The wrong Dambusters

Patrick Bishop is a great author, and his books Bomber Boys and Fighter Boys are invaluable sources of reference for anyone wanting to find out more about life in the wartime RAF. But someone has taken their eyes off the ball in creating the artwork for the jacket of his latest work, Target Tirpitz.

In the breathless prose loved by publishers’ blurb writers (confession: my first ever job!) HarperCollins tell us:

The Tirpitz, Hitler’s greatest weapon, was reputed to be unsinkable and the battleship inflamed an Allied obsession: to destroy her at any cost.
More than thirty daring operations were launched against the 52,000 ton monster. Royal Navy midget submarines carried out an attack of extraordinary skill and courage against her when she lay deep in a Norwegian fjord in an operation that won VCs for two participants.
No permanent damage was done and the Fleet Air Arm was forced to launch full scale attacks through the summer of 1944 to try and finish her off. But still the Tirpitz remained a significant threat to Allied operations.
It was not until November 1944 that a brilliant operation by RAF Lancaster Bombers, under the command of one of Britain’s greatest but least-known war heroes finally killed off Hitler’s last battleship.

The writer is referring to the raid carried out by 617 and 9 Squadrons, who dropped Barnes Wallis-designed Tallboy bombs which blew the final massive holes in the Tirpitz’s hull. The 617 Squadron contingent was under the command of Group Capt Willie Tait, and a picture of him and a crew which was not his own, taken after the raid, appears in a recent Sunday Telegraph review. However, these are not the five airmen who appear on the cover. Instead, the designer has chosen to use figures from one of the most famous pictures of the war, the photograph taken of Guy Gibson and his crew as they set off on the Dams Raid, 18 months before the Tirpitz was sunk.

(Imperial War Museum, CH18005)

From the left, the figures are Richard Trevor-Roper (rear gunner), John Pulford (flight engineer), George Deering (front gunner), ‘Spam’ Spafford (bomb aimer) and Bob Hutchison (wireless operator). Guy Gibson, on the ladder, and ‘Terry’ Taerum, the navigator, have been cropped out of Harper Collins colour-tinted version.

All five men were of course Dambusters, so they fall into the category mentioned in the book’s subtitle, ‘X-craft, agents and Dambusters’. But it’s a disservice to the real men who were on the raid, and a bit of an insult to the five portrayed on the cover, who couldn’t have been there for one simple reason – they were all dead.

UPDATE: Alex Bateman has kindly pointed out another bit of artistic licence on this cover. The Lancaster shown in the background is in fact Guy Gibson’s usual aircraft from 106 Squadron, known colloquially as ‘Admiral Prune’.


8 thoughts on “The wrong Dambusters

  1. Richard Hickmott February 7, 2012 / 3:13 pm

    I think you could look at it several ways. Yes, it is a disservice to have the original ‘G’ George crew, when the book is primarily aimed at the Tirpitz. However, if any pub conversation comes up regarding the DBs – the original Dams raid, Emmes Canal, the attack on Italy’s waterways (they landed in N. Africa, and Bob Hay’s aircraft, I believe, met its sad demise) and numerous other attacks – everyone always refers to Gibson as the ultimate leader of 617. As long as there’s some reference to this in the publication, I don’t see it as an issue.
    (If you look at pop groups, say for instance, The Hollies, most photos you’ll see are with Graham Nash in the line-up, even though left the band in Amer

    • Richard Hickmott February 7, 2012 / 3:16 pm

      [sorry ran out of characters]… left the band for America in 1968)

  2. philip croft February 7, 2012 / 4:23 pm

    I don’t like nit picking normally, but i do think that serious stuff like Bomber Commands operations in WW2 deserve to be meticulously researched, with the total respect and derserved attention to detail, that their deeds of heroism have earned. Comparing their exploits to a ‘pop group’s line-up change’ was a poor choice. If these brave men were related to me and my family i would protest most vigorously.

    • Richard Hickmott February 9, 2012 / 11:14 pm

      Concur totally – indeed, using a pop group line-up was a puny choice. And again, if it was my family involved then I would be miffed – but I still stand by my initial comments: Whenever the Dam Busters are mentioned then Gibson and ‘G’ for George are generally referred to… not saying that’s right, but that is life. C’est la vie.

