I didn’t know that one of the crew, Harold Rouse, was living in happy retirement in Norwich. By coincidence, he was about to tape record a series of reminiscences about his life, including his wartime experiences in Bomber Command. He died at the age of 92 in 2014, and the recordings went untranscribed until earlier this year. Then, with the lockdown giving him some time on his hands, his son-in-law Matthew Williams used it to edit the recordings and publish them as a book, From Leiston to Lancasters.

This extract, describing a crash landing in which everyone was lucky to escape with their lives, is taken from the book:

*********

“My next trip came about on May 4th [1942]. We were going to Stuttgart. And we were going to be crossing over the coast at Aldeburgh. I was in the front turret again. It was dark when we took off if I remember rightly, and it was still dark when we crossed over the coast, but anyway I could see when we did so. I thought, ‘Well Dorothy [his girlfriend, who lived in Aldeburgh], you’re down there somewhere, and I’m up here.’

Half an hour later we hit the enemy coast, and that’s where we got rather badly hit up. We lost our hydraulics – we couldn’t open the bomb doors, and the wheels came down but they weren’t locked.

David said we’re in a bit of a state and we can’t carry on, so we’ll have to go back. We flew along the coast to see whether we could get rid of our bombs, because we had 3,304 incendiary bombs on board. They were in 14 cases in our bomb bay – they were small magnesium bombs really, 236 in a case. So we were carrying quite a big bomb load – I suppose it was over six tons. But we couldn’t get rid of them because we couldn’t open the bomb doors.

We turned round to come back. I think we crossed over somewhere near Norwich to go up to the Wash and then we got back to Woodhall Spa. David called up and they said, ‘Well, you better land at Coningsby,’ which was still a grass aerodrome – Woodhall Spa being concrete. He said, ‘All right,’ and we went round to Coningsby and got permission from there to land.

We touched down onto the grass, we bounced, bounced once again but just couldn’t slow down enough. The runway finished up near a corner and there was a gun emplacement there, and as we tore along, they all jumped out of the gun emplacement. We crossed over one road, a field, another road and then into another field, and finally ended up with our nose against a tree. Fortunately, as no front gunner was allowed in the front turret during landing, I’d already got out from there – just as well, because my front turret was absolutely mangled.

It was about half past two in the morning. There was a farm cottage not far away, and people came running out of there because they had heard us come down. But we all managed to get out of the aircraft. I think George bumped his head. David, who was a broad chap, he told us he escaped through his side window – it seemed hardly wide enough for him to go through, but he went through. I think our gunner Legace also got a bit of a bump – he’d got out of his turret by then of course. But we were all quite safe.

And the aircraft didn’t go up, neither did the bombs fortunately. The fire engine and an ambulance and all the rest of it turned up from the station, took us back to the mess, we had our flying breakfast, our egg again, and went off to bed.

The next morning, the five of us (David, George, Max, Eric and myself) went and viewed our aircraft. As I said previously, David was living out at Woodhall Spa with his fiancée at some relatives or friends of hers, [actually his fiancée’s sister – CF] and he had the use of their car. So he drove to the station and picked us four up, and we went and viewed the wrecked aircraft in daylight. It had been brand-new just the previous day. S for Sugar (we didn’t call it S for Sugar though).

It had broken its back, one wheel was here and another wheel was there, the nose was right up against this tree. Eric took some photographs, and later, after Eric was lost, I found them amongst his belongings, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have these.’”

*********

These are three of the photographs taken by Eric Grimwood:

R5553 OF-S came to rest, against a tree on the edge of RAF Coningsby. [Pic: Rouse family.]

With backs to camera, three of the crew of S-Sugar examining the wreckage after its crash landing. In the middle is David Maltby. The man on the right is unidentified ground crew. [Pic: Rouse family.]

Three of the crew in the cockpit of the crashed aircraft. In the front seats, Max Smith and George Lancey. Unidentified man behind. [Pic: Rouse family.]

