Alan Gillespie exhibition in Carlisle

If you are in the Carlisle area sometime before the end of this month, you can see a small exhibition in the town’s Museum of Military Life about Plt Off Alan Gillespie DFM.
On the Dams Raid, Gillespie was the bomb aimer in AJ-E, which was piloted by Norman Barlow. He had completed a full tour of operations with Barlow in 61 Squadron and had been awarded the DFM.
More about Gillespie in his Dambuster of the Day profile, here.
(Thanks to Dom Howard)

They died for your freedom: Woodhall Spa’s 617 Squadron war memorial

Pic: Wikimedia Commons

The 617 Squadron war memorial is in on the main street of the little town of Woodhall Spa, on the corner of the road which leads to the site of the wartime RAF station which bore the same name. It is a large concrete monument in the shape of a breached dam wall – the water flooding through the centre represented by a slate slab, which is carved with the squadron crest and battle honours.

This is the official memorial to the 53 men from the UK and the Commonwealth who died on the day of the Dams Raid, which took place 74 years ago today. The memorial also lists the 151 other men who served with the squadron and died while on active service later in the war. All are listed in strict alphabetical order: no ranks, just initials, surnames and decorations.

The town is popular with tourists and day trippers so a small stream of people walk up to the memorial every day, many looking for the famous names. But few cannot be moved by the sheer number here – 204 died in a period of under two years. We should not forget, however, that their sacrifice is replicated on the countless other memorials across the world to those who died elsewhere in the Second World War. Together, they are a humbling sight.

Stolen Fraser logbook – £5000 reward offered

Photocopy of John Fraser’s logbook, from Alex Bateman’s trial. [Pic: Metropolitan Police]

Shere Fraser Lowe, the daughter of Dambuster Sgt John Fraser, has offered a £5,000 reward for information leading to the return of his stolen log book. This was loaned to researcher Alex Bateman by the Fraser family for his work. Bateman was jailed for two years in February 2017 for theft after failing to return it.

Fraser Lowe believes someone other than Bateman knows of its whereabouts. She told the BBC in an interview today: “Some people say it’s just a document, a piece of paper, but that’s not what it is to me – it’s priceless. Because I lost him at a very young age – I value every little piece – so to get it back would be like getting a piece of my father back.”

She said she did not think it right to treat the log book as a commodity but had been advised that “money talks”. “I believe someone out there knows something, and hopefully they will come forward and tell us where it is,” she added.

The logbook has also been added to the International Lost Art Register, the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables.

Bateman’s trial and sentence were reported here. In 2003 he was cautioned for other historical thefts, including stealing two documents and a badge from the National Archives.

Anyone with information as to the whereabouts of the log book, or who has further information about other missing Dambuster material, should contact Acting Detective Sergeant Henry Childe on 020 8345 4552 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

More information in this BBC story.

Dambusters Blog hits the million!

 

At about 10pm BST today, the Dambusters blog registered its millionth hit. I can’t be sure exactly who was the visitor who took us over the magic figure, but it seems likely to have been someone from the UK who ended up on our front page having followed a Google search. By an amazing coincidence, this event occurred nine years to the day since the first ever post, which was published at 8.35 am on 7 May 2008.


Checking back through the daily statistics (which through the wonders of WordPress are still available to me) I see that I got just 4 hits on that first day. But within nine days, I had got to a total of 163 which, I recall, I was pretty chuffed with at the time. The fact that this occurred on 16 May 2008, the 65th anniversary of the Dams Raid, probably explains the upwards bump.

So why are people still so interested in the Dams Raid, even though most of the people who now access the blog have no first-hand memory of the war? I think the reason may be because although the raid itself is the stuff of legend, it also represents a bigger story: that of the ‘greatest generation’ who fought tyranny, came through the years of austerity which followed, and built a better society in which all could flourish. There have been many sharp turns and setbacks since, some still on-going, but no one would argue that the world is in a better place than it was in 1939.

The fascination with the Dambusters themselves is because the Dams Raid combined so many different things which contributed to the war effort – a revolutionary new weapon, supreme airmanship skills and raw courage in pressing home an attack under fire. The fact that it was then immortalised in what is now regarded as one of the best ever British war films just adds to its mystique.

So if you are one of the people who contributed to our million hits – either as a regular visitor or just someone who fetched up here after a random search – many thanks for being here for the ride. It’s been a privilege to serve you all this time, and I hope to carry on doing so for the foreseeable future. Per ardua ad astra!

[I should add a word of thanks to WordPress, who have provided the blogging software and the hosting since 2008. This is all for free, except for the ongoing cost of registering and using a .com domain name. In my opinion, they provide by far the easiest to use blogging software, and a huge range of off-the-shelf designs. And I have no connection at all with the company!]

