Guy Gibson’s relationship with the crew who flew with him on the Dams Raid is one of the interesting sub-plots of the whole Dambusters story. In contrast to the scene in the 1955 film where his old crew discuss his posting to a new squadron on his own and then unanimously decide to go with him, only one, wireless operator Robert Hutchison, had actually flown with Gibson in 106 Squadron. Hutchison is thought to have recommended navigator Harlo Taerum, who in turn recommended bomb aimer Fred (Spam) Spafford. Both of these had been in 50 Squadron, as had rear gunner Richard Trevor-Roper. These four were all officers, which meant that Gibson would see something of them socially at Scampton, but the final pair, front gunner George Deering and flight engineer John Pulford were both NCOs.
This may be why Gibson had a rather low opinion of both. In his biography of Gibson, Richard Morris writes how in the first draft of Enemy Coast Ahead he described Deering as:
‘pretty dumb’ (tactfully changed to ‘pretty green’ in the published version) ‘and not too good at his guns and it was a bit of a risk taking him’. This was rubbish, as Deering had flown thirty-five operations.
Morris goes on to cite Gibson’s opinion of Pulford, who he described as a ‘sincere and plodding’ Londoner:
Gibson had a low opinion of Pulford, thinking him dull and incapable of independent thought. This may say more about Gibson than Pulford, for Gibson never listened to him long enough to notice that he came from Yorkshire rather than London. In the cockpit of Gibson’s Lancaster there was a distinct air of master and servant. In the fuselage as a whole his crew represented Britain’s class structure in microcosm and the pattern of the Empire beyond. (Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin, 1995, p.152.)
Whatever their relationship, the crew were not together for very long, flying just the one operation as a complete crew, the Dams Raid itself. Hutchison, Taerum, Spafford and Deering transferred to George Holden’s crew when he took over command of 617 Squadron, and died with him on the Dortmund Ems Raid on 16 September 1943.
None of the other three survived the war. Trevor-Roper and Gibson died later in 1944, both on operations with other squadrons, but Pulford was still in 617 Squadron when he flew on the operation to bomb the Antheor viaduct in southern France in February 1944. His pilot, Bill Suggitt, landed the aircraft successfully at Ford in Sussex, which they had used as a staging post, but in the short hop home from Ford to Woodhall Spa, they crashed into a hill on the Sussex Downs, near the village of Upwaltham.
For some years local people have been collecting for a proper memorial to Suggitt’s crew, and it was unveiled on 22 August:
Today, 65 years on, the crew of DV382 KC J-Jug will be honoured in a tiny parish church just below the crash site at Upwaltham, West Sussex, after the hamlet of 25 inhabitants raised £10,500 for a memorial.
Relatives of the British, Canadian and Australian victims will attend, along with air attaches from all three nations and 617 Squadron’s current commanding officer.
The white Italian stone ‘Four Nations Memorial’ also remembers seven Americans whose Dakota aircraft crashed across the valley a year later in February 1945.
A Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight will complete three circuits overhead at the ceremony, which will also be attended by relatives of the farm workers who were honoured by King George VI for braving flames and exploding ammunition to try to rescue the Lancaster crew.
There is a nice tribute page to the crew on the Roll of Honour website. John Pulford’s body was recovered and he was buried in Hull.
just read what you said about the dambusters my grandad was john pulford’s brother and im his great niece who adores him for what he did for our country how can you disrespect a good person like that i think you should get your facts right. A great man who died such at an early age for his country which now is not worth anything.
JOHN PULFORD was no londener he was from HULL born and bred.
Leona — thanks for your comments. I think I should make it clear that the views in the post above are what Guy Gibson wrote in his lifetime, not mine. I fully respect your great uncle and his service, and applaud the people who have given him a fitting memorial.
My grandad dougie is also john pulfords brother, i tell him of all the things i see and read that are tributed to his brother.Tomorrow my 11 year old son geoege ( who knows everything there is to no regarding the dam busters/john pulford/ boucing bombs etc, lol, will be making his annual trip to chants ave cemetary were jonny rests to clean his headstone, weed it an lay his poppys, he always finishes with a salute to the grave and a photo for grandpa dougie,like leona we are also very proud to call him a member of our family x
Dear Nicola, if you get this message please get in touch urgently – firstname.lastname@example.org please. I filmed your Grandfather Dougie about the loss of John’s aircraft. The final part of the memorial to him is to be unveiled this weekend. Please get in touch
I was a filght engineer in 1950s on Lincoln Bombers with 617 & 100 squd & flying low leavel at night is terrifying even in peace time. Gibson had no regard for his crew as he did his hero bit flying around & round over the dams.especialy Pulford the F/E who was his co-pilot & had to be ready to pull him out of his seat if he was shot & take over.
