A seasonal reminder: The Complete Dambusters

A gentle reminder that this is the perfect seasonal present for the Dambusters aficionado in your life. The only book ever published with a biography of each of the 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid, each illustrated with a photograph.

Published by the History Press in May 2018, ISBN 978 0 7509 8808, and available from your favourite bookshop or online bookseller.

If you would like a signed copy mailed to you before Christmas, please contact me before Sunday 16 December to get instructions on payment and I will send one to you.
Email me on charlesjfoster@gmail.com

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Pointing the way to the Haldern memorial

The memorial to the crew of Dams Raid Lancaster AJ-E, which crashed on 16 May 1943 killing all the crew, is a few hundred yards off a quiet country road near a quiet country village in a quiet corner of Germany – and therefore a little hard to find. So the local history society, the Heimatverein Haldern, has now erected three signs to help the increasing number of tourists who are now coming to the area.

Many people have travelled to the area since the memorial was built in 2015, coming from as far as Australia, Canada and the USA and also several European countries. In August a large group of tourist came in a car cavalcade organised by the European Driving Tours group, as seen below.

Credit once again to Volker Schürmann and his colleagues in the Heimatverein Haldern. It was their initiative to build the memorial and they should be commended for all they continue to do to commemorate the seven men from other nations, the 617 Squadron crew who died in their neighbourhood and who remain buried on German soil.

Pics: Volker Schürmann

Remembrance Day tribute to Lewis Burpee at old school

Lewis Burpee Jr lays a wreath at a Remembrance Day ceremony at his father’s old school, Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, on 9 November. 

[Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

Dams Raid pilot Lewis Johnstone Burpee was born in Ottawa on 5 March 1918. He graduated from Lisgar Collegiate Institute in 1937 and went on to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and after completing pilot training was posted to 106 Squadron, then under the command of Wg Cdr Guy Gibson. He completed some 30 operations in the squadron, was awarded the DFM and received a commission. In March 1943 Gibson set up the new 617 Squadron to undertake the Dams Raid and Burpee and his crew came over to RAF Scampton to join him. He was the only one of the three pilots who had served under Gibson in 106 Squadron to bring his full crew with him.

Burpee and his crew never returned from the mission on the night of 16-17 May 1943. They were shot down over Holland en route to the dams, and all crew members aboard their Lancaster bomber perished.

For several years, Robert Tang, a maths teacher at Lisgar with a strong interest in history, has been using the mathematics underpinning the innovative “bouncing bomb” that was developed by engineer Barnes Wallis to destroy the dams, saying that applying mathematics—especially trigonometry and algebra—to a real situation brings the subject to life for his students. The students even take a field trip to the nearby Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where they carry out experiments, fly a simulator and see a Lancaster bomber.

However, it wasn’t until earlier this year that Mr Tang discovered that Lewis Burpee had been a pupil at his school. He then found that Burpee’s son, also called Lewis Burpee, still lived in the city and made contact with him.

In another moment of serendipity Drew Fraser-Leach, this year’s co-president of the Lisgar Student Council, was in Mr Tang’s class last year. He knew his grandfather had been a Lisgar student at the time, so he went home and found his grandfather’s 1937 yearbook. “He flipped through it and found Plt Off Burpee’s signature,” explained Mr Tang. “That was a sign that we really had to make this our focus for the Remembrance Day ceremony.”

Lewis Burpee’s signature in a copy of Lisgar’s 1937 yearbook. [Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

The guests at the Lisgar Collegiate Institute also included Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, commander-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Air Force. “We are grateful for the sacrifices of people like Lewis Burpee, and we share the sorrow of their families and loved ones,” Lt Gen Meinzinger said in his speech during the ceremony. “I am also grateful that you, the students and staff of Lisgar Collegiate Institute, for showing our fallen—and in particular Plt Off Burpee—the same respect.”

“Plt Off Burpee, who fought and sacrificed his life for all of us, is just one example of the many brave soldiers who have fought for our peace and freedom,” said Emily He, a student and editor of Lisgar’s yearbook. “We must remember that it was their sacrifices that have led our country to where it is today, and most of all, we must remember that the freedom that all of us enjoy came at an extremely high cost.”