Déjà vu all over again in Sunday Express as columnist writes same story three times

A colleague sent me a link to this week’s Sunday Express, thinking I would like the fact that it had given me a namecheck and also quoted a commenter on this blog. Fine, I thought at first, but when I looked at it more carefully it did seem to be rather an old story. And so it was.

The article appeared in a column written by Adam Helliker (‘Whispers from the Top: The best informed, most entertaining diary you need to read’) published last Sunday, 30 April 2017. The piece started:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
It is now more than a decade since Sir Peter Jackson, producer and director of The Lord Of The Rings, declared he was going to remake The Dam Busters.

Sounds familiar? Yes indeed. Here is the ‘best informed’ Mr Helliker, with another of his ‘whispers’, written on 9 August 2015:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
And with the death of pilot Les Munro, who was to have been the film’s technical adviser, the likelihood of it being made is dropping faster than a bouncing bomb.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters will be made.

And if this is not enough for you, here’s where the sequence starts. In what was doubtless named as an exclusive on the day, the ‘most entertaining’ Mr Helliker wrote this on 7 December 2014:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately over 70 years ago in Germany, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters, with a script written by Stephen Fry, will be made. Indeed he professes to becoming increasingly “irritated” when people ask him about it now, even though he has held the rights for five years.

It’s not just the text which is interchangeable in all three versions. Mr Helliker has recycled the same 2014 quote from Sir Peter Jackson: ‘There’s only a limited span I can abide of people driving me nuts asking me when I’m going to do it.’ To add interest, Sir Peter is variously described as ‘being dismissive’, ‘declaring tetchily’, and becoming ‘increasingly irritated’. As indeed he might when he reads this comment for the third time.

The recycling doesn’t stop there. Each article has a quote from a Mr Jim Dooley of the Bomber Command Association. In both 2016 and 2017 he is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a film everyone wants; the original one is always being shown and they wouldn’t do that if there wasn’t an interest in it.’ In 2014, he said: ‘The time to make this film is right now; we are waiting with baited breath. These chaps might not be with us for much longer, and we were hoping for a big opening night to boost funds needed to maintain the new Bomber Command memorial in London.’ So Mr Helliker must have troubled himself to pick up the phone to Mr Dooley on two separate occasions.

Each of the three articles also mentions what Mr Helliker calls ‘chatter’, but seems largely to be generated by him, that the cast of the film will include Colin Firth as Barnes Wallis and Tom Hollander as Guy Gibson. The fact that Tom Hollander (a fine actor, of course) is now in fact 49 and therefore unlikely to be cast as a 24 year old war hero is not mentioned. But original research (such as checking out his Wikipedia entry) doesn’t seem to be Mr Helliker’s forté.

Instead, he just pulls up an old piece he wrote a few months ago, swaps around a few paragraphs and hopes that no one notices. Maybe the line at the top of the page should be changed to ‘Whispers from the Bottom. Recycling old tat every week.’ 

[Thanks to Dom Howard! Full disclosure: the quote in the headline ‘Déjà vu all over again’ is attributed to baseball coach Yogi Berra. Or so it says on his Wikipedia page. ]

The ‘Doc’ and the key

Key used before the Dams Raid to prevent the Upkeep mines from being detonated prematurely. [Pic: Watson family]

Irene Thornton, the daughter of Flt Lt Henry (‘Doc’) Watson, 617 Squadron’s Armaments Officer at the time of the Dams Raid, has been in touch. She has one of the ‘keys’ which were used before the raid to stop the Upkeep mines being prematurely detonated. Her father retained one as a souvenir. Another one was sold in 2010 and a third was given by the family of Group Captain Ivan Whittaker (the engineer in AJ-P) to the museum at RAF Halton.

Henry Watson was born on 16 September 1914 in the mining village of Fishburn, Co. Durham. He did not want to follow his brother down the local mine; he wanted to be an RAF pilot. But when he found that his vision was not up to the standard required, he chose to apply to the Technical Training School at RAF Halton. He entered in January 1930, and became an armament fitter.

He passed out from Halton in December 1932, and was posted to both Iraq and Malta before the war. In early 1939 he returned to the UK and was posted to 106 Squadron. A further posting sent him to 83 Squadron.

Plt Off Henry Watson MBE. [Pic: Watson family]

He was Mentioned in Dispatches twice before receiving an MBE in June 1942. Part of the citation read:

“This Warrant Officer has been in charge of the Armament Section since February 1941. It has been due to his untiring efforts that operations have never been delayed despite short notice of bombing up or last minute changes of bomb load.…. On a recent occasion when an aircraft crashed on the aerodrome, he was immediately on the spot and rendered great assistance to the Station Armament Officer by rendering the bombs safe without regard to his personal safety.”

