Dambuster of the Day No. 19: Robert Hay

Hay colour small

Picture: Hay family

Flt Lt R C Hay DFC
Bomb aimer
Lancaster serial number: ED909/G
Call sign: AJ-P
First wave. Third aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine veered left after dropping and exploded at side of dam.

Aged 30, with a wife and daughter back in Australia, Bob Hay was slightly older than the rest of Mick Martin’s crew. Born in Renmark, South Australia on 4 November 1913, Robert Claude Hay was the son of John and Margaret Hay. He attended Renmark High School and graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1935, where he also excelled in sports. The college swimming pool is now named in his honour.

He joined the RAAF in the summer of 1940, trained in Australia and Canada and arrived in England a year later. His first posting was to 455 (Australia) Squadron, where his time coincided with future colleagues Mick Martin and his crew. Like them, in April 1942 he was posted to 50 Squadron to fly on heavy bombers when 455 Squadron moved to Coastal Command.

He served a full tour of operations, flying mainly as navigator with one of the squadron’s best known pilots, Sqn Ldr Hugh Everitt, in a crew which also contained fellow Aussie and future 617 Squadron colleague, Fred ‘Spam’ Stafford.

By the time 617 Squadron was formed, Hay had been commissioned and been awarded the DFC. As an Australian from 50 Squadron he slotted easily into the crack Martin crew, and his slight age advantage and extensive experience made him the obvious choice for the important role as the squadron’s Bombing Leader.

This new job meant that within days of his arrival, he flew to Manston with Gibson to watch a test drop of the new Upkeep weapon at Reculver. The first, dropped by a Wellington, was successful, but the second, dropped by a Lancaster, broke up. Flying back in a small Magister, he and Gibson had a lucky escape when its single engine failed. Gibson managed to crashland in a field full of devices designed to stop enemy gliders landing.

Hay was one of the four who were told the target on the night before the raid, along with Melvin Young, Henry Maudslay and John Hopgood. Although the rest of the squadron didn’t know for certain when the operation would take place news that they had been summoned to a meeting in Charles Whitworth’s house led to fevered speculation on the base.

Earlier that day, Hay and most of the rest of Martin’s crew had been on board AJ-P after it had been loaded with its mine. Intelligence officer Fay Gillon was also inside the aircraft, being given a tour. Suddenly, with a crash, the mine dropped onto the ground and everyone on board and outside beat a hasty retreat in case it exploded. The weapon hadn’t been fused, so it did not explode but its delicate mechanism may have been damaged, as when it was finally dropped at the Möhne Dam, it veered to the left and exploded at the side.

Hay received a bar to his DFC for his role on the raid, and played his part in the celebrations that followed. He can be seen in the raucous photo taken at the Hungaria Restaurant, wedged between Tom Simpson and Toby Foxlee, with a glass in his hand.

After the raid, Martin’s crew eventually went back on operations, although Leggo and Chambers eventually left to train as pilots. A new CO, Leonard Cheshire, arrived and Hay spent a lot of time working on training his bomb aimers to use a new device, the Stabilised Automatic Bomb Sight (SABS).

Several months passed until February 1944 when, under Cheshire’s leadership, a detachment set off to bomb the Antheor Viaduct in southern France, an important rail link to Italy. 
Paul Brickhill devotes a whole chapter of The Dam Busters to what happened to Martin’s crew on this operation describing in vivid detail his bombing run and the way the aircraft rocked as it was hit by a cannon shell which exploded in the ammunition tray under the front turret.

Martin was calling the roll round his crew. The tough little Foxlee was