Second from left, Lieutenant-General Alexander Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and third from left Lewis Burpee Jr, with cadets and RCAF personnel at the Remembrance Day ceremony held at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, Ontario on 9 November 2018. [

Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

“I would like to thank everyone who was involved in this today – not only Mr Tang but the whole Lisgar team,” said Mr Burpee. “I never knew my Dad; I was born after he died. For decades he was kind of a shadowy figure in my past.” This year’s series of commemorations to mark the raid’s 75th anniversary had allowed him to reconnect better, he added.

“It’s worth pointing out that for all the names on the plaques [in Lisgar’s Memorial Hall], for every airman, every soldier who didn’t come back, they are equally worthy of remembrance.”

Lieutenant-General Alexander Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Mr Robert Tang. [Pic: Aviator Rachael Allen]

Jackson deal with Holland significant step forward in Dam Busters project

Peter Jackson’s recent announcement that he is pressing on with his project to remake The Dam Busters film has been widely welcomed. “It’s just a great story. It’s always been a great story,” he told the Daily Telegraph on Thursday. “But it’s an even greater story now than it was in 1955 because back then there was still so much of the story that was under The Official Secrets Act.

“They couldn’t show the bomb spinning because the fact that they applied backspin to the bomb to make it jump on the water was still a state secret. The film had a slightly romanticised view of what happened. It’s reasonably accurate but the real story is so much more interesting. It’s a story of politics, of ingenuity and peril, and it’s also a story about trying to make a weapon to destroy these dams and that cost an awful lot of money.”

However, the most solid evidence that the production will go ahead comes in the next paragraph of the Telegraph’s story with the announcement that Jackson has bought the film rights to James Holland’s 2012 book, Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams 1943. Holland will also be credited as an historical adviser.

This is a big step forward. Until now Jackson has owned the rights just for the remake of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, directed by Michael Anderson. The script for this was written by RC Sherriff, based on Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book of the same name (and also acknowledging Guy Gibson’s Enemy Coast Ahead). Brickhill’s book was revised for a second edition in 1971, and it is this version which is still in print. This is presumably the volume for which Jackson also owns the rights.

However, a lot of material has been declassified since this book was published, with the first tranche of UK government records being released in 1973, thirty years after the raid. Much more has followed, and historians have been working through these in the years that have followed. The definitive account based on these sources remains the various revised editions of John Sweetman’s book The Dambusters Raid, first published in 1982 as The Dams Raid: Epic or Myth.

James Holland’s 2012 account built on the official sources and also quarried material from various letters, a collection of recordings in the Imperial War Museum and his own interviews. This enabled him to write a much more reliable account of the raid than that of Brickhill. In turn, use of this text should allow Jackson and his scriptwriters to draft a screenplay which may be more historically accurate than Sherriff’s version, which he finished in 1952.

The difficulty will be in condensing the whole story into a single movie lasting, presumably, something under three hours. It is not really fair on the Anderson/Sherriff film to describe it as presenting a “slightly romanticised” account – it is all the more powerful for not bringing in unnecessary heroics or extraneous love stories. 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.

Jackson backtracks: Dambusters may still take flight

Empire, December 2018, p.95

A few months ago, Peter Jackson let it be known that his projected remake of the 1955 film The Dam Busters had been effectively cancelled. It now seems that he may have changed his mind. Jackson has been in the UK for the last few weeks doing publicity both for his First World War colourisation project, They Shall Not Grow Old, and the forthcoming fantasy film Mortal Engines.

As part of this work he has done a podcast and an interview with Empire magazine and – surprise, surprise – in the latter, he is quoted as saying that he is “determined” to get the Dambusters project underway “in the next two years”. The piece in Empire magazine is by Ian Nathan, the same journalist who wrote the recent book Anything You Can Imagine about Jackson and his work on the two Tolkien-based film series. In this book, Nathan says twice that he was told by Jackson that the funding for Dambusters had fallen through.

