Paul Brickhill’s revisions to The Dam Busters, 1972


In the mid 1950s, Paul Brickhill was one of the best-known authors in the world. He was also one of the most successful, with three huge bestsellers to his name: The Great Escape, The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky. All three had also been made into films, which had netted him even more money.

By the end of the next decade, however, his personal circumstances had changed. He had been hit by large tax demands and had ended up leaving his native Australia for years at a time. His marriage had broken up, with his wife citing physical assault during the divorce proceedings. He had also suffered several periods of mental ill-health, not helped by periods of heavy drinking.

He eventually returned to Australia in December 1969, where he told a journalist from The Australian newspaper that he was ‘heading for a little pad in Sydney’ where he would ‘settle down to write three books’. Two would have a war theme, he said, and the third would be non-fiction. [Stephen Dando-Collins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Books Australia, 2016, pp.356-7.]

The non-fiction book he mentioned was in fact a revised edition of the Pan Books paperback of The Dam Busters. During his travels, he had spent some time in London going through some of the official records about the raid which had been declassified. The information he gleaned from this principally referred to the fact that the Barnes Wallis-designed weapon used to attack the dams ‘bounced’ and then skipped when it hit the surface of the lake. This was hardly a secret anymore, since it had played a central role in the 1955 film, but until Brickhill sat down to write a revised edition, anyone reading the account in his book would have found vague references to the bomb ‘working’, without any clarification of exactly what this meant.

Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins describes the painful way in which the work proceeded:

No longer could he dash off a manuscript in a few months. For a year and a half following his 1969 return to Sydney, Brickhill laboured over his rewrite of The Dam Busters. Still hooked on booze and sleeping draughts, he found it a monumental struggle, but he rated himself the kind of person who never gave up. By the time he completed the task, he’d deftly inserted another 12,000 words into The Dam Busters. In early 1971, he completed correcting proofs of the new edition.
[The Hero Maker, p.360.]

Unfortunately, the Pan Book archives don’t have either a list of changes or a copy of the revised manuscript, so the only way of working out what revisions were made is by comparing the two published editions.

Here is Brickhill’s account of one of the earliest test drops of the weapon, on 12 December 1942.

Left, 1954 edition, p.35. Right, 1972 edition, p.42

The revised paragraph is a good reminder of what a fine descriptive writer Brickhill could be:
‘… then, oh the thrill, out of the spray the black barrel came soaring a hundred yards across the water, hit with another flashing feather of spray and soared out again, hit again, and again, the distances shortening every time until at last, after nearly half-a-mile, it slithered to a foaming stop and sank.’

Here is a later section, where the newly formed squadron is undertaking test drops of the weapon at Reculver.

Left, 1954 edition, p.63. Right, 1972 edition, p.78

Although Dando-Collins refers to Brickhill importing the new material from the declassified files, it is likely that a lot of the additions were in fact from Brickhill’s own notes compiled for the original edition. He would have been given a lot of information for this off the record, particularly by Barnes Wallis. His re-creation of the scene in the Wellington cockpit in the first example above, for instance, reads as though it is a story told to him by Wallis – one he would have recorded on disk at the time and then had transcribed. He is likely to have kept all his transcripts from the early 1950s and worked through them at the same time as he was incorporating the classified material.

That there are substantial differences between the two editions of The Dam Busters is not widely appreciated today. Some historians have only looked at the earlier version before using it as a source, and it would be wise to check up on what Brickhill added to the 1972 edition before quoting it.

As for the rest of the projects which Brickhill had said in 1969 were now his priority, none saw the light of day. The nearest to being finished was the biography of an American prisoner of war, Major Johnny Dodge, who he had met in Stalag Luft 3. He had done eighty per cent of the work on this, he told the Sydney Sunday Telegraph in 1981. It was however still incomplete at the time of his death ten years later, on 23 April 1991.

If there is a criticism to be made of Brickhill’s work is that it never shows any of the flaws which his principal characters displayed. Roger Bushell (the mastermind behind the Great Escape), Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader were only human; each of them could be said to be single-minded and not to suffer fools gladly. By being uncritical of their flaws, Brickhill made them heroes. The truth is a little more complicated than that, and it has been the work of later scholars to reveal this. Brickhill was, however, a writer of gripping narrative history and it is this which is still remembered today.