Watson was commissioned in early 1943, and then posted to the new 617 Squadron being established at Scampton. He soon found that he had a completely new weapon to deal with: Barnes Wallis’s ‘bouncing bomb’, which was being tested under very strict security.

Or so it was thought. But on 2 May 1943 when Watson returned from a three week attachment at RAF Manston testing out the weapon he was called into Guy Gibson’s office to report on progress. Gibson was very perturbed by some of what Watson told him, and sat down to send a handwritten report to 5 Group Headquarters. He had himself been told to maintain the utmost secrecy, and so obviously didn’t even want the details communicated to a typist.

Gibson wrote:

(1) Within three days of arriving at Manston, P/O Watson was shown a file which I think you have seen. This contained:

a. Sectional drawings of certain objectives
b. A map of the Ruhr showing these objectives
c. Various secret details in connection with Upkeep.

(2) That P/O Watson, an armament officer in this squadron, thus knows more about this operation than either of my Flight Commanders and at the time, more than I did myself.

I have had a long talk with this officer and am satisfied that he understands the vital need for security, and the disregard of security will lead to most distressing results. But I consider that there is no need for a squadron armaments officer to be given such information.

P/O Watson, tells me moreover, that he read this file in company with a F/O Rose, who belongs to 618 Squadron, Coastal Command. This officer is engaged in the same type of work as ourselves, but has no connection with any matter concerning Upkeep.

P/O Watson informs me that he was shown this file by W/C Garner of M.A.E.E. In fairness to W/C Garner I should like to point out that he has been doing excellent work whilst he has been in charge of the trials at Manston. However, I do feel that the more people who know, the looser the security will be. [AIR 14-595. Punctuation and spelling as in original.]

At the bottom of the page there appears in Gibson’s writing the phrase ‘Seen by me’. Underneath that is Watson’s signature. So it would seem that Gibson wanted to make sure that Watson knew the importance of keeping the secret by getting him to sign the memorandum.

After the raid, Watson took part in the official celebrations. He and the other technical officers were presented to the King on the royal visit to Scampton on 27 May 1943. He also travelled to London for the investiture, and was at the dinner in the Hungaria restaurant which followed.

617 Squadron’s technical officers being presented to the King, 27 May 1943. L-R: Flt Lt Cliff Caple (engineering officer), Plt Off Henry Watson (armaments officer), Plt Off James Hodgson (electrical officer). [Pic: Watson family]

Watson remained with 617 Squadron until December 1943, but was then posted to India to serve in 355 and 356 Squadrons, flying American-built Liberator bomber. After the war he went back to working in engineering. He started again as a fitter and turner at a factory in Stockton-on-Tees but rose within 10 years to become its manager. He went on to be the MD of a larger company and established its Apprentice Training School in Ipswich.

Henry Watson died on 22 February 1995.

[Thanks to Irene Thornton and the Watson family]

Album return brings Dambuster families together

Shere Fraser, daughter of John Fraser, and Ken Heather, nephew of Ken Earnshaw, embrace after the Earnshaw family photograph album is returned. [Pic: Shere Fraser]

A battered wartime photograph album containing 290 prints was returned to its rightful owners on Saturday. The ceremony took place at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta and brought together the families of two Canadian crewmates, John Fraser and Ken Earnshaw, who had served together for several months in the RAF’s 50 Squadron before being transferred to a new outfit, 617 Squadron, to undertake the Dams Raid in May 1943. Their aircraft had been shot down as it attacked the Möhne Dam: Earnshaw died as it crashed, but Fraser was able to bale out, and became a prisoner of war.
In the late 1990s, both families had separately sent material, including the airmens’ RCAF logbooks, to London-based researcher Alex Bateman to help him in his work. However, he had failed to return the material when asked, and then claimed that the items had been stolen from his home. After a long campaign by John Fraser’s daughter, Shere Fraser, Bateman had been prosecuted for the theft of the Fraser logbook, and he is now serving a two year prison sentence. Earnshaw’s logbook is still missing.

The album and loose photos, contained in a Metropolitan Police evidence bag. [Pic: Shere Fraser]

During a search of Bateman’s home, the police found Ken Earnshaw’s photograph album hidden in a wardrobe. It was confiscated, and entrusted to Shere Fraser to bring back to Canada to hand over to the Earnshaw family.
Also present were relatives from two other Dambuster families – Rob Taerum, nephew of Harlo Taerum, navigator in AJ-G, and Joe McCarthy Jr, son of Joe McCarthy, pilot of AJ-T. Afterwards, the engines on the Museum’s Avro Lancaster bomber were fired up in their honour.
L-R: Rob Taerum, Shere Fraser, Jim Heather, Joe McCarthy. [Pic: Jim Heather]