It may now be the case that Jackson regrets being so definite, and will make another effort to find the funding necessary for the Dambusters project. The recent success of two other Second World War films, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, might strengthen his hand. However seasoned observers of this ongoing saga will probably think that he is being wildly optimistic in saying that he hopes to get it under way in just two years. We can but hope.

Dam Busters final tribute to beloved Australian musician

Richard Gill. [Pic: Sydney Morning Herald]

Graeme Jensen, an old friend of the Dambusters Blog, has alerted us to this lovely story from Sydney, Australia.

Richard Gill was a well-known and much-loved musician, conductor and educator who had spent decades bringing music into the lives of generations of Australians. And, over the years, he had frequently told friends and associates that his favourite piece of music was Eric Coates’s Dam Busters March.

He became seriously ill with cancer some time ago, and so some colleagues decided to organise a special concert on Monday 5 November, the day after his 77th birthday, as a tribute to the work he had done over the years. Knowing that Gill would not be able to attend, it was arranged that it would be beamed live to his home. The concert quickly sold out.

However, as it became clear the conductor might not live even until the concert to witness the celebration, Sydney Symphony Orchestra associate principal trumpet Paul Goodchild decided to organise a spontaneous concert for his mentor. He told local news outlets that he expected 15-20 people to turn up outside Gill’s house in the Sydney suburbs on the morning of Saturday 27 October.

Instead, more than 70 people – including a police brass band – arrived to play for Gill, who was inside with his family and his close friend Kim Williams by his side.

“This was the perfect way of saying thank you, goodbye and a great tribute to somebody who has made so much of a difference, to not only the lives of musicians, but to everybody who really listens to music,” Goodchild said.

The musicians played The Dam Busters March as their tribute. Williams says that when applause broke out after they’d played the piece, Gill opened his eyes and smiled.

He died the following morning.

The impromptu concert was filmed by flautist Jane Rutter. The video below should work, but if it doesn’t, you can see it in this report from the Business Insider Australia website.

Jackson’s Dambusters film effectively cancelled

Buried deep in the recently-published book Anything You can Imagine, Ian Nathan’s new doorstep-sized biography of Peter Jackson and his Tolkien-inspired film trilogies, are two tiny mentions of the projected remake of The Dambusters. The first remark occurs in a description of the director as a ‘military aviation buff’ who possesses a fine collection of antique aircraft and who ‘came close to remaking The Dambusters.’ A footnote explains that in 2008 the remake was to be directed by Christian Rivers from a script by Stephen Fry but that the ‘financing would eventually fall through’. The second mention is some 300 pages later, where Jackson is described as at one point starting to ‘develop a new version of  The Dambusters… but it failed to secure funding.’

And that’s it. It is now more than a decade since Jackson acquired the rights to remake Michael Anderson’s 1955 film. At first, he invested significant funds – commissioning a script from Stephen Fry, getting full size models of Lancaster aircraft built in China, and buying several possible props and other artifacts. These included the original wooden bomb sight used by Plt Off John Fort on the Dams Raid. I can now reveal that Jackson was the anonymous bidder who paid more than £40,000 for this when it was sold at auction in January 2015. A member of his staff attended the auction in person, taking instructions over the phone while the sale was going on.

At various times over the last ten years, Jackson has said that the Dambusters project was still going ahead. The last of these statements was issued as recently as the summer of 2016. However these positive thoughts contrast with what would seem to have been recognised as reality inside his camp well before this time.

Nathan’s book is based on many interviews with Jackson and his entourage, and his remarks would not have been published in this form without Jackson’s knowledge, even if not his specific authorisation. What is significant is Nathan’s use of the past tense on both occasions, and we can therefore assume that the Dambusters remake has, to all intents and purposes, now been cancelled.

So this is how it ends. The remake project, which started in 2005 with a big bang and loud fanfares when David Frost bought the film rights from the Brickhill family, ends with the whimper of a couple of sentences in a book about a fantasy film series. A sad day but, to misquote another film set in wartime: ‘we’ll always have Michael Anderson’s original film.’ Maybe that’s how it should be.

[Hat tip to commenter RdS who drew my attention to Ian Nathan’s book.]