Source: Stephen Dando-Collins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Books Australia, 2016.

Thanks to Tim at for the use of his cover picture of the 1972 edition. There is a selection of different covers on this page


Flt Sgt Charles Avey

I am sorry to have to report the sad news that another of the small band of remaining veterans who served in 617 Squadron during the Second World War has died. Flt Sgt Charles (“Chas”) Avey joined 617 Squadron in December 1944 as the mid-upper gunner in a crew skippered by the Canadian pilot Flt Lt G R Price. The crew’s first operation was a long trip to the U-Boat pens in Bergen, Norway in only the second trip made by the squadron under the command of its new CO, Wg Cdr Johnny Fauquier. As it happened, Price’s Lancaster, laden with a Tallboy bomb, was unable to bomb because of dense haze in the target area, but it seems as though some damage was done to the pens and the U-Boats therein. Avey went on to make another ten trips in Price’s crew before the end of the war.

Chas Avey died on 11 July, and his funeral service will take place on Monday 29 July at 3.20pm at Worthing Crematorium, Horsham Road, Findon, Sussex BN14 0RG.

Chas’s death leaves only about half a dozen men who served in 617 Squadron between its formation in 1943 and the end of the war. The link to the original members of what has been called the “greatest generation” may soon be broken, but their names and their dedication will never be forgotten.

Douglas Bickle’s wedding

This lovely little church, a few miles from Plymouth and overlooking a beach and the English Channel, is St Werburgh’s in Wembury, Devon. Parts of the church go back to the 11th century, although it was extensively renovated in Victorian times. It was here on 9 August 1943 that William Douglas Bickle, aged just 21, and Violet May Bickford, 20, were married. The groom was described as a Sergeant in the RAF but no occupation was given for the bride.

Neither of them came from Wembury, although they were both West Country natives. Douglas Bickle was born on 6 March 1922 in St Ann’s Chapel, a small hamlet near Calstock on the Cornwall side of the Tamar river. Violet Bickford was born just seven months later, on 15 October, in Lamerton which is a few miles away, but over the county border in Devon. So it is likely that they knew each other before Douglas enlisted in the RAF in October 1940.

By 1943, Violet Bickford was living with her family in Wembury, where her father, Edgar Bickford, kept bees and was also employed as a NAAFI canteen manager. The Bickle family meanwhile had stayed in the Calstock area, where Douglas’s father Percy worked as a coach builder and carpenter.

Douglas was the only child of Percy and Alma Bickle. He joined the RAF in 1940, soon after his 18th birthday, and was selected for training as a wireless operator/air gunner. After qualifying he was posted to 25 Operational Training Unit, where he crewed up with pilot Cyril Anderson. They moved on to 1654 Conversion Unit, where the whole crew was formed up.

The crew’s first operation together was an attack on Essen on 12 March 1943. After a successful bomb drop, they lost power in one engine on the way home. Their second trip was to St Nazaire on 22 March.

At this point, it seems that the request from Group HQ to send a crew to a new squadron being formed at Scampton to train for the Dams Raid was received by 49 Squadron. The CO nominated Bill Townsend and his crew, who had mostly nearly finished their tour, and therefore fell precisely into the category of “experienced crews” which had been demanded. He then chose to add the Anderson crew to the posting, for reasons that have never been explained.

Anderson, with just two operations under his belt, did not demur from the request, but asked to gain some further experience in 49 Squadron before moving. He and his crew were therefore sent on three operations in the next five days, flying to Duisburg on 26 March and Berlin on both 27 and 29 March.

They were posted to 49 Squadron in February 1943, and did their first operation together as a crew on 12 March. After their second trip, they were posted to 617 Squadron but in fact stayed on 49 Squadron to do three more operations, including two to Berlin.

