“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.

Bonhams sell ‘stolen’ Gibson document in New York for $2167

A week ago today, the hammer dropped on a bid of $2167 for a lot on sale at an internet auction held in New York by the prestigious auction house of Bonhams. The item sold was a single sheet of paper, an RAF Pilot’s Combat Report which documented a night fighter operation carried out on 14 March 1941 by a crew from 29 Squadron – the successful shooting down of a German Heinkel 111 bomber.

What separated out this Combat Report from the many thousands filed by pilots throughout the Second World War was that it was completed and signed by a certain Flt Lt Guy Gibson DFC. Just over two years later, he would go on to fame and glory as the first commanding officer of 617 Squadron but, at the time he wrote the report, he was on a tour of duty flying Beaufighter night fighters against incoming German bombers.

Gibson’s report was filed at his base at RAF Wellingore. An intelligence officer read it and added a bit more information of his own, before having it typed up and filed as his own report. The two items eventually passed into the filing system of the Air Ministry, one in a bundle of reports compiled by pilots, the other in a similar bundle of reports from intelligence officers. In due course they were then passed to the Public Record Office (now the National Archives).

Pilot’s combat report dated 14 March 1941, completed and signed by Flt Lt G P Gibson. [pic: Bonhams]

The Gibson report has not been seen for many years, but emerged in the last month for sale at Bonhams auction house in New York. The Air Ministry file number can be seen in the top right corner, seen below in close up:

For confirmation, I sent the image above to a former military specialist in the National Archives. He agreed that this appeared to be a genuine document, and that it was likely to have been amongst the items stolen from the PRO in the late 1980s. The perpetrator in this case was Timothy Graves, a collector specialising in First World War material, but who was also found to have stolen Second World War items, including reports filed by Douglas Bader, Paddy Finucane and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

The Times, 23 February 1991

Also included in the Bonhams sale on 7 August were two further sets of Pilot Combat reports. One set of nine documents sold for $2295 and a second group of sixteen went for $3187. It is not known whether they were put up for sale by the same vendor.

It is clear that Graves stole a staggering amount of material. In 2013 Frank Olynk, a contributor to the Aerodrome Forum, described how seven white plastic tubs of documents had been found in his possession, and that a large stack more had been recovered from the USA.

But the experts always suspected that there were many unrecovered documents, probably sold quietly to private individuals. This could be up to ten per cent of the stolen material. As the retired military specialist says, ‘even after 30 years, the legacy of the Graves thefts still causes a ripple in the aviation history world.’

Bonhams were approached for a statement, and commented: ‘As soon as this matter was brought to our attention, we contacted the Public Record Office which is now investigating.’

[Thanks to Carol Davies Foster for help with this article]

A 1950s milk run over the Eder Dam

Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. [Pic: Frank Pleszak]

Frank Pleszak has sent me a lovely story he heard from a family friend, GC, who served in the RAF in the 1950s. He was based at RAF Wahn, which is now Cologne-Bonn international airport.

At that time the British High Commissioner for Germany was a career diplomat called Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. He had been based in the Berlin embassy before the war, where he apparently believed that no business could be done with the Nazis, and after the war became the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under Secretary for Germany. He sat on the Allied High Commission, based in Bonn, which had been established by the USA, the UK and France to regulate and supervise the development of the new Federal Republic of Germany.

Kirkpatrick liked his tea made with fresh milk. However diplomats in the Bonn area were not allowed to drink the local fresh milk as it caused illness, so powdered milk had to be used. Kirkpatrick refused to drink this and when he heard that fresh pasteurised milk was available in the north of Germany he was given a twice weekly 400km round trip milk run from RAF Wahn to RAF Bückeburg (between Osnabrück and Hannover) using his RAF-provided De Havilland Devon aircraft. A milkman’s wireframed four-pint milk bottle carrier was acquired for the purpose.

