Top of the class: Barnes Wallis’s schooldays

Barnes Wallis was educated at Christ’s Hospital school between 1900 and 1904, and maintained a long association with the school thereafter. He excelled in maths, English and the sciences, and was taught mechanical drawing. Three of the books he won as prizes while at the school were acquired recently by the collector Ray Hepner, who has kindly sent me photographs of both the splendidly engraved bookplates and the books themselves. The prizes were for Mathematics, English and French, which indicates the broadness of Wallis’s educational attainments.

Besides these, Wallis also won other prizes while at Christ’s Hospital, as can be seen from the list below, dated July 1903, when he won the Willcox Prize for Science.

A measure of the affection that Wallis had for the school was his donation of the sum of £10,000 which he had been awarded for his war work by the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors. He passed this on to Christ’s Hospital to support the children of people who had served in the RAF. A trust was set up in conjunction with the RAF Benevolent Fund, which matched the donation. Since 1952 over 150 pupils have benefitted from the Trust and all have worn the Foundationers’ badge, designed by Wallis.

Ray Hepner has also sent me three photographs taken during Wallis’s time at Christ’s Hospital, showing the art school, dining room and tuck shop. No one has yet been able to pinpoint the young Wallis in any of the pictures, but he could well be in some or all of them.

Ray also has a copy of the very rare 1830 edition of the History of Christ’s Hospital and a splendid stained glass window from the original building in Newgate, London, retrieved when the building was demolished in 1902. (Both seen below).

All pics: Ray Hepner Collection

Genuine wartime bomber picture accused on Facebook of being fake

Pic: IWM CH10593

[Note: There’s nothing in this post about the Dams Raid or 617 Squadron.]

This picture has long been in the Imperial War Museum’s collection. It shows, according to its official caption and listing on the IWM website, a “Low-level ‘beat-up’: A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative ‘erks’ during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943.” The listing goes on to record the name of the photographer, Plt Off N S Clark, and the fact that the Museum has the image on glass (presumably the original negative glass plate).

However, the recent publication of a slightly cropped version of the shot on a post on the Bomber Command History Forum’s Facebook page led some to question its authenticity. The page itself, and the Forum which spawned it, are administered by people who certainly know their stuff (my friends Dom Howard and Ian Collis among them) but unfortunately that can’t always be said of some of the readers who added comments.

So, within a few minutes of the photograph appearing, one person (who from now on I will call Mr A) wrote:

I hope no one thinks thats an actual photograph and not a montage. The writer of the caption obviosly does. If a Halifax pilot did fly that close to the ground and a parked aircraft, he would have been hauled before a courts marshal quicker than you can say bombs away, also, notice that a Halifax has almost taken their heads off, yet not a single one of those men is looking up at it or ducking. Hmm.
[All quoted posts have the spelling and punctuation as in original.]

Several people jumped in to point out his error, including one who sent a link to the image as it appears on the IWM’s own website. But this didn’t completely satisfy Mr A, who then posted:

Ok, the way the original is presented and cropped, and the men, raised suspicions. Looking at the other photos, and the not so tightly cropped/clearer IWM version, a picture emerges, the photo appears to be carefully stagemanaged. The men are not looking up but looking directly infront at a camera set up to the left, and posing to the camera as the Halifax zooms overhead. Under ‘normal’ circumstances that pilot would not be able to do that, and those men would be looking up and ducking.

Then in popped another sceptic, who I will call Mr B:

… the main aspect which points to it being a fake , for me anyway is that both aircraft are sharp images . One of them would be blurred depending on the technique used by the photographer.Still a nice image though .

Shortly afterwards, Mr B went on:

And I will say its highly unlikely that its a real undoctored photograph , based on my knowledge of photography .

A few more comments ensued, one of which noted that there were other pictures in the IWM collection taken on the same day by the same photographer (you can see one here)
and then Mr A arrived back on the scene:

Maybe you should do some homework before insinuating that others have not. If you bothered looking you would notice above that I say they appear to be looking towards another camera to the left of the photo, not much different from you say is another aircraft. As you have the advantage of knowledge of other photos in this series, why not show them to us instead of making further unflattering comments.

