Bill Townsend obituary

Wartime portrait by Cuthbert Orde, published in The Tatler, September 1943

The last pilot to land his aircraft safely on the night of the Dams Raid was Bill Townsend, pilot of AJ-O. He had been detailed as one of the five mobile reserves, taking off from Scampton at 0014 on Sunday 17 May. He was sent to one of the raid’s secondary targets, the Ennepe Dam, which he and his crew attacked — after three attempts — at 0337. Although it bounced twice, the mine exploded short of the dam which remained intact. They hung around for a while waiting to see if others would arrive, but then set off for home. They passed over the Möhne, saw for themselves the extent of the devastation already wreaked and then set off as fast as they could.

With dawn breaking, AJ-O had a very hairy journey back to base. As they approached Texel on the Dutch coast the Germans depressed a heavy flak gun on them and deliberately bounced shells off the water, a tactic which navigator Lance Howard later described as ‘not cricket’. (You imagine that he was being ironic, given the weapon that they had bounced off the Ennepe lake a few hours previously!) They finally landed, with only three engines working, at 0615 and were met on the hardstanding by a group of Bomber Command’s most senior officers, including AOC ‘Bomber’ Harris, whom Townsend failed to recognise and pushed past. It was however, as his crew later recalled, a piece of ‘superb flying’ which had brought them home.

After the war, Townsend had a quiet life. At one point he and his wife owned a pub, but he later worked as a civil servant, including a spell in the Department of Employment in Bromsgrove. Although he died as recently as 1991, there doesn’t seem to have been any obituary published in the national press. However one from a local (unnamed) Bromsgrove newspaper has now been unearthed by members of the WW2Talk Forum. Poster ‘Spidge’ started a thread three or four years ago trying to identify all the final resting places of the 129 Dambusters who are no longer with us, and one of his colleagues, Geoff, put up this snap:

Like so many of his generation, Bill Townsend was a modest man who rarely spoke of his part in the RAF’s most famous ever bombing operation. He surely deserves to be more widely celebrated.

16 thoughts on “Bill Townsend obituary

  1. Jerry Harwood January 10, 2012 / 6:30 pm

    I agree

  2. Alan Bruce from Scotland January 14, 2012 / 5:18 pm

    A brave man & also his crew

  3. Mark Gamble March 23, 2012 / 9:45 am

    I was lucky enough to have met Bill Townsend in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, providing a 1912 Rover for Bill to get to church to give away the bride

  4. David Cooper December 10, 2012 / 12:38 am

    I worked at Bromsgrove unemployment benefit office with Bill in 1981. I didn’t know about his background at the time and it was only when he passed away and he had an RAF flypast did I learn about him. He was a true officer and a gentleman and I am privileged to have met him.

  5. Carol L Bridgman April 13, 2013 / 11:27 pm

    I had the great privilege of meeting Bill Townsend at RAF Finningley.
    I was speaking to Vic Hallam (who has the Dambuster Exhibition).
    Vic commented on my knowledge of the Dambusters and asked me to guide a gentleman round his memorabilia and explain the Dams Raid in detail
    When we reached the end, the kind gentleman asked if I knew who he was? It was Bill Townsend (having a great laugh at my naievity).
    RIP Bill, a true gentleman x

  6. Tim Bolshaw April 14, 2013 / 8:06 pm

    Bill Townsend was my uncle. As others have already mentioned, he was a modest and delightful man. In spite of health problems from a relatively early age, he was for a number of years the last surviving English Dambuster pilot.

    • Nikki May 16, 2013 / 9:48 pm

      Bill Townsend was my grandfather. It is nice to read the lovely things people have said about him here. He is still survived by his widow, Eileen, his 3 children, 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. Some of us intend to visit Vic’s museum this Sunday to pay our respects.
      With reference to the above, his obituary was indeed in The Telegraph.

    • Richard Chancellor May 18, 2013 / 1:38 pm

      Tim, I lived I Bromsgrove for many years and remember seeing on BBC Midlands Today the Lancaster doing a fly past at your Uncle’s funeral at Lickey Church.

    • Beth December 1, 2014 / 9:24 pm

      Bill Townsend was my great great uncle (his cousin is my great gran), though I never met him due to his passing a few years before I was born. I wish I’d had the chance to have met him, your description of him made me smile.

  7. Allan Robinson May 29, 2014 / 8:15 am

    I was a Musician in the Oxford area in the early 1950s and worked at Bills pub in the north part of the City. And remember Bill and his wife being really nice people.

  8. Chris November 7, 2017 / 3:19 am

    Had the pleasure of meeting Bill when I worked at Computeach in Stourbridge in the late 80’s.
    Modest is an understatement.

    Just going to work like any normal person, whether its on the bus to the office or in a bomber over enemy territory.

    Not sure if anyone will read this, but it maybe useful to someone to know he worked there for a few years. (Old Wharf Road Stourbridge).

    • TRACEY December 8, 2022 / 5:37 pm

      I worked with him there too when I was just 17….lovely man

  9. Douglas Arnold December 15, 2019 / 6:50 pm

    I remember him being the Landlord of the Lord Napier pub in Observatory street Oxford and was a special guest at the local cinema for the Dambuster Film.

    • Jack Fisher January 25, 2020 / 10:08 pm

      Yes – I remember him at the Lord Napier in the mid-1950’s (and the Arnolds – was it Vic and Elsie – and family : all regulars there, from the next street). I think he and his family left in ’56 or ’57, when he took a job as a rep down Bristol way. A lovely man indeed, and a lovely crowd at the Lord Napier.

  10. Margaret September 24, 2022 / 8:26 pm

    I worked at Anglo Swiss Computer Developments Ltd in the 60’s. I’m sure Mr Townsend was a director at the time. I do remember him as a nice quiet man.

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