On the Dams Raid Anderson and his crew were the last to take off, leaving the ground at Scampton at 0015. Having crossed the coast AJ-Y encountered heavy flak north of the Ruhr, and was forced off track. By then the rear turret began to malfunction, which meant that it was difficult to deal with searchlights. These caused it to divert off track again five minutes before it reached Dülmen. At 0228, Bickle received the signal “Dinghy” which directed the aircraft towards the Sorpe Dam. By now, mist was rising in the valleys which made the identification of landmarks almost impossible.

So it was that at 0310, after consulting his crew, Anderson decided that with dawn approaching and a rear turret not working he should turn for home. Rather than risk following the briefed return routes, he decided to go back the way he had come, crossing the coast at the Schelde estuary. AJ-Y landed at Scampton at 0530, its mine unused.

Cyril Anderson and five of his crew, photographed after an operation in 49 Squadron, in the summer of 1943. Left to right: John Nugent, Gilbert “Jimmy’ Green, Douglas Bickle, Arthur Buck, Cyril Anderson, Robert Paterson. Pic: Dominic Howard.

Gibson was not happy with Anderson’s explanation, and sent the crew back to 49 Squadron. Hindsight suggests that this was harsh treatment by Gibson, with him failing to take account of the conditions under which the later crew had flown. Anderson and his crew resumed their operational career with an attack on Krefeld on 21 June. They flew on 14 more operations, but on 23 September they failed to return from a successful attack on Mannheim. As they headed home, their aircraft was shot down by a night fighter near Offenbach.

Bickle was buried along with his comrades in the local Offenbach cemetery. After the war, their remains were exhumed and reburied in Rheinberg War Cemetery.

Douglas and Violet Bickle stood at this altar in Wembury church some 76 years ago, wed by the vicar Rev Kenneth Tagg. By the time of Douglas’s death, they had been married for less than seven weeks. They were far from the only couple to have such a fleeting time together.

[Thanks to Peter Lugar for help with this article.]

First hand account of 617 Squadron’s attack on the Lützow

The flag of the German navy flying on the Lützow before it was attacked and sunk by 617 Squadron in April 1945. [Pic: Rudolf Ritscher/Horsley family]

Flt Lt Robert Horsley joined 617 Squadron towards the end of the war as a pilot, but he already had an earlier tour of operations under his belt in Bomber Command as a wireless operator/air gunner before retraining. He took part in a number of famous operations in late 1944 and early 1945, and went on to have an interesting and colourful post-war career. His family have kindly sent me a number of pieces of interesting material, including those shown below relating to the attack on the German battle cruiser Lützow, which took place on 16 April 1945.

Robert Horsley was born on 4 May 1921 at Poppleton near York, the youngest of the four sons of Edgar and Irene Horsley. One of his brothers, Hugh, joined the RAF and was killed when his bomber crashed shortly after take-off on its way to a sortie over Germany. The other two were in the army.

Horsley trained as a wireless operator/air gunner before joining 50 Squadron, which was then equipped with twin-engine Hampdens, at Skellingthorpe in August 1941. He flew on a number of operations before moving on to the Manchester. One of his 50 Squadron colleagues and a good friend was fellow air gunner Johnnie Tytherleigh, who later went on to fly on the Dams Raid with pilot Henry Maudslay. He flew on the first Thousand Bomber raid in May 1942, an attack on Cologne. The Manchester aircraft was in poor condition, and had to fly below its designated bombing height. Exposed to German flak, the plane took several hits.

The pilot, Flg Off Leslie Manser, decided to try to make it back to England or, at worst, reach the Channel. However the damage was so bad that eventually, at just 800 ft, he calmly ordered his crew to jump. They all baled out, but for Manser it was too late and he died when the aircraft crashed near Bree in Belgium. He was posthumously awarded the VC, and Horsley was awarded the DFC.

Horsley eventually made it back to Britain, aided by the Belgian ‘Comet’ escape line who passed Allied aircrew from one contact to another until eventually they crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. When he returned he put in for pilot training and was sent to Canada to qualify. He then worked as an instructor since he was not allowed to carry on flying over occupied Europe as he had once evaded capture there.