It was pointed out to him that other researchers had indeed done their homework and that the images in question were available to anyone in a simple Google search, but this was not enough. Mr A then appeared to complain that the pilots and crews involved must have been acting without authority, in which case:

Yes, under ‘normal’ circumstances unauthorised low flying pilots were hauled before courts marshal and i have courts marshal papers proving this. Even you should know this. Kings Regulations and Air Council Regulations paragraph 717, clause 7. This discussion is finished as far as I’m concerned.

With that Mr A appeared to have picked up his bat and left. However, Mr B was still around:

dont tell me that every caption on a wartime photograph is right . I am simply using my opinion to point out there are flaws or inconsistencies in what is displayed . Theres no doubt in my mind that they are Merlin engines and the equal sharpness of both aircraft point out to me that there is a high likelihood of a fake. You still didnt explain the technique you referred to Iain .I would like to hear it it just may change my mind .

Despite being informed again about the provenance of the photographs, Mr B then put up another post:

… There are lots of official war photographs that arent as they are described. There are things on the photograph that my 46yrs in the field of RAF historian , collector of Aviation memorabilia and honorary member of the Air Gunners association tell me are quite glaringly wrong . None detract from the photograph which certainly is an eye catcher. Neither you or anyone else for that matter will change my mind on how I view this photograph , that is my right to my opinion like every other person in the world . If youre still bothered ask a professional photographer and dont forget to mention that the flying aircraft will be doing somewhere in the region of 200MPH . And again if you are that bothered get hold of a model of both types of engined aircraft and view them from the flying angle as on the photograph On the radial engined aircraft there is some sort of a cooler which hangs down quite noticeably below the engine nacelle and I believe the large long porcupine exhaust would also be visible on the port outer engine . I am also a photographer of over 50 yrs experience which makes me say without any doubt that the photograph is a fake . As I say its only my opinion which means nothing to anyone else , well almost anyone else . Lets just agree to disagree. Cheers

Having decided earlier that the discussion was over, Mr A then turned up again. To be fair to him, he appeared to have changed his mind, but he now wanted everyone to go home:

I expressed an opinion initially on what appears to be an ‘unorthodox’ image, and amended that opinion when a wider angle and clearer shot was provided. Since then this discussion seems to have been affected by too much cross-wind, and drifted into a heavy flak zone. Words like, daft, sad, drivel, have crept in between members, and maybe its time to bring this discussion in to land.

But Mr B would not be dissuaded. Even though he still thought that the aircraft would have been flying too fast to be in focus, he concluded by saying he wanted the subject dropped. However he had just spotted something said by another commenter:

So youre telling me that there is a ” whole ” sequence of this particular fly past in the IWM . Can any member of the public view them .

To which the reply was:

For a historian/researcher of 46 years, you’re not that clued up are you? Its the IWM collection. Of course you can.

Mr B then made a final concession:

This photograph is more believable than the previous one , to me anyway . The flying aircraft is further away theres a shadow on the ground . Although I still find it hard to believe that the cameras of the day were capable of shutter speeds that can freeze an object travelling at , I assume 160 mph past a stationary object and capture both without any apparent blurring in either of them. That was my only concern regarding the previous photograph , well that and where all the guys were looking. The other thing was correctly identifying the aircraft as a merlin engined Mk 11 and being shot down by Jim. Of course If what I am being told by, it appears all and sundry for stating my opinion then I suppose I will have to change my stance in future when taking part in these forums .

I’ve quoted extensively from this sequence (as of today, 59 posts and counting) because I think it says something about using reliable sources in our discussions, whether online or not. The Imperial War Museum has an enviable collection of photographs, artifacts, manuscripts and other resources, some of which are available for all to browse through free of charge. There may be a few inaccuracies in the descriptions and captions but they have been compiled by professional curators, archivists and historians and so can be regarded as “reliable sources”.

In an era when the most powerful man in the world throws out accusations of fake news like confetti and commercial news sources often seem infected with clickbait pop ups (The price for xxxx may astound you! Remember yyyy? You won’t believe what she looks like now!) it’s important to support public institutions like our museums. By all means, let’s call out fake photography when it does occur, but let’s also salute the skills of Plt Off Clark and his colleagues who have left us with a wonderful legacy.