Normally the flight would just involve Kirkpatrick’s personal pilot, an ex-WW2 Squadron Leader with a significant set of medals. GC got talking to the pilot one day and he invited GC along for a jolly, happy for the company. On the 200km flight north-east from Wahn to Bückeburg the topic of the Dams Raid came up. The pilot asked GC if he would like to see one of the dams from the air. Who would turn down that opportunity? GC wasn’t about to.

On arrival at Bückeburg the pilot retired for lunch in the officers’ mess whilst GC had to make do with the NAAFI. The pilot returned a few hours later complete with the four pints of fresh milk. As they got back into the Devon GC was entrusted with the precious cargo and told in no uncertain terms “Look after the milk. Don’t spill a drop”.

On the way back they diverted to the Eder Dam and flew very low along its lake and over the dam at about 60 feet. They then pulled round for another view, where GC was able to see the damage from 1943, now repaired.

A great story. Read it in full on Frank Pleszak’s blog.

Replacement of Scampton plaque should be welcomed

RAF Scampton from the air. [Pic: Harvey Milligan/Wikipedia Commons]

The RAF has made the correct decision to replace the plaque at RAF Scampton which marks the grave of Guy Gibson’s dog with a new one: one which does not use the dog’s name. It did this quietly, without any fanfare, but of course as soon as the news leaked out a furore ensued. As I write this, at lunchtime on Friday 17 July, the number of comments on the Daily Mail’s online report has exceeded 700, mostly disagreeing with the decision. And a poll on the Lincolnshire Live website asking “Were the RAF right to remove the name of Guy Gibson’s dog from its gravestone?” is running at 91% voting No.

The point that those suffering such apoplexy don’t seem to have noticed, however, is that things have changed. The changes may seem to have happened very quickly, in response to the killing of George Floyd by police in far-away Minnesota, but in reality the issue of racism has been under the surface but ignored for too long. We may have had different attitudes in the past, covering everything from the erection of city centre statues of philanthropists without questioning where their fortunes came from to the use of racial stereotypes in TV comedy programmes, but that doesn’t mean these attitudes are acceptable now.

So, suddenly, we have started to rethink. Four years ago, the influential US National Football League refused to allow players to “take a knee” at the beginning of a game to protest against racism and police violence. It changed its policy – just like that – with the league’s commissioner admitting that they were wrong “for not listening to NFL players earlier”. And now, on this side of the Atlantic at every professional football match since the end of lockdown, there is a moving moment at kick off when all the players and officials take a knee.

It is in this context, I believe, that the decision to change the Scampton plaque was taken. The authorities have started listening. The name which was always offensive to black people is now recognised as such by the majority of the UK’s population. In the 1940s or 50s it was probably regarded by most people as being merely descriptive of the colour of a dog’s coat or a tin of shoe polish. That is not a justification for its continued use in the 2020s.

The decision may have been sudden, it may still be too quickly taken for some, but to my mind it is absolutely the right thing to do. We need to rethink how things are memorialised. We need to reappraise our historical narrative. I’m not saying that every statue should be pulled down or every plaque removed. However, there needs to be an evaluation of what each item represents and whether the item would be more appropriately consigned to a museum where the full story can be told.

There are signs that our institutions, from universities to the armed forces, have now begun this process and are now engaged in both listening and learning. And this is to be welcomed.

The change should start in the nation’s schools. One of the key writers pushing for an updated curriculum is the historian David Olusoga, presenter of the Black and British: A Forgotten History series on BBC TV. Since these programmes were aired, he says that his life has “become a constant impromptu focus group. I am stopped in the street by people who want to talk about the histories those documentaries explore. Most of those people are young, and a great many, but not all, are black or mixed race. This is the generation who have led the Black Lives Matter protests and they, quite rightly, expect more from their schools than I did from mine.” See this Guardian article.

Olusoga hopes that change is coming. I also like to believe that this is so. The small matter of the modification of a memorial plaque in Lincolnshire is a necessary step along the road.