Eric Grimwood, mentioned by Rouse as taking the photographs above, left the crew soon after this crash in order to train for remustering in the new trade of bomb aimer. David Maltby also finished his tour of operations in June 1942, and some of the crew went on to fly with other pilots. One of these was Grimwood, who having successfully retrained, went missing in action on an operation to Hamburg on 26 July 1942, in a crew skippered by Flg Off William McMurchy. Rouse was a good friend of Grimwood, which was why he sorted through his possessions before they were returned to his family.

On 27 August, Rouse became the wireless operator in George Lancey’s crew, and they successfully completed their first tour of operations on 8 December 1942. Rouse went on to serve in a variety of training roles until the end of the war. He was finally demobilised in December 1945. In civilian life he became a cost accountant and then a company secretary with various companies in Norfolk, ending up at the large holiday firm of Blake’s.

Between November 1944 and May 1945, George Lancey did part of his second tour in 617 Squadron and flew on about 11 operations. He went back to Canada after the war.

From Leiston to Lancasters – an excellent read – is available from this site.

 

John Fraser, Dam Busters actor

John Fraser as Flt Lt John Hopgood in The Dam Busters

The actor John Fraser, who died on 6 November, is one of the last people who had a credited part in the Michael Anderson 1955 film The Dam Busters. Many of the online obituaries described him as having a “starring role”, but that is a bit of an overstatement, given that he only has a few lines. In his hilarious 2004 autobiography, Close Up, he mentions it just once as one of a string of four films he made in the mid 1950s in quick succession.

In The Dam Busters John Fraser played Flt Lt John Hopgood, the pilot of AJ-M on the Dams Raid. What is rarely noticed is that AJ-M’s bomb aimer was also called John Fraser, and that he was one of the three men who survived being shot down on the attack and spent the rest of the war in a PoW camp. (Readers of this blog will also know of the long running saga about his stolen logbook, and the efforts of his daughter Shere to recover it.)

John Fraser (the actor) is of interest to social historians in that he was a gay man taking his first steps in the acting trade when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. A number of other closeted gay men from that period, such as Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde appear in the cast of thousands in Close Up. It also includes louche individuals such as Stephen Ward, who sent him to a London brothel in an attempt to change his sexuality.

In a distinguished career Fraser made many more films, with starring roles in El Cid, Tunes of Glory and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, where he played the playwright’s young lover, Bosie, and was nominated for a BAFTA. He also appeared in a number of stage roles which led to a brief career as a pop singer, with a hit called “Why don’t they understand?”. This resulted in appearances on Six Five Special and a concert with Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele at the Albert Hall. (You can hear him sing the song here on YouTube.)

Publicity photograph of John Fraser – once dubbed “the handsomest man in Britain” – at the height of his 1950s popularity.

Obituary in the Daily Mail
Obituary in the Guardian
John Fraser Scottish lad fan site

Victor Hill commemorated in Remembrance Day tribute

Bristol University Air Squadron Officer Cadet Josh Rowles has chosen to mark this year’s Remembrance Day with a tribute to Flt Sgt Victor Hill, a Dams Raid participant from his local area. Hill was the front gunner in David Maltby’s crew in AJ-J on the Dams Raid, and would therefore have had a ringside view as their aircraft dropped the mine which finally breached the Möhne Dam. He had completed some 22 operations as a gunner in 9 Squadron before being transferred to 617 Squadron as a late substitute in the first week of May 1943.

Pic: Valerie Ashton

Josh Rowles contacted me a couple of months ago, hoping to get more information about Victor Hill for a local exhibition. I put him in touch with the Hill family. His daughter Valerie – who was just an infant when her father was killed – provided more photographs and family stories. Josh has now written his own tribute and this has been shared with the RAF Benevolent Fund in time for Remembrance Sunday. You can see this here.

Victor Hill’s parents both worked at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. As a young man, he was once snapped sitting against one of the castle’s walls, and Josh was able to find the exact location.

Josh is putting together more information about the Hill family’s life in Berkeley, and hopes to develop a tourist map of the area which will be useful when travel restrictions are lifted. Watch this space!

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.