Allsebrook 1943 bomb crater near Dortmund Ems canal revealed

The Am Flueddert housing estate and a local map, with the site of the bomb crater highlighted. Pics: Chris Ward

When Flt Lt Ralph Allsebrook DSO DFC and his crew were posted to 617 Squadron immediately after the Dams Raid he was a pilot with an impressive operational record. Allsebrook had been a close friend of Henry Maudslay, who had met when they were both pilots in training at RAF Tern Hill in September 1940. Allsebrook was a little older, and had just completed a degree at Trinity College, Oxford. He then put off his plans to study law (his father was a judge) to join the RAF.

After qualifying as pilots, Allsebrook and Maudslay went their separate ways, to 49 Squadron and 44 Squadron respectively, but remained in close touch, so it must have been with a heavy heart that Allsebrook arrived at Scampton on 20 May 1943, the first new pilot and crew to join the squadron after the Dams Raid. It was just three days after Maudslay and his crew had been shot down on the way back from attacking the Eder Dam. By then, Allsebrook had clocked up 50 operations, mostly with the crew who transferred along with him, seen below in this photograph.

Pic: 49 Squadron Association. 

Allsebrook and his crew flew on the attacks on Italian targets in July and August 1943, before being selected to be one of the section of eight aircraft tasked to attack the Dortmund-Ems canal with a new light-case 12,000lb bomb on 15/16 September. This turned out to be a disaster, with five of the eight failing to return.

Chris Ward has now been in touch to say that he has identified the site where Allsebrook dropped his bomb, before his aircraft was hit by flak and crashed into the canal itself at the junction of the Mittelland and Dortmund-Ems canals in the Wet Triangle at Bergeshoevede. He can also say for certain that the bomb exploded.

The bomb crater is about six kilometres away from the crash site, at what is now a housing estate called Am Flueddert. It was within one hundred metres of concrete dispersals on the nearby Hopsten fighter aerodrome and about 800 metres from the western bank of the Mittelland Canal. At the time, the area was a wasteland covered in heather. Local people described a crater twenty metres across and very deep, which soon filled with water and was used as a swimming hole, until it was fenced off with barbed wire as a safety measure. It was eventually filled in, and gradually built on from the 1950s onwards, so that no trace now remains.

Chris Ward suspects that Allsebrook’s Lancaster was already damaged, and that he jettisoned the already fused bomb in an attempt to maintain what little height he had. The detonation would almost certainly have severely rocked the aircraft, and may have added to the damage that caused it to crash a few seconds later. This confirms that the only bomb recovered intact was that dropped “safe” by Knight after he clipped trees on the way to the target.

A few weeks before this fateful operation, in August 1943 when Henry Maudslay’s loss was finally confirmed, Allsebrook had written a moving letter of consolation to Maudslay’s mother, expressing sentiments that were widely held amongst his RAF comrades and confirming that he was indeed a very mature young man:

“I know that nothing can be said that is of any use, but perhaps I may tell you that often I feel – and I think Henry felt – a fear of death only so far as it will bring such sadness and despair to one’s parents. Against it we can do nothing, but one fears for those you love more than for oneself.
You can perhaps help yourself a little for the time in the immediate empty future by knowing how he or I or anyone hopes and prays that you will find strength to bear the sorrow.”

Letter from Ralph Allsebrook to Gwen Maudslay, 21 August 1943.
[Robert Owen, Henry Maudslay: Dam Buster, Fighting High, 2014 , pp.296-7.]

The crew of Lancaster EE130 on the night of the Dortmund-Ems operation was made up of the six men who had flown with Allsebrook in 49 Squadron and who had transferred to 617 Squadron along with him, plus an extra gunner. The crew list reads Flt Lt RAP Allsebrook DSO DFC (pilot), Flt Sgt P Moore (flight engineer), Plt Off NA Botting (navigator), Flg Off JM Grant DFC (wireless operator), Flt Sgt RBS Lulham (bomb aimer), Sgt IG Jones (mid-upper gunner), Flt Sgt S Hitchen (rear gunner) plus Flt Sgt WE Walker (extra air gunner).