After the liberation of France and Belgium in late 1944, the policy was changed and Horsley was allowed to return to operational flying. He joined 617 Squadron as a pilot on 25 November 1944, with the crew seen below. Together they flew on about 12 operations by the end of the war. These included the raids on various U-boat pens, the docks at Bremen and the attack on the battle-cruiser Lützow on 16 April 1945. Reconnaissance aircraft had located this ship in the Kaiserfahrt, the canal near Swinemunde and the Baltic Sea.

Flt Lt Robert Horsley and his crew. Left to right: Sgt Harry Farino, mid-upper gunner; Sgt Peter Durose, wireless operator; Flg Off Johnnie Barleycorn, navigator; Horsley; Flt Sgt Paddy Armstrong, flight engineer; Sgt Derek Wilson, bomb aimer; Sgt Louis Neale (Belgium), rear gunner. [Pic Horsley family]

Ten years later Horsley, still a serving RAF officer, was contacted by a German ex-sailor, Rudolf Ritscher, who had been part of the Lützow’s crew. Ritscher sent Horsley some photographs, published here for the first time, and in return Horsley sent him an account of the attack, an extract from which follows.

Letter written in 1955 from Horsley to Rudolf Ritscher. [Pic: Horsley family]

In the letter, Horsley explained how operations on the two previous days had to be aborted because of poor weather, but then on 16 April, the attack began. Of the eighteen 617 Squadron aircraft fourteen, including Horsley, were carrying the 12,000lb Tallboy bombs.

Tactics were the same, namely, a nice straight run in, bombing between 14,000 and 16,000 feet. 
The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, all the way from England to the target. The wind was light – ideal for bombing. The fighter escort left us and for last fifteen minutes we were alone in the sky – eighteen Lancasters – I was in the third row on the port side of the formation. We saw you from many miles and were able to drop down to our bombing heights in plenty of time. 
Five minutes from the target everything was going well, bomb fused, bombsight satisfactory, camera fready to photograph.
Suddenly flak burst all around us, accurate? Yes! Number three in the first line was hit.
My bomb aimer’s cool voice came over the inter-communication – “left, left – right, steady, steady – bombsight ‘on’ ”– Crunch, crunch went the flak – I concentrated on keeping the aircraft steady, air speed had to be correct, height exact – Bang – the cockpit canopy was blown off – “steady” said the bomb aimer – my mouth was dry, but I was determined to get the bomb on the target – “Bomb gone” shouted the bomb aimer “Keep her steady for the photograph” – another seventeen seconds at least, still the flak burst about us, the cockpit was very drafty without its top which you had blown off.
We dived out of the target area. I heard one of my friends call up on the radio, saying that he had lost one engine as he was flying into bomb. When he was hit it spoilt his bombing aim so he had not bombed. I broke off from the main formation to join him and help protect him against an attack from your fighters. He missed his bombing run again and had to make another attempt before finally dropping his bomb (by that time the remaining bombers were well on their way home). I then escorted the damaged bomber back to England and was the last to land. 
[Punctuation and spelling as in original.]

The Lützow had been sunk, although because the water was so shallow it wasn’t immediately obvious. Its guns remained above the water level, however, so for a number of days they continued to be used as a stationary battery against advancing Soviet forces.

General view of the deck and one of the large gun batteries. [Pic: Rudolf Ritscher/Horsley family]

Lookout. [Pic: Rudolf Ritscher/Horsley family]

Flak gun battery. [Pic: Rudolf Ritscher/Horsley family]

After this successful attack Horsley and his crew flew on two more operations before the end of the war. The first, on 19 April, was a massive show of strength when 900 aircraft bombed the town and naval base at Heligoland. The final act was 617 Squadron’s last operation of the war, the attack on Hitler’s ‘Eagles Nest’ at Berchtesgaden on 25 April in which 359 Lancasters took part.

After the war, Horsley was granted a permanent commission in the RAF. He converted to jet aircraft, commanded a jet training squadron and did stints at the staff college and Air Ministry. Finally he was seconded to the Foreign Office, served as Air Attaché in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia and then worked on what are euphemistically called ‘special duties’ while stationed in Beirut. He eventually retired in 1972 and moved to Australia. He died on 19 January 2016.