I think Gibson had a touch of the Raj in him.
Something that you overlooked was the, at least in my eyes, more tragic story (no offense intended to either the Pulford or Suggett Families or anyone else on the Lanc) of the RAAF W/OP Johnny Gordon.
John Gordon joined 617 after being awarded the DFC for his first tour, his story in itself could be made into a book but his good friend and fellow RAAF Airman Don Charlwood mentions him and his loss frequently in his highly recommended sequel to the classic work ‘No Moon Tonight’ which is entitled ‘Journeys into Night’ (Pub 1991).
What is missing in your story of John Pulford, is that poor old Johnnie was one of 3 from his Family Killed.
His Brother who he was meant to be ‘best man’ at his wedding was killed flying Sunderlands with 461 RAAF Sqd just before the ‘big day’ was due, then Johnnie shortly after that and his cousin in the Pacific on Catalina’s after that.
Incidentally Both John and his Brother Gordon had a very hard life even for that time in the prewar years.
Their Dad died at a young age, at which point Johnnie being the eldest at 19, was then in charge of helping to bring in his familys income as well as caring for 5 more ‘kids’ in the Family.
When hearing that George was applying for Aircrew Johnnie wrote several letters trying to stop him from doing so as by this point he knew full well what was waiting for him.
All of those Killed served as W/OPs
(multi Family Losses were more common then you think – for Example an RCAF family lost both their son and Daugter, a NZ Family lost both brothers on the same operartion with the same Sqd in different aircraft and in my own case we had 7 serve of which 6 were dead by 1945 from our extended Family (4 RAN and 2 RAAF – Survivor was an Australian in the RAF ala Mickey Martin. One of those killed was with 617).
From one of Johnnies Letters he noted that –
‘….he was wild because they didn’t send him to Lancs.
3 Of his friends came to this Sqd, but 2 of them are already Missing.
That ought to convince him…’
(in relation to Gordon).
He was also known for speaking his mind in that atypical Australian manner, one time over a target when asked by a ‘bewildered RAF pilot’ as to what was going on ahead of them and then being asked by that pilot to ‘come forward and take a good look ‘old chap’ ‘, Johnnie appeared at his shoulder as ‘asked’ and then responded with ‘thats the target. They’ve spent a lot of money putting on that show for us. The sooner you get in there the better!’.
(His regular RAAF Pilot on 467 RAAF Sqd survived the war)
At the completion of his tour while still only a W/O he was interviewed as was usual for a Commsion –
‘I had an arguement with both the Wingo and the Groupy at the Interview.
Still they didnt tell me i wouldnt get one so i suppose i can presume to hope!’.
(He Served with 467 RAAF Sqd as did a member of my relations crew only in his case he was an RAF Airman who was also awarded the DFM at the end of his tour).
Johnnie was also to be married in late Nov 1943, Don Charlwood was asked to be his best man after his brother was lost without trace when his Sunderland was dispatched to ‘shadow a convoy’.
The date of the wedding was 31 Jan 1944 and her name was Mary, the service took place at the Northfield Church.
After the crash that claimed his life a letter was sent to the Gordon Family in Australia by another RCAF Member who knew both Bill Suggett and Johnnie Gordon very well.
That airman was F/O Don Bell RCAF.
Part of it went –
‘… the boys had a meal and a wash up.
They took off to return to base.
There was a layer of cloud which hung pretty low in spots.
All the planes climbed up through the cloud to go back except one.
Bill Suggett was a wonderful pilot and had had intensive low flying training and experience, so they set a course for base below the cloud.
Two Minutes later they crashed into the top of a 150 foot hill….’.
Don Charlwoods reaction says it all –
After all their expierence – 150 feet!
I felt as much outraged as bereaved”.
(Incidentally Don travelled back to Australia in the same Cabin as Bob Kellow RAAF after his evasion, both this and Bobs own book are well worth reading).