[Thanks to Chris Ward.]

Allsebrook crew page on 49 Squadron Association website.

Mick Martin speaking at RI 1981 Christmas Lecture

Mick Martin speaking about the Dams Raid at the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1981. 

The Christmas Lectures at London’s Royal Institution have been a seasonal staple in the BBC TV schedule for years – perhaps more popular with adults than children. This enchantingly low tech example comes from the 1981 series, given by Professor R V Jones of the University of Aberdeen. At the beginning of the war, Jones had moved from his job at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough to the Air Ministry where he became Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science).

Jones’s series of lectures were on the subject of navigation and entitled “From Magna Carta to Microchip”. The fifth lecture, which can be seen here in full, discussed navigation techniques during the second world war. One of the guest demonstrators during the lecture was none other than the recently retired Air Marshal Sir Harold Martin, who was of course much better known to the public as “Mick” Martin, the pilot of AJ-P on the Dams Raid.

It is good to see Mick looking hale and hearty. Professor Jones’s lecturing technique may not be of the highest order, but the whole reminds us that we don’t always need more modern presentational gimmicks to get a message across.

[Thanks to Norman Wells and PPRuNe for the tip.]

Your Christmas film: The Dam Busters on Channel 4 today

Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters is being shown again on Channel 4 today at 1.35pm UK time. It now seems to be a regular feature on both the main channel and Film Four.

Experience shows that this will result in a number of first time visitors reading this blog, so if this is you, welcome aboard. This is the one-stop shop for all Dambuster-related news and information, coming to you regularly for twelve years. I try to publish several items every month so please check back regularly. You can ensure you see every post by clicking the “Follow blog by email” button in the right hand column.

If you are searching today for information on when Peter Jackson’s new version of the 1955 film will appear, the news is simply that there is no news. Jackson bought the rights to remake the film back in 2006. At various times he has announced that a director has been appointed, that a script has been commissioned and that a number of life size model Lancasters have been built. However, in the fourteen years since the remake was announced he has been busy making three Hobbit films and a number of other projects and the Dambusters remake no longer appears in his IMDB listing. Make of that what you will.

If you want to see a list of the 133 men who took part in the Dams Raid, you can find it here. My recent book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018, contains a full biography and a photograph of each man and can be ordered direct from the publishers, the usual online booksellers or your local bookshop.

 

Christmas during a crisis

Christmas 1942: A group of young children at Fen Ditton Junior School in Cambridgeshire design and make their own seasonal decorations. [Pic: IWM 23619]

Safe to say, this has been a year like no other in modern memory. However, there are brighter prospects ahead so, whatever happens during the next twelve months, many greetings from the Dambusters Blog in the hope that all our readers everywhere have a safe and happy future.

 

New picture of Canadian pilot Gordon Price and crew

Canadian pilot Gordon Price and five of his crew, photographed in 617 Squadron sometime in early 1945. Left to right: Flg Off Joseph Merchant (bomb aimer), Wrt Off G E Hartley (flight engineer), Sgt D V Sargison (rear gunner), Flt Lt Gordon Price (pilot), Sgt Charles Avey (mid-upper gunner), Sgt K Pocock (wireless operator). Absent: Flt Sgt H Kohl (navigator).
[Pic: Merchant family]

A second wartime picture of the late Charles Avey has emerged, 24 hours after the first. One of his crewmates was bomb aimer Joe Merchant, whose son Peter has kindly sent me a rarely seen photograph of the crew skippered by the Canadian pilot, Flt Lt Gordon Price. The crew came straight to 617 Squadron from Lancaster Finishing School on 9 December 1944, and flew on some eleven operations before the end of the war, including the bombing of the Lutzow, which they hit with the decisive Tallboy.

Addendum, 16 December 2020: Sgt Gordon Richard Price was born in 1922 and joined the RCAF in Montreal in April 1941. He flew a first tour of operations with 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston between November 1942 and April 1943 and was then posted to 1661 Conversion Unit as an instructor. He received the DFM in May 1943, and was then commissioned. He was posted to 617 Squadron in December 1944 to start a second tour of operations.
The aircraft in the picture is PD112 – YZ-S. This was the first Lancaster to drop a Grand Slam, which it did on 14 March 1945 at the Bielefeld Viaduct. On this occasion it was piloted by Sqn Ldr Charles (“Jock”) Calder.
[Hat tips to Clive Smith and Robert Owen for this information.]