Daily Telegraph obituary
The Times obituary (behind paywall)

[Pic: Geoff Armstrong]

By coincidence Geoff Armstrong, the son of Horsley’s flight engineer, Wrt Off Edward (Paddy) Armstrong, has recently posted this image of his father’s logbook on the Bomber Command Crews and Aircraft Facebook page. It covers the crew’s operations over the same period, in April 1945.

The attack on the Lützow was the last operation of the war in which 617 Squadron suffered casualties, the loss of Sqn Ldr John Powell and his crew. You can read more about them in this post from January 2012.

Thanks to Nigel Horsley for help with this article.

Flak battery which shot down AJ-A on Dams Raid confirmed

Pic: Christian Koenig

EXCLUSIVE to Dambusters Blog

The family of the German naval officer who commanded the anti-aircraft battery which shot down Melvin Young’s AJ-A on the night of the Dams Raid have recently been in touch, and have sent me the ‘Punktliste’ form you can see above. A Punktliste (‘points list’) was kept for each battery crew, and leading to decorations if they achieved a score of eight points.

The battery was a Kriegsmarine (German navy) artillery unit, commanded by a Batteriechef. A number of batteries formed a so called Abteilung. Each Abteilung had range finders and fire direction instruments, and an officer in charge for fire control. During May 1943 this officer was Herbert Alfred Koenig, who had joined the Ersatz Ausbildungs-Kompanie (auxiliary training) in Harlem, Netherlands in November 1941. In January 1942, he was posted to Ugruko Ijmuiden, and served with both Marine Flak Abteilung 808 and Marine Flak Abteilung 816 as both a machine gunner and eventually fire control officer.

The sheet above shows Koenig’s verified ‘kills’ (Abschuss) and ‘damaged’ (Beteiligung) while serving with 3. Batterie of Marine Flak Abteilung 816 in May 1943.

The ‘Abschuss’ on 17 May refers to the shooting down of AJ-A. Koenig was credited with two points, which suggests that his battery was the only one to have fired on it. On the night of 16/17 May 1943 he was the control officer, directing the gunners, in his battery located at Ijmuiden. According to his family, he said afterwards that it was him who instructed the battery to fire when a single, low-flying bomber was spotted over the coastline heading seawards. Having crossed the coast, the aircraft increased its height slightly, and became an easier target to hit. It was in fact the first round of fire which brought it down, and if it had stayed low then it would have been a much more difficult target.

Koenig went on to serve as a naval artillery officer in two different sea-born flotillas, and spent a period after the war as a PoW clearing mines.

The two incidents on 3 May listing attacks on aircraft leading to damage are believed to refer to two Lockheed Venturas from 487 (New Zealand) Squadron. This was the result of firing during the RAF’s Operation Ramrod 16 when ten out of the eleven of the Squadron’s aircraft were shot down, and Sqn Ldr Leonard Trent received the VC.

Herbert Koenig is shown along with his wife and children in the picture below, taken in July 1944.

Pic: Christian Koenig

Thanks to Christian Koenig for the information and permission to use photographs.

A giant leap for a Dambuster grandson

Here’s a question for your next pub quiz: What is the link between that excellent film Billy Elliott (shown again on BBC TV last night) and the Dams Raid? The clue is in the picture above.

It shows a screenshot from the very end of the film, as the now-adult Billy makes a dramatic entrance in a performance of Swan Lake in London. The dancer who played the adult Billy in this scene is Adam Cooper, who had played the role of the lead Swan in the acclaimed Matthew Bourne production of Tchaikovsky’s famous work.

The connection with the Dams Raid is that Adam Cooper is the grandson of Flg Off Sydney Hobday DFC, the navigator in Les Knight’s aircraft AJ-N on Operation Chastise. A few months later, Hobday evaded capture and got back to England after baling out of another Lancaster on 617 Squadron’s ill-fated attack on the Dortmund Ems canal. You can read more about him in his Dambuster of the Day profile here.

Wallis Dams Raid plan shown on Antiques Roadshow

Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris wrote the above comment on a memorandum sent to him on 14 February 1943. The memo summarised the research in Barnes Wallis’s paper ‘Air Attack on Dams’ sent to Air Ministry chiefs a few days earlier. [National Archives AIR 14/595.]