As an aside From Don’s Nav Course in Canada all but 5 were killed – only 2 of those killed were either not on bombers or being trained for bomber ops.
Bob Kellows Book is titled ‘Paths to Freedom’ and was written while he lived in Canada after the war.
Both Bob and Don met and married Canadian ladies, Bob emigrated to Canada and Don’s Wife Nell came to Australia.
No Moon Tonight by Don Charlwood
Journeys Into Night
Paths to Freedom by Bob Kellow
(1992 Winnipeg Canada)
Hello Stephen, I am Don Charlwood’s daughter from Melbourne, Australia and was alerted to your post by Adam Koronka in England (see earlier post). Dad passed away on June 18 this year, but he has left a wonderful legacy in his writing. For anyone interested in his books you mention above – No Moon Tonight is currently published in the UK by Crecy, under their Goodall imprint. Journeys into Night is published by our family under the publishing name Burgewood Books. Details are on our website http://www.burgewoodbooks.com.au Regards, Doreen Burge
Hi, a point of clarification…
Don Charlwoods reaction says it all –
After all their expierence – 150 feet!
I felt as much outraged as bereaved”.
Suggitt’s J-Jug crashed into trees at the peak of Littleton Down at 850 ft a.s.l., not 150 ft. The trees he clipped likely added another 50 ft. Fate has it that this hill is the tallest of any point in the area except one hill 10 miles to the north, other surrounding hilltops are 100-150 ft lower. Suggitt was above 800ft, coming up from nearly sea level at Ford, 3-4 minutes after take-off, and having cleared a 700 ft hill moments before. Despite poor visibility, he could have quite reasonably convinced himself he’d clear the Downs with a margin. 100ft either side of that hilltop, same altitude, was all they needed. Suggitt most likely had never flown from Ford before to know this terrain better, if he had he would have flown higher into cloud to be certain he’d cleared the Downs. Sad error in captaincy for this 23 year-old, underscored by bad luck for the flight path. Repeated again 18 months later on a nearby hill by a USAF Dakota, in transit from Paris to Grove, Berkshire.
Background: The J-Jug crew had just returned from an overnight mission to the Antheor viaduct in south France (near Cannes), 850 miles south from Woodhall Spa via Ford aerodrome (160 miles south, on the Channel coast); they left Woodall Spa at 2130 hrs, Feb 12, to Ford for staging, then to the south of France at Antheor, returning north to Ford by 0500hrs, Feb 13.
Lancs have only one pilot — no co-pilot for back-up judgment, or relief — one man wrestling the yoke of a four engine heavy bomber for 8 hours. Suggitt alone flew J-Jug into Littleton Down. Here was a fellow who’d completed two tours, flown Wellies, Halifaxes and Lancs in squadrons 405,104,158, 428 and 617, was decorated DFC, achieved rank of Squadron Leader, and was flying high-risk, precision-target missions that pushed the limits of machine and men. This pilot should not be vilified for his mistake, as tragic as the outcome is, but understood to be part and parcel of the acceptable risk calculus undertaken by all parties on any given mission, including that 23-year-olds pulling all-nighters in freezing, noisy, stress-filled flying bombs, acting alone, are prone to un-vetted decisions lacking in sober second thought.
The Antheor viaduct was not damaged that night. it was destroyed in June ’44 by a USAF operation.
Mark Suggitt (no known relation to W.R. Suggitt past 1820),
(researching S/L W. R. Suggitt DFC, since 1975)
617 Squadron Recordbook, Tobin Jones
RCAF biographical summary
Account of J-Jug crash: The Dam Busters book; various other sources
Google Earth, flight path reconstruction
I just happened upon your response regarding the ‘150 foot’ hill. You’ll be pleased to know that Dad (Don Charlwood) , not long before he died, corrected this in his book Journeys into Night, after learning the correct height of the hill from people in Upwaltham. We released a new edition of the book with this correct information, plus a number of other changes and additions, in 2013. Regards, Doreen Burge, Burgewood Books, Melbourne, Australia.
Hi Doreen, thanks very much for your note. I haven’t read your Dad’s books but now he’s on my list to read. I did find a compilation of Australian short stories through our regional library, amongst which is ‘Reception at Kerry Hills’. Look forward to picking up the new edition of No Moon Tonight.