Snow drops a clanger in hangar

Dan Snow, on the wrong spot. 

Last week’s three-part documentary series, broadcast on Channel 5, had a number of errors. A major one is discussed here.

This concerns the near catastrophe caused when the Upkeep mine was dropped accidentally onto the ground from Mick Martin’s aircraft AJ-P soon after it had been loaded by the squadron’s armourers. This did not take place inside a hangar, as so energetically described by Dan Snow in the programme, but several hundred yards away in the open air on each aircraft’s concrete hardstanding. Wartime bombing-up, as the process was called, never took place in the confined space of a hangar. It was simply too dangerous.

It is true that Martin and some of his crew, including bomb aimer Bob Hay, were inside AJ-P checking that things had been loaded correctly when the incident occurred. What followed was memorably described by Paul Brickhill in his 1951 book:

“… a fault developed in the bomb release circuit, the release snapped back and there was a crunch as the giant black thing fell and crashed through the concrete hardstanding, embedding itself 4 inches into the earth below. …
‘Release wiring must be faulty,’ Hay said professionally, and then it dawned on him and he said in a shocked voice, ‘it might have fused itself.’ He ran, yelling madly out of the nose, ‘Get out of here. She’ll go off in less than a minute.’ Bodies came tumbling out of the escape hatches, saw the tails of the armourers vanishing into the distance and set off after them. Martin jumped into the flight van near by and, with a grinding of gears, roared off to get Doc Watson. He had his foot hard down on the accelerator and swears that a terrified armourer passed him on a push-bike. He ran into Watson’s office and panted out the news and Watson said philosophically, ‘Well, if she was going off she’d have gone off by this.’ ”
Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951, pp71-72

It’s not mentioned by Brickhill, but it seems that WAAF officer Fay Gillon was also on board AJ-P at the time of the accident. She was a friend of Martin and his crew, and was being given a tour.

Plt Off Henry (“Doc”) Watson MBE was the squadron’s Armaments Officer.

For the record, two other smaller errors:
Episode 2: Only two models of the targets were shown to the crews at the briefing (and earlier to Gibson). These were of the Möhne and Sorpe Dams. The Eder Dam model wasn’t completed until after the raid.
Episode 3:
Martin was not the first to touch down at Scampton after dropping his mine. He arrived at 0319. Maltby arrived eight minutes earlier, at 0311.

 

Charles Avey: a wartime picture

Pic: Avey family

Wartime 617 Squadron member Flt Sgt Charles Avey died in July this year, as I reported at the time.

I was unable to source a wartime picture of him, but am happy to say that I can now publish one, courtesy of his niece Lisa Ingham.

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. He flew on some eleven operations in Price’s crew before the end of the war.

I’m sorry to say that there are only a handful of 617 Squadron wartime veterans still with us. We salute them one and all.

Why buy a fake?

This is very odd.

Back in 2015 I wrote about an item which was advertised for sale at a respectable Stourbridge auction house. This was said to be a telegram sent in 1944 to 617 Squadron by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris about the death on operations of Guy Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr James Warwick. Even without seeing the item, I listed five separate reasons why I considered that the telegram was a worthless modern fake and I’m glad to say that the auctioneers agreed and removed it from sale.

But now, a photograph of the same item has emerged for sale on eBay. Yours for the princely sum of £3.50. (Don’t all rush at once.)

It’s being sold by someone with the catchy vendor name of 4256970mnr, who seems to specialise in making photographs of other photographs, chiefly of Dams Raid artefacts. The most expensive item he has for sale is going for £9, so it’s not a highly lucrative business.

But what is most puzzling is Mr Mnr’s description of the Harris “telegram”:

“The original telegram is doubted to be genuine – but is of interest.” There’s no doubt about it. It’s a fake, pure and simple. I wouldn’t spend even £3.50 on it.