Three more 617 Squadron veterans die

There is a sadly dwindling band of Second World War veterans who served with 617 Squadron after the Dams Raid. Some of them (such as John Leavitt) received obituaries in the national press on their death, but others, perhaps less heralded in their lifetimes, get scant mention. Including Leavitt, three of these veterans died recently.
The second was Phil Martin who served as a pilot in 1944-45. Because he was also Australian he was sometimes confused with his more famous namesake. He took part in the first of the 1944 raids on the Tirpitz – the one in October which damaged but did not sink it – as well as a number of other operations. He was remembered in an obituary in the West Australian, which I can’t find online, so is reproduced in part below:
Martin… started his war service flying Avro Lancaster bombers with the Royal Air Force 61 Squadron, where he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross for completing 30 missions. The average life span for a bomber crew was just six missions.
Based on his great flying skills he and his crew were invited to join the famous 617 Dambusters Squadron. Martin won his second DFC destroying the Kembs Barrage dam on the Rhine River with 617 Squadron. On that raid Martin’s crew watched in horror as the Lancaster in front exploded in a fireball after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Pressing on, Martin’s bomb aimer Donald Day dropped a 9980kg Grand Slam or earthquake bomb before Martin nursed his crippled Lancaster back to England.
Weeks later, Martin’s crew headed for Tromso in Norway to bomb the German battleship Tirpitz. Martin was also involved in the D-Day landings, bombing German beachhead gun installations.
Another airman who also took part in the first Tirpitz raid was Sgt Leonard Rooke, flight engineer in Mac Hamilton’s crew. He died recently in Cornwall, and an obituary appeared in the Cornish Guardian. It also doesn’t seem to be available online, so I have reproduced part of it here.
Sgt Rooke joined the crew of Flying Officer ‘Mac’ Hamilton in 1943 at 1654 Conversion Unit, Wigsley in Nottinghamshire. His logbook records postings to 617 Squadron – the Dambusters; involvement in Operation Taxable, a ploy to confuse German radar on the eve of the D-day invasion by dropping metal foil in the area; and the deployment of Barnes Wallis’ Tallboy ‘earthquake’ bombs.
Leonard came under enemy fire many times and behaved with steadfast courage. On one occasion, he tended a badly injured crew member as his damaged aircraft limped back across the Channel to make an emergency landing in Kent.
Thanks to his calm presence of mind, although the injuries were very serious, the crew member’s legs were saved.
They were obviously all remarkable men, and their lives deserve to be honoured.
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Dambuster Sgt Lawrence Nichols

Some of the most interesting things I have found out since I started serious Dambuster research are the pieces of information about some of the less well known participants in the Dams Raid. It’s extraordinary how little is known about many of the 133 aircrew who took part. Fifty-three men died on the raid and another 32 later on in the war, so it’s perhaps understandable that not a lot is known about them. Many of the 48 who survived the war lived out quiet lives, with few people knowing that they had taken part in such an iconic event.
In this blog, I have posted material that I have come across on the internet about some of the less well known participants, and I want to keep on doing so. Here is the latest: an undated local newspaper clipping about Lawrence Nichols, the 33 year old Currys shop manager from Northwood, Middlesex who became the wireless operator in ‘Dinghy’ Young’s aircraft, AJ-A, and who died along with his colleagues when it was shot down on the way back from the Eder dam. Like David Maltby, the experienced pilot Young had been allocated a new and relatively untested crew, most of whom had only flown on one operation. All seven are now buried in the cemetery in Bergen in the Netherlands, along with about 250 other Allied aircrew. There is more about Lawrence Nichols here.

Snippets of oral history

Browsing recently through the People’s War section of the BBC website I came across this brief reminiscence about a gunner who took part in the Dams Raid. The writer, a Mrs Libby, is describing her cousin, who isn’t named but from the description sounds very like Douglas Webb, who flew in Bill Townsend’s crew on the Dams Raid. Just to illustrate the point that researchers should not rely on second hand oral history sources, it’s important to point out that he was, in fact, the front gunner. I wrote more about Webb here.
Another snippet in the BBC’s extensive oral history is about John Pulford, flight engineer in Gibson’s crew, contributed by an unnamed writer whose wife’s sister is married to Pulford’s brother. More about Pulford here.

Barnes Wallis, Bouncing Bomb Man

Happy New Year to all readers! Those of us based in Britain and Ireland are presently enduring a cold snap which will soon equal that of 1963, a year which I am almost afraid to say I remember quite well. Snow that lasted from Boxing Day to March, walking to school on frozen paths, pouring kettles of boiling water down frozen waste pipes, huddling around the kitchen radiator (the only one in the house). As we lived in suburban Buckinghamshire, it wasn’t quite Monty Python’s four Yorkshiremen, but it was tough.
But here’s something to take your mind off the cold and enliven your Dambusters experience. Dr Iain Murray of the University of Dundee has long had an interest in Barnes Wallis and the science behind the Dams Raid, and has now published a book, Bouncing-Bomb Man, which I hope to read shortly. He’s also set up a very useful website, which you can find here.