Best wishes, Mark
Hi Mark, would you please contact me – email@example.com
Thank you Adam
Hello Doreen…I’ve read your father’s book twice now and greatly appreciated the second time.His basic humanity came through.I’m a Lincolnshire boy and grew up with the legacy of the county’s WW11 history of which your father was a part.
We all enjoy the freedom they fought for to this day …
Kind regards…John Hinchliffe.Padstow.UK
Thank you for your kind words John. Dad’s books have meant a lot to many readers over the 56 years since No Moon Tonight was published. We are currently working on a new edition of his second Bomber Command book, Journeys into Night. Regards, Doreen
Brilliant info from Mark here, and for Doreen, I’ve read 4 of Don’s books, I rate No Moon Tonight as the very best Bomber Command memoir, it really captures and puts the reader right into what it must’ve felt like to be in your early 20’s facing almost certain death every day. So intimately written and a stunning read.
Alex, Northwich, Cheshire.
Hello Alex, Thank you for your lovely comments about my Dad’s book No Moon Tonight. It has certainly received many such comments in the 60 years it has been in print – gratifying to Dad, and now to his family. I hope you’ve also read his later Bomber Command book, Journeys into Night – written as a much older man looking back. We publish it ourselves but it is distributed in the UK by Crecy (the publisher of No Moon Tonight). Cheers, Doreen Burge, Burgewood Books, Melbourne, Australia.
thanks Doreen, I read Journeys, its also highly recommended, and explains some of the dynamics in No Moon. Incidentally, I wonder if you are aware of a remarkable connection between your dad and 2 of the most popular ever British motorcycle racers? Barry Sheene owned and lived in the manor house in Charlewood, seat of your family home and where your dad spent several happy weekends in the Vicarage before he emigrated to Aus, whilst Guy Martin (named after Gibson) is proudly from Kirmington (which he calls the centre of the universe), and has a Rolls Royce Merlin in his front room, and a big fan of bomber command…
Hi Alex, No certainly not aware of that connection! Amazing what connections there are. Cheers, Doreen
Some weeks after my grandmother’s death in 1971, we happened to be visiting her grave in Hull’s Northern Cemetery when we were approached by a couple seeking out a war grave. It was that of John Pulford. My father pointed out the section sought, across the road and a few yards away, using his parked van as a reference. The couple gasped when they saw the name on the side of our vehicle. It turned out they were Suggitts from Canada. They had visited the grave of Bill Suggitt and had then decided to visit the graves of all those who had perished with him when his Lancaster crashed on the south coast.
That part of Northern Cemetery was no stranger to bombing itself, having received a number of strikes during Hull’s Blitz. A number of graves, including that of an aunt, were completely destroyed and quite a few nearby pre-war memorials still bear severe blast damage marks.
I mentioned the rather coincidental meeting to a chum some years later, who shortly afterwards became OC of 617 Squadron and we briefly discussed the event. The crew was the heart of a Lancaster, a close knit team of experts in their own roles, but – adhering to a guiding principle in the composition of crews in heavies – with degrees of capacity to cover the functions of others in the event of casualties. This is encapsulated in the film The Dam Busters, where Richard Todd tells Robert Shaw to take over if needs must. Given the weather circumstances on the day of the fatal flight, all eyes and energies would have been supporting the flying of J-JUG, including those of Tommy Lloyd. We were also mindful of the serviceability of aircraft and instruments. Given the stresses and grief they had to operate in, it was remarkable – and testament to the efforts of ground crew – that so many were deemed airworthy. I was once informed that a Lancaster was built to last 40 hours on operations. I don’t know how many sorties J-JUG had flown, but aircraft which had completed over 40 missions were regarded as both lucky and perhaps past their prime.
Bill Suggitt receives only a rather cool mention in a recent publication on the wartime 617 Squadron, but I was surprised that John Pulford and his fate were not reflected in the same piece.
I wonder what Leonard Cheshire inwardly thought at the time.
Dear Jim. Please pm me firstname.lastname@example.org
J SUGGITT……….Received Airfix Dambusters kit today and a start was made on J-Jug. I am going to the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa and a request was made for the files of Squadron Leader Suggitt, FO Dempster and FO Davidson. This is an interesting thread.