The Canadian aircrew who survived from the Dams Raid. Grant McDonald is on the far right of the back row. Pic: Bomber Command Museum, Canada
I am sorry to have to report the death on 13 May 2012 of one of the last surviving Dambusters, Flt Sgt Grant McDonald, rear gunner in Lancaster AJ-F, piloted by Ken Brown.
Grant McDonald was born in Grand Forks, British Columbia in 1921. By the time he left school, the war had already started and he applied to join the RCAF. At that stage it was not accepting new recruits, so he went first into the Canadian army, but was able to transfer to the air force a few months later. After training in Canada as an air gunner, he crossed the Atlantic on a troopship in May 1942. After some more training in Bournemouth and at a gunnery school near Stranraer, he was posted to an Operational Training Unit at Kinloss, where he crewed up with fellow Canadian, Ken Brown and navigator Dudley Heal. Their first operations were a number of anti-submarine patrols from St Eval in Cornwall, but they were then transferred to a Heavy Conversion Unit for Lancaster training. Here a full crew of seven was formed. It was made up of three Canadians, Brown, McDonald and bomb aimer Steve Oancia, and four Britons, Heal, flight engineer Basil Feneron, wireless operator Harry Hewstone and gunner Don Buntaine.
They were posted to 44 Squadron in February 1943 and had only completed a handful of operations before being transferred to the newborn 617 Squadron at the end of March. (One of the persistent myths about the Dams Raid was that the crews were all highly experienced and hand picked by Guy Gibson. In the case of the Brown crew, this is wrong on both counts.)
Brown had a number of run-ins with his pugnacious commanding officer during training for the Dams Raid, but the crew survived and were detailed to fly as one of the five mobile reserve aircraft. They were directed to the Sorpe Dam, and attacked it at 0323. After flying across the width of the dam, they dropped their mine in the middle and it exploded satisfactorily, sending a waterspout many hundreds of feet into the air. The dam, however, remained intact. Before leaving the area, AJ-F took a detour to the rapidly-emptying Möhne Dam and were impressed by the damage that their comrades had done a couple of hours earlier. One of the anti-aircraft guns was still operating, however, and McDonald opened fire on it, ‘really giving him hell’ as Brown later recalled. As dawn broke during the return flight it was very dangerous, particularly as they recrossed the Dutch coast, but thanks to Brown’s skilful low flying they landed safely at Scampton at 0533.
Grant McDonald did another 22 operations with 617 Squadron, before being posted as an instructor to an OTU in the summer of 1944. On being demobbed at the end of the war, he joined the Canadian customs service in Vancouver.
Grant McDonald, left, pictured in October 2010.
As one of the last surviving Dambusters, Grant McDonald participated in a number of events in both Canada and Britain as the various anniversaries fell. He was always courteous with enquirers, although he must have told the same stories dozens of times over the years. A kind and good man, may he rest in peace.
Sources: Interview of Grant McDonald by James Holland, March 2011
Speech by Ken Brown, 1993