Last of the Dambusters, not

I managed to see a recording of the Channel Five documentary ‘Last of the Dambusters’ the other night. (As I live in Ireland, I can’t get Channel Five, even though we get all the other British channels on our cable service.) This has been quite extensively reviewed (see here and here) and discussed on various forums (see here and here) so I shan’t say too much more.

The programme featured George (Johnny) Johnson, who is fast becoming a national treasure. Although he is not the ‘last of the dambusters’ (I don’t know why the programme was given that confusing title when five or six men who took part in the Dams Raid are still alive) he is the only one based in the UK who regularly does media appearances. He treated the programme makers and everyone else in the film with his usual courtesy, and it was very interesting seeing his reactions to meeting people who lived near the Sorpe Dam which he had tried to destroy 65 years before.

The other inaccuracy in the programme concerned the Sorpe Dam itself. The impression was given that Joe McCarthy’s crew, in which Johnson was the bomb aimer, was the only crew to reach and attack the Sorpe. It is true to say that they were the only one of the five crews in the second wave to get that far (Munro and Rice had to turn back after their aircraft were damaged, Barlow and Byers crashed on the outward flight). But Ken Brown in AJ-F, from the reserve wave, made it all the way, dropped his mine successfully at 0314 and returned to Scampton safely.

Hindsight tells us that sufficient thought had not been given as to how to attack the Sorpe. With its earth core construction the dam could not be attacked head on like the concrete-built Möhne and Eder, so the ‘bouncing’ technique could not be used. Instead, both McCarthy and Brown flew along the length of the dam and dropped their mines in the centre, causing them to roll down into the water before the hydrostatic fuse exploded. Perhaps if five aircraft had got through the cumulative effect would have succeeded, but we will never know.

Looking over the interwebnet today for reviews of the programme, I came across this other oddity – a review by the romantic fiction writer Jessica Blair. It turns out that Ms Blair is not all she seems, being the nom de plume of a gentleman called Bill Spence, who flew 36 wartime operations as a Lancaster bomb aimer in 44 Squadron, and turned to writing in 1960. What an interesting life!

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