In an edition of the BBC TV Antique Roadshow programme, broadcast on 19 May 2019, the grandson of a wartime army officer, Maj H F Boddington OBE brought a collection of his grandfather’s wartime memorabilia for valuation. The programme’s expert, Mark Smith, focussed on one particular file for mention during the recording. It had been given to Maj Boddington in early 1943 by Barnes Wallis, and included a copy of Wallis’s paper ‘Air Attack on Dams’.

Several copies of this paper still exist in official files, including those available to the public in the National Archives. It has 19 pages of text, including a number of tables and footnotes, and a further eight pages of illustrations, which appear to be the ones which excited Mark Smith.

A meeting with Boddington is recorded in Wallis’s diary. Boddington had been brought in to oversee security arrangements for the forthcoming RAF trials of the Upkeep ‘bouncing bomb’ and it is likely that the paper was passed over to him then.

The paper is interesting because it was written and produced by Wallis at a crucial stage in the planning for the Dams Raid. A summary of it was discussed at an important meeting at the Air Ministry on 13 February 1943, chaired by Air Vice Marshal Ralph Sorley, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Technical Requirements). This was the meeting when it was decided to bring Bomber Command into the picture, since its personnel would be required to drop the weapon from specially adapted Lancasters, and Gp Capt Charles Elworthy, a New Zealand-born officer who would go on after the war to become Chief of the Defence Staff, was deputed to brief the command’s staff.

His first contact must have been with the Bomber Command Senior Air Staff Officer, Air Vice Marshal Robert Saundby, who then wrote a lengthy memo for his boss, the AOC of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris. This outlined the research and testing that had gone on so far and considered the possibility of a weapon being developed for the special purpose of destroying dams, in particular the Möhne. A specially modified Lancaster would be needed and the attack would be need to be made when the dam was full or nearly full. One squadron would have to be nominated, depriving Bomber Command of its strength for ‘two or three weeks’ for training. The tactics are not difficult, Saundby concluded, somewhat optimistically. He appended a copy of Wallis’s ‘Air Attack on Dams’ paper and sent it over to Harris.

Harris was not at all convinced. He handwrote a scathing note on Saundby’s memo:
‘This is tripe of the wildest description. … there is not the smallest chance of it working. To begin with the bomb would have to be perfectly balanced around it’s [sic] axis otherwise vibration at 500RPM would wreck the aircraft or tear the bomb loose. I don’t believe a word of it’s [sic] supposed ballistics on the surface. … At all costs stop them putting aside Lancs & reducing our bombing effort on this wild goose chase. … The war will be over before it works – & it never will.’

Wallis was not defeated by this setback, perhaps knowing that Harris himself would not have the final say on the matter. Some nine days later, he was able to show Harris the films of the test drops, but the AOC was still not impressed and sent an impassioned letter to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal. ‘All sorts of enthusiasts and panacea-mongers are now careering round MAP [the Ministry of Aircraft Production] suggesting the taking of about 30 Lancasters off the line to rig them up for this weapon, when the weapon itself exists so far only within the imaginations of those who conceived it,’ he wrote.

Portal tried to smoothe Harris’s ruffled feathers. He accepted that the weapon might come to nothing, but it was worth conducting a trial in a Lancaster to see if it could work. Portal assured Harris: ‘I will not allow more than three of your precious Lancasters to be diverted for this purpose until the full scale experiments have shown that the bomb will do what is claimed for it.’ [Harris papers, H82, RAF Museum.]

Harris reluctantly accepted Portal’s decision, and by the end of the month the operation was given the final go ahead. Further trials were now lined up, some of which Maj Boddington may well have witnessed. One must hope that his archive – which apparently contains much other interesting material unrelated to the Dams Raid – finds a safe home if it ever leaves the care of the family.

Here is the relevant clip from the programme in a rather poor quality video grab, courtesy of Richard Taylor’s Facebook page. The full programme is available for another 21 days for UK viewers here on the BBC iPlayer.

Thanks to Dr Robert Owen.
Source: John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2012, pp49-59.