John (Tommy) Thompson, 1920-2012


Every year, the number of aircrew who served in the RAF during the Second World War sadly declines, and 2012 saw the passing of one wartime pilot who I came across when researching my book about David Maltby.

John (Tommy) Thompson was going through pilot training at the same time as David, and they met at the School of Air Navigation at Cranage in Cheshire. Tommy had a car and at one point, when they managed to scrounge enough petrol coupons, they shared a trip down south so that they could get home to their respective parents for a weekend’s leave. When I interviewed him in 2007, Tommy remembered that they put their navigation skills to the test on this trip, using charts from their course to compensate for the lack of signposts on the roads. They went on together to an Operational Training Unit at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, but their paths deviated at the end of this course with David being posted to final training on Hampdens and Tommy to Blenheims.

Tommy went onto operations with 18 Squadron, flying on a series of low level shipping strikes and high level Circus Raids along the Dutch and Belgian coastline until August 1941. The Blenheim squadrons suffered exceptional losses during this period.

He was then posted to Overseas Aircraft Departure Unit at Watton to collect new aircraft to ferry out to the Middle East Blenheim Unit. On 27 August 1941, on his way out to the Middle East, he suffered a forced landing at Aviero in Portugal, a neutral country.  He had to land on the beach and then set fire to his plane, which was full of fuel in the outer wings and packed with incendiary devices in the fuselage. He escaped from Portugal with the assistance of the Royal Navy to Gibraltar and returned to the UK in October of that year.

He was then posted to the Test Flight at 13 Maintenance Unit at Henlow. During the rest of the war, he flew in various air gunnery schools, air sea rescue flights, maintenance units, glider delivery units and air transport auxiliary units.

After the war, he carried on flying, at one point as a civilian pilot for the Red Devils parachute team. In 1968 he joined Hawker Siddeley in Hatfield as Flight Operations Officer and visited many parts of the world including making several deliveries into China.

After he retired, Tommy spotted an advert in an aviation magazine from a young Portuguese journalist requesting information about planes and crews who had made forced landings in Portugal during the second World War. He was able to help the author by providing not only information on his own forced landing in August 1941, but also researching and answering many other questions. He was subsequently invited to Portugal to launch the book and awarded a pair of Portuguese Air Force wings in a special ceremony.

[Thanks to Tommy’s son, Roger Thompson, for the picture, and help with this article.]

Jackson’s model Lancaster in close up

I can’t believe that I missed this, more than three years ago! When filming their Last Chance to See natural history TV programme, Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine interviewed Peter Jackson in New Zealand. And there, right in the hangar, was one of the full size model Lancasters built for the Dambusters remake.
A very perceptive recent visitor to this blog has sent me these screen shots, taken from the programme which was first broadcast in 2009:




From these pictures, the level of detailing on the model seems extraordinary.
In recent interviews, Jackson has said that ten models have been built. It is noticeable, however, that only one seems to have been on show here.
By the way, this edition of Last Chance to See became notorious for a film clip showing the very rare kakapo flightless parrot attempting to mate with Mark Carwardine’s head. Far be it from me to suggest that you amuse yourselves by watching it again on Youtube.

Unseen Burpee letters released

Censored letter to Burpee page 01

Censored letter to Burpee page 02

Almost 70 years after the Dams Raid, the Burpee family in Canada have now put some of their correspondence into the public domain. The first of these was sent to Lewis Burpee’s parents by his wife Lillian on 13 February 1943, while Lewis and his crew were still serving in 106 Squadron. Lillian, who was pregnant, was living in Newark while Lewis was serving at RAF Syerston. Note the chunks cut out by the censor!

On the Dams Raid, Burpee and his crew were part of the mobile reserve, five aircraft which left Scampton after midnight, They were to be given instructions as to which dam to attack when the results from the first and second waves had been assessed. In fact, he was shot down less than 2 hours after his take off and crashed on the edge of the heavily protected airfield at Gilze-Rijen in Holland.

Gibson Letter
This letter from Guy Gibson was sent to Mrs Burpee on 20 May 1943. It follows the standard format for letters of this kind, offering the chance that he had been captured, but pointing out that it was seen to crash, which led them to fear the worst.

Chaplain letter to Burpee parents

This is followed by a letter to Burpee’s parents from an RCAF Chaplain. He refers to Lillian wanting to get posted back to Canada before her baby was born.

RCAF Min of Estate Letter Burpee

The final letter, sent in July, from the RCAF concerns Lewis’s “personal effects” and asks whether Lillian wants them forwarded directly to Canada, as by then it seems her trip back had been finalised.

New picture of Lewis Burpee and three other Dambusters

Burpee sqd106 smal

Joel Joy continues to unearth interesting new material about the Canadian Dambusters. He has recently got permission from the family of Plt Off Lewis Burpee to publish this picture of his crew, taken while he was on 106 Squadron.
Alex Bateman has kindly identified all the personnel present:

Left to right:
Sgt Joe Brady (Rear Gunner)
Sgt Bill Long (Mid Upper Gunner)
Sgt Guy Pegler (Flight Engineer)
Flt Sgt Lew Burpee (Pilot)
Flt Sgt Eddy Leavesley (Wireless Op)
Sgt George Goodings (Bomb Aimer)

The photo was taken on 106 Squadron at Syerston, on 18 January 1943 after a night trip to Berlin.  The Lancaster is W4842 ‘ZN–H’.

Brady, Long, Pegler and Burpee went on to 617 Squadron in March 1943, and were four of the crew of AJ-S on the Dams Raid. They were all killed when they were shot down near Gilze Rijen in Holland, and are buried together in Bergen Op Zoom war cemetery. There are full details of Burpee’s 26 previous operations on the Air Force Association of Canada website. (In alphabetical order, scroll down to Burpee.)

Peter Jackson speaks: December 2012 update

Jackson Hobbit
Much respect, Ali P(lumb). While every other film journalist has kept to Middle Earthy subjects in their recent questioning of Peter Jackson, Empire Magazine’s finest video interviewer slipped in a query about a much more important subject (to readers of this blog, at least).

Plumb: “What is the current state of the Dambusters project?”
Jackson: “Dambusters is on hold waiting for me to finish The Hobbit. The Hobbit wasn’t something I intended to get involved in [as much] as I did, so there was an option at one stage I’d be shooting The Dambusters while Guillermo [del Toro] was shooting The Hobbit, but as things ended up going, The Dambusters has just had to sit on the sidelines.”
“But it’s there. The Lancasters are built. We’ve got ten Lancs built for us sitting in storage. And it’s ready to go as soon as we possibly can.”

So there we have it. The one person who can decide when the Dambusters remake will proceed has given a firm commitment that it will happen. One day.
When I started this blog four and a half years ago one of my first posts predicted that we would have to wait to ‘at least 2011’ to see the remake on our screens. Foolish me! The film world has its own logic and moves at its own pace. But at least we now have it on the best authority possible — the Dambusters remake is on, and will appear some time. Exactly when? I suspect no one knows.