Filming the Dam Busters

Pic: Jan Kmiecik

Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters is being shown again on ITV4 this afternoon – the second screening on this channel in the last six days!

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 almost ten 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 much delayed remake 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. Since then he has announced that a director has been appointed and a script commissioned and that a number of life size model Lancasters have been built. But since that time, he has been very busy making three Hobbit films and is now working on a number of other projects, including another series of fantasy films, these based on the Mortal Engines books. It is notable that the Dambusters remake no longer appears in Jackson’s IMDB listing.

The reshowing of the 1955 film does however give me a good excuse to show this picture again, kindly sent to me by Jan Kmiecik, whose father was Flt Sgt Joe Kmiecik, a Second World war veteran who took part in the filming of The Dam Busters in 1954.

The picture shows the three Lancasters used in the film flying together probably for the last time. This was taken at a Battle of Britain Day tribute at Silloth in Cumbria, probably in 1955. Note that only two of the aircraft have been modified to the “Dambuster” configuration, with a dummy “bouncing bomb” and no mid upper turret. The central Lancaster must be NX782, which was left as standard and used in an early sequence in the film where Gibson is completing his final flight as CO of 106 Squadron.

Note also how low the three Lancasters are flying, and how close they are to the members of the public wandering across the runway. Modern air displays have much stricter health and safety rules!


Hopgood’s Schoolboy Diary

If you are looking for a Christmas present for the Dambusters aficionado (or Old Marlburian) in your life, then you might be interested in this limited edition of Flt Lt John Hopgood’s schoolboy diary, written in 1938-39 while he was at Marlborough College. It has been published by Jenny Elmes, Hopgood’s niece and also his biographer (see M-Mother, History Press, 2015).
Only 20 copies have been published, cloth bound in Marlborough’s colours and individually numbered. The price is £50.
Contact Jenny Elmes for more details.

Charlie Brennan’s trip to Berlin

PIC: Humphries collection, Lincolnshire Libraries

A recent research trip to the National Archives in Kew has highlighted a previously unreported incident in the RAF career of Sgt Charles Brennan, the Canadian flight engineer who flew alongside John Hopgood in AJ-M on the night of the Dams Raid.
Brennan was born in Canada on 22 February 1916 and emigrated to the UK in 1928. He joined the RAF in England at the outset of the war, and after training worked as ground crew. When the opportunity came for skilled ground crew to qualify as flight engineers for the heavy bombers he took the chance, like many other enthusiastic young men who were keen to fly. His course at No 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan finished in June 1942, and he was then posted to 106 Squadron. He joined John Hopgood’s crew, and flew on his first operation with him on 15 August, on a trip to Dusseldorf. Another 15 operations followed over the next two months, the last being the attack on the Le Creusot factory on 17 October, the last operation of Hopgood’s tour.
At this point, for some reason, Brennan was not allocated to another crew to finish his tour. Instead, he was posted to 1660 Conversion Unit at Swinderby on 25 November, to train other crews, even though he was only halfway through his own tour of operations.
In the middle of January 1943, 1660 Conversion Unit was told that it would be required to provide two crews for two special maximum strength force attacks on Berlin on successive nights. These would be crewed by a mixture of instructors and students in the final stages of training. Brennan was allocated to a Lancaster crew headed by Plt Off Stanley Harrison, a pilot who had finished one full tour and one period of instructing. He was halfway through a second in 97 Squadron when, for some reason, he had been given another instructional role.
The crew that night was made up of:

Plt Off S Harrison DFM, pilot
Sgt C Brennan, flight engineer
Flg Off J Henderson, navigator
Plt Off P Robins, wireless operator
Sgt T Beesley, bomb aimer
Plt Off K J Knight, mid upper gunner
Flt Sgt R G Cross, rear gunner

The text that follows is taken from Harrison’s 1992 memoirs.