Comments on this piece are welcome, but will be moderated.

Byers logbook up for auction

Pic: Spink Auctions

Update 15 July 2020:
Sold for £16,000

The pilot’s logbook belonging to Plt Off Vernon Byers is coming up for sale by Spink Auctions next week, on Wednesday 15 July. Also in the lot are his medals, his wings and other badges.

Byers, a Canadian from Star City, Saskatchewan, was the most inexperienced of the pilots who joined 617 Squadron in March 1943. He had flown as a pilot on just three operations, along with two more as ‘second dickey’, when he and his fledgling crew were posted out of 467 Squadron. However, he demonstrated enough ‘press-on’ attitude in his new posting to impress his commanding officer Guy Gibson, who recommended him for a commission on 17 April 1943. So he was given a place in the second wave, targeting the Sorpe Dam, flying in Lancaster AJ-K. He took off from RAF Scampton at 2130 on 16 May 1943.

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid, shot down on the Dutch coast at 2257. Despite the fact that they were off course, and had crossed Texel island which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that they were very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen.

The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today.

Oancia uniform jacket preserved for posterity

Steve Oancia, the bomb aimer in Ken Brown’s crew on the Dams Raid, came from a tiny farming community near Stonehenge in the south of Saskatchewan province, Canada. He crewed up with Ken Brown during training, and stayed with the crew until it disbanded in May 1944. Brown was also a “prairie boy”, born and brought up in the town of Moose Jaw, some 70 miles from Stonehenge. Oancia received the DFM for his role in dropping AJ-F’s Upkeep mine at the Sorpe Dam. The weapon did some damage to the dam but it failed to breach it.

Oancia returned to Canada after the war and became a civil engineer after studying at the University of Alberta. He died in 1999. A few years later, his cousin Clarence Oancia was clearing out the family farmhouse after it was sold and came across his RCAF uniform jacket, hanging in a closet in the attic. Fortunately for posterity, he retrieved it, and now the family have decided to donate it to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. The full story is told in a post on the blog of Canadian writer Ted Barris, author of Dam Busters: Canadian Airmen and the Secret Raid against Nazi Germany (HarperCollins 2018).

Bernie Wyatt, a cousin of Steve Oancia, presents Oancia’s wartime uniform jacket to Erin Napier of the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario. Pic: Bernie Wyatt

More information about Oancia on Bernie Wyatt’s blog. Part One. Part Two.

The first and the last

Len Sumpter, Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson, photographed together in July 1943 as part of the group picture of 617 Squadron aircrew. [Artwork © Dambusters Blog, from image courtesy of Sutherland family.]

We have just passed the 77th anniversary of the day on which nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men. Official records show that only two men flew on both the first and last operations mounted by 617 Squadron: the Dams Raid on 16 May 1943 and an attack on Hitler’s mountain lair at Berchtesgarten on 25 April 1945. These were Leonard Sumpter and Raymond Wilkinson. However, I believe that a third Dams Raid participant, Douglas Webb, also flew on the final raid even though he did not record it in his logbook. The full story is set out below.

Len Sumpter flew on the Dams Raid as the bomb aimer in David Shannon’s AJ-L. They dropped their Upkeep mine at the Eder Dam, resulting in some superficial damage to the wall. Shortly afterwards, the dam was finally breached by Les Knight and his crew in AJ-N. Later in the war, Sumpter switched to flying as Shannon’s observer in Mosquitoes before joining Ian Marshall’s Lancaster crew.

Doug Webb and Ray Wilkinson took part in the Dams Raid as respectively the front and rear gunners in AJ-O, skippered by Bill Townsend. This crew was part of the mobile reserve and attacked the Ennepe Dam, but it failed to breach. Shortly after the Dams Raid the Townsend crew broke up as most of them had completed a tour. Webb and Wilkinson went together to a training unit as instructors, but by the end of 1944, they were both back in 617 Squadron, on their second tour. Wilkinson flew on the final Tirpitz attack on 12 November, in Arthur Kell’s crew. By the following spring, they were both regulars in Ian Marshall’s crew.

At this stage in the war, 617 Squadron was carrying out precision raids with 22,000lb Grand Slam and 12,000lb Tallboy bombs. The squadron had been supplied with 21 Lancasters, known as B.I Special models, which had been built specially for dropping these monster bombs. To reduce weight and because there was a reduced danger of German fighter attack, the mid-upper turret had been removed and the gunner who occupied this space and the wireless operator were not carried. Official records, such as the Operations Records Book, usually show blanks in these two positions, as can be seen in the entry below for the Marshall crew on 25 April 1945, who were flying in PD134.

The crew is shown here as Ian Marshall (pilot), Frank Cholerton (flight engineer), Kenneth Newby, (navigator), Len Sumpter (bomb aimer) and Ray Wilkinson (rear gunner).

The presence of both Sumpter and Wilkinson is confirmed by their logbooks, shown below:

Pic: Sumpter family

Pic: War & Son

However, the official listing may not be entirely correct. There may have been an extra passenger on board – something that is hinted at in a fascinating photograph contained in Len Sumpter’s family archive. According to Sumpter, this was taken just before take off:


Pic: Sumpter family

On the reverse, in Sumpter’s writing, the five aircrew are identified as (L-R) Flt Lt L Sumpter, Flg Off K Newby, Flt Lt I Marshall, Flg Off D Webb and Sgt K Tollerton. The caption seems to have been written some time after the war, which may be why he recorded the type of bomb incorrectly: PD134 was carrying a Tallboy rather than a Grand Slam bomb. There are also discrepancies in the names he recorded. He says that the man on the far right is Sgt K Tollerton. It’s possible that he wrote this a number of years later, thinking of Frank Cholerton. However the man bears a strong resemblance to Ray Wilkinson, who we know was on the raid. Update September 2020: Man on far right is not Ray Wilkinson, according to his granddaughter. See comment below.

Sumpter has also identified the fourth man from the left as Doug Webb. It certainly looks like him but, as we have seen, he is not listed in the ORB entry. Nor did Webb record the flight in his own logbook, as can be seen below. So if Webb was on this operation, he was there unofficially!

Pic: Yak El Droubie

It is known that at this stage of the war, the Lancaster B.I Specials sometimes carried an extra man, perhaps as an extra spotter for enemy aircraft. So this might explain Webb’s presence – or maybe he just wanted to get the chance to be there when the force attacked Hitler’s ‘bunker’, which it was rumoured would be the place where the Führer might make a last stand.

Wilkinson and Webb did not know, of course, that this would be the squadron’s last Second World War operation, but the pair had been friends since their days together in 49 Squadron. Here they are, photographed together outside Buckingham Palace on the day the Dams Raid crews received their decorations:

Left to right: Ray Wilkinson, Doug Webb, Charles Franklin, Bill Townsend, Jack Grain [not on Dams Raid], Lance Howard. [Pic: Yak El Droubie.]

Further enquiries are being made to confirm the identities of the men in Sumpter’s photograph, and this article will be updated when this information is received.

[My 2018 book, The Complete Dambusters, will be updated with this information in the next edition. Further information about the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in the book, published by History Press.]

Johnny Johnson remembering old comrade Les Knight

Johnny Johnson’s tribute to fellow Dambuster Les Knight. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

Guest post by Melvin Chambers

On Monday 4 May, the Dutch Remembrance Day, the last surviving Dambuster Johnny Johnson sent an RAF-themed Roundel wreath to the Netherlands to be placed on fellow Dambuster Les Knight’s grave in the village of Den Ham.

Johnny sent the wreath as honorary president of a veteran’s self-help group called Group 617, a self-help group in the UK. Set up and run by military veterans, its chairman Russ Taff Kitely said Johnny cares deeply about the comrades he lost during the war. He also cares deeply about today’s veterans who suffer traumas. The group currently helps more than 60 veterans in need.

As sunset approached four vintage aircraft from the Egmond Vintage Wings group (based at Hoogeveen Airport) paid a personal tribute to Les Knight with a fly-past and Missing Man tribute. The formation flew above Den Ham where Knight sacrificed his life to save the village from disaster and to save his crew, who all survived the war.

Lead pilot Tom Wilps said : “It was too good an opportunity not to bring out this personal tribute from us pilots to an extraordinary pilot. We know of Les Knight’s great sacrifice and took into account the position of his monument in our flight plan to honour him.”

The sky was absolutely clear and the four aircraft performed their tribute as villagers came out of their homes and watched in surprise.

Johnny Johnson’s handwritten inscription reads: “Sincere thanks for your contribution to 617 Squadron and particularly your care for your crew. ‘The Lucky One.’ Johnny Johnson MBE DFM”

The wreath being laid by Les Knight Charity committee member Hans Dekker on behalf of Johnny Johnson. [Pic: Melvin Chambers]

At the going down of the sun… four vintage warbirds make a personal fly-past salute to Les Knight [Pic: Egmond Vintage Wings]

Nine things you may not know about the Dams Raid

The only photograph taken of a Lancaster in the air on the day of the Dams Raid. [IWM CH18006]

Tomorrow, Saturday 16 May, will be the 77th anniversary of the day in 1943 when nineteen Lancasters of RAF 617 Squadron took off from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to attack the dams in the Ruhr and Eder valleys. Of the 133 aircrew who participated in what would come to be called the Dams Raid, just 80 survived. Thirty-two more died before the end of the war, leaving 48 men.

Here are nine things that you may not know about the men who took part.

1. Neither of the flight commanders (Melvin ‘Dinghy’ Young and Henry Maudslay) had met Guy Gibson before 617 Squadron was formed. Both were shot down on their return flights.

2. Of the 19 flight engineers who flew on the raid, four were Scottish.

3. Five of the six men who made up Guy Gibson’s Dams Raid crew flew on just one operation with him in their whole careers. These were John Pulford, Harlo Taerum, Fred Spafford, George Deering and Richard Trevor-Roper.

4. Ray Wilkinson, rear gunner in Bill Townsend’s crew, was the only man to take part in both the Dams Raid and the final successful attack on the Tirpitz on 12 November 1944.

5. The front gunner in David Shannon’s crew, Brian Jagger, was the son of the portrait painter David Jagger and the nephew of the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger, designer of the Royal Artillery war memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London. A David Jagger self-portrait was recently sold for £221,000 at auction.

6. Four men who flew on the raid had pregnant wives waiting at home. Two were killed (Lewis Burpee and Charles Brennan). The two others, David Maltby and Richard Trevor-Roper would both die soon after their own sons were born (Maltby on 15 September 1943, Trevor-Roper on 31 March 1944).

7. Two members of the crew of Lancaster AJ-P were knighted later on in their lives: pilot Mick Martin and navigator Jack Leggo.

8. The pilot of AJ-C, Warner ‘Bill’ Ottley, and his wireless operator Jack Guterman were good friends from their time in 207 Squadron and both had extensive classical music record collections which they played in the room they shared. Both died when AJ-C was shot down, and Ottley’s record collection was donated to his school, Hurstpierpoint College.

9. Canadians Albert Garshowitz and Frank Garbas grew up in the same town of Hamilton, Ontario, and had played schoolboy rugby in the same league. They met by chance again in the UK while training and joined the same crew. They both died when AJ-B, piloted by Bill Astell, crashed into a pylon near Marbeck in Germany. [There is a theory that the game they played together was Canadian or American football, but both men put down ‘rugby’ as a sporting interest on their RCAF application forms.]

Further information about all the 133 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.