  3. David Wilson June 22, 2012 / 3:44 pm

    Looking for info on my wife’s Grandfather Reginald Henry Mathews who was Senios Met Officer for 617 sqd at the time and is mention in Paul Bricknells book as “Gremlin” he was made squadron Leader Nov 1944 and Gr Capt in aug 1946 and being made a OBE Jan 1943 . unfortunately he left granny after meeting one of his sisters friends at social , they were both junior secretaries to Winston Churchill at the time , anyone with more info would be great our local ATC squadron supplied me with my info to date.
    David Wilson

    • christopher mathews August 18, 2013 / 9:56 am

      Hi David

      I am a son of Gremlin, & would be happy to share what little I know of his contribution. In particular, I’m aware he made himself unpopular (for a few days) by accurately forecasting impossible weather for the planned date of the Dambusters raid. Fortunately he stuck to his story, so disaster was avoided & history made, as Barnes Wallis & everyone deserved – & could well use at that time.

      Looking out to hear back from you

      Chris Mathews (b 1953)

      • David Wilson August 18, 2013 / 11:05 am

        Hi Christopher
        This is really nice to hear from you , so this means you are Katrinas uncle her mother was Peggy who died 1968 her brother aDonald is still alive but just refuses to give us any info his daughter Sue is different and very nice she lives in Worthing, we are planning a trip down from Scotland to visit various bomber command places of interest like Woodall Spa on 21/22nd Sept this year, where do you live and if suitable we could meet up. [Personal details removed]


  4. Stephen August 27, 2012 / 12:05 pm

    As someone whose NOK flew in this period with 57/617, and was later killed in 1945 not only was i disappointed in this cover, but the work as a whole was also complete crap to put it bluntly.
    There were several gaps in the story and the research was also at best ‘Shoddy’.


    Ian Ross RAAF (who has now been credited with a strike on the Tirpitz according to recent Norwegian Research which was passed onto me while i was researching him last year by the Bergen Air Museum) is not even mentioned once!
    Now i am biased as i am related to Ian, but i purchased this title in Canada to read on the flight home from Regina to Sydney, such was my annoyance that i left it on the Virgin plane.

    Not only in relation to Ian, but other areas are also a major let down.

    Ian’s Flying Log BOOK, which after the better part of 20 years of searching i now have a copy of, has 2 picks in it, one showing the crew that attacked the Tirpitz and the other showing a bombing pick in a Newspaper which Ian has written under it in big bold “Thats Our Bomb!” and then underlined it.

    Ian crash landed in Russia along with Drew Wyness (who was Ian’s Instructor and Flight Commander at the HCU) during Tirpitz Operation one, Drew is mentioned but Ian is NOT.
    (Only one page mind you!)


    Ians Friend and fellow ex 57 RAF Sqd Member gets 1 PAGE yet he flew on all 3 Ops, and as recorded in Ians Log Book both he and Ian flew the operation from Russia together to Norway after Ian’s Crash landing – without Official approval and over the Flight Commanders objections but with Willy Taits Blessing (according to Jimmy they went over his head and spoke direct to Tait directly and he then oked it).

    Jimmy survived the War (he is not doing well now i am sorry to say..) and as in Ian’s case (He Freddy Watts and Jimmy all met up at the HCU, were very close friends and Ian and Jimmy often shared leave periods together as he did with his W/OP Ken Jenkinson) and completed 2 tours back to back being operational from Jan 1944 onwards without any kind of break (as did Ian and Freddy) until mid 1945.

    again ONE PAGE !?

    Freddie Watts same story he gets 2 Pages!!??
    yet he also flew on all the ops!

    The bombing Map included in the Book is also WRONG!
    look at the one held in Bergen, then examine the Bombing Times.

    i was deeply disappointed in ‘Bomber Boys’ and this was even worse.

    I would suggest the works by Mel Rolfe or Oliver Cluton-Brock or Kevin Wilson over this useless crap anyday.

    The best book on Tirpitz recently is in fact not by an ‘Englishman’ but the understated work by Niklas Zetterling and Michael Tamelander called ‘Tirpitz – The Life and Death of Germany’s Last Super Battleship.
    Other works i would recommend would include, From the Dams to the Tirpitz by Allan W Cooper, The first and the Last by Gordon Thorburn, Barnes Wallis Bombs by Stephen Flower, Tirpitz hunting the Beast by John Sweetman and Underwater Warriors by Paul Kemp.
    (Not to mention the Red Kite Books on 617 by Andy Lee and Co).

    ALL the AF ones detail not only Ian’s Crash but also his actions in the sinking of Tirpitz afterwards.

    sorry for the length but just typing this is making me get worked up again so i will end it here.


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