[In January 1943] there occurred an incident in which I take no pride. …
[O]n the morning of the 17th, I was told that I would be detailed together with a composite crew for that night. We carried out a night flying test and found that the aircraft, although it had been hammered on ‘circuits and bumps’ over many months, appeared to be in good order. At briefing it was confirmed that Berlin would be the target and that we would be following the same route as on the previous evening.
After briefing, I called the crew together to talk through what was obviously going to be a long and arduous sortie. I found the three students in good heart but the instructors, all of whom had completed one tour, were very, very reluctant to undertake a Berlin operation while they were officially ‘on rest’. I made it clear that we had absolutely no option but to carry out our orders to the best of our ability; but we went out to the dispersal with the instructors still in a very sullen mood.
I started the engines and we went through the various pre-flight checks with the three instructors offering excuse after excuse, trying to persuade me to find some reason for declaring the aircraft to be unfit for the operation.
To add to the discord, I found that, because I had been flying Manchesters for the previous two or three months, I had forgotten that Lancasters had been modified to operate the send/receive changeover switch for the radiotelephone set in the reverse sense to what I was accustomed to, and that we had been transmitting all our chat to the outside world! I transmitted a quick apology, and then told the crew that I would ask for takeoff clearance straight away, and then we would be off to Berlin.
We took off and started the slow climb to the English and Dutch coasts and to our operating height of 20,000ft. When we reached 10,000ft and had been some 30 to 40 minutes on our way, I gave the usual order to turn the oxygen on (the aircraft was not pressurised and it was necessary for the crew to breathe oxygen enriched air the whole time we were over 10,000ft.)
It was then that the instructor manning the mid upper turret announced that his oxygen bottle was less than half full and he would therefore be able to stay at 10,000ft plus for only a short time. The other two instructors joined in the chorus of demands for me to abort the mission and return to base.
Obviously, in the pre-takeoff confusion, I had forgotten to ask each crew member to check his individual oxygen supply. I was now in a terrible dilemma. There was no necessity to abort a mission because one crew member was short of oxygen. On the other hand, we would clearly be handicapped if we were able to reach our operating height for only a short time while in the Berlin area. We would for the greater part of the long trip be 10,000ft below the main bomber stream and liable to be picked off by a night fighter.
Thus it was that I caved in and returned, tail between legs, back to base. I explained why I had aborted to the station commander, who made no comment. I felt sure that he would have heard the chat on the intercom which I had inadvertently broadcast prior to takeoff, and so would have understood my dilemma.
I should add that never before or later did I experience anything remotely like the ‘lack of moral fibre’ exhibited by the three instructors. A final postscript; my concern about falling victim to a night fighter had I pressed on, was given weight by the news we received later, that on that night, of the 170 Lancasters and 17 Halifaxes on the mission, 19 Lancasters and three Halifaxes were shot down; while on the previous night of 201 aircraft, one Lancaster only was lost.
(Stanley E Harrison, A Bomber Command Survivor, Sage Pages Australia, 1992, pp107-9.)

This text, and the crew list printed above, makes it easy to identify that one of the three instructors was mid upper gunner Plt Off K J Knight. It is also clear that the bomb aimer, Sgt Beesley, was one of the three students referred to: he would go on to transfer to 57 Squadron as one of the crew of Sqn Ldr Melvin Young (although he was replaced as Young’s bomb aimer before the Dams Raid.) It is likely, given that both were commissioned officers, that the other two instructors referred to by Harrison were the navigator, Flg Off Henderson, and the wireless operator, Plt Off Robins. Although Charles Brennan was an instructor in the unit, Harrison does say that the instructors had all completed a full tour, and Brennan was only halfway through his first. At this stage in the war, the trade of flight engineer had only been in existence for a few months and very few would have completed a full tour of operations. Harrison may therefore have mistaken him for a student, and so the students in the crew were Beesley, Brennan and the rear gunner, Flt Sgt Cross.
In a sad postscript for all concerned, it seems that Flg Off Knight did return to operations. An officer with the same initials and surname was lost on a raid on 3 September 1943. He had been recommended for the DFC shortly before this, and the citation was published in the London Gazette eleven days later.



Barnes Wallis signature raises £173 for AJ-A appeal

The appeal fund for a memorial on the Dutch coast to Melvin (‘Dinghy’) Young’s Dams Raid crew has had a recent boost when a Barnes Wallis signed First Day Cover was sold on eBay last week. The item was sold for £200 (£173 after eBay and PayPal costs) and this sum has been been sent to the fund.
Thanks to Ray Hepner for the donation of the cover, and Heather Allsworth and Nigel Favill for running the auction.
If you haven’t yet donated, then this is your chance to give a Christmas present to the fund by doing so now. Please use the PayPal link below (you don’t need a PayPal account – any credit card will work).

Your donation will be gratefully received and will be acknowledged at the unveiling ceremony.

Barnes Wallis autograph sale will benefit AJ-A memorial appeal

A rare first day cover autographed by Barnes Wallis has gone on sale on eBay. It has been donated to the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation, and the proceeds from the sale will be given to the appeal fund for a new memorial to the crew of Dams Raid aircraft AJ-A, piloted by Sqn Ldr Melvin (Dinghy) Young, which shot down at Castricum-aan-Zee on the Dutch coast on 17 May 1943. The memorial will be unveiled in 2018 to mark the 75th anniversary of the crew’s burial in the nearby Bergen cemetery.
The item was generously donated to the Fund by the collector Ray Hepner.
The cover was signed by Sir Barnes Wallis in June 1976 at his residence, White Hill House, Effingham, Surrey, and given to Ray Hepner. It is one of the First Day Covers produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the Vickers Wellington bomber, designed by Wallis.
Further details can be found on the eBay site here.
The sale will close on 30 November 2017.

A poem for Remembrance Day

Think Not That They Are Lonely
[The peoples of the occupied lands defy their German oppressors by placing flowers on the graves of British aviators.]

Flt Lt Owen Chave

Think not that they are lonely where they lie
Your tears are not the only ones to bless
Their sacrifice, for no one passes by
But pays his homage to their quietness.

As demi-gods they rest, and on each shrine
Are laid the votive gifts that children bring;
All Europe’s flowers are heaped there for a sign
That their swift fame need fear no tarnishing.

As far as I can tell, Flt Lt Owen Chave had no connection with 617 Squadron, although as he spent the early part of the war as a flying instructor, some of the squadron’s pilots may have passed through his hands. During this time, Chave wrote some rather good poems which are not widely known. The one shown above appears in a collection called Air Force Poetry, edited by John Putney and Henry Treece and published in 1944.

Owen Chave. [Pic: Brighton College]

Owen Cecil Chave was born in Southampton on 29 April 1912, the son of Sir Benjamin and Lady Chave (née Rachel Morgan). He was educated at Brighton College between 1926 and 1931. On leaving school he worked first in insurance, and then became a schoolmaster. However, he really wanted to be a writer, and before the war had poems and articles published in a number of magazines including Punch and The Spectator. He joined the RAF Reserve in 1936, and gave up teaching to work in commercial aviation.

When the war started, Chave became an RAF instructor, flying Airspeed Oxfords at RAF South Verney in Gloucestershire. He found this a frustrating experience, as can be seen below in the typescript of a humorous poem published in Punch:

Pic: Brighton College

A book of Chave’s poetry, Winged Victory: Poems of a Flight Lieutenant, was published in 1942, using the pseudonym ‘Ariel’. Eventually, he was allowed to volunteer for operational flying and in 1942 he joined 15 Squadron at RAF Bourn, flying Stirling aircraft. He flew on a number of operations until, on 14 February 1943, his aircraft was shot down by a night fighter over Belgium, with the loss of everyone on board. The crew was buried in a local graveyard and, after the war, reinterred in the Heverlee Commonwealth War Cemetery.

When the clocks strike eleven this Sunday morning, please pay homage to the quietness of the grave of Owen Cecil Chave – and indeed to all those who have fallen in war, combatant or not, many of whom who have no known place of rest. Think not that they are lonely.

Chave information at Old Brightonians, Brighton College
Chave crew page at Aircrew Remembered

Johnny Johnson collects MBE from the Queen

One of the last two men alive who took part in the Dams Raid, George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, was decorated yesterday with the MBE by the Queen at a Buckingham Palace investiture. Johnson, who will be 96 in 17 days time, was the bomb aimer in Joe McCarthy’s crew in Lancaster AJ-T, which attacked the Sorpe Dam on the night of 16/17 May 1943. The other survivor is the 94-year-old Canadian Fred Sutherland, the front gunner in Les Knight’s crew in AJ-N, which dropped the final mine on the Eder Dam, causing its breach.

Johnny Johnson was decorated for his services to Second World War remembrance and to the community in Bristol, where he lives. He said afterwards that the Queen told him that she was ‘glad to see that the Dambusters are still here’.

Johnny Johnson has, of course, been to the palace for an investiture once before, on 22 June 1943, when he was one of the 33 men decorated by the current Queen’s mother after the Dams Raid. On that occasion he received the DFM. He must be one of the few who have an MBE to add to his collection.

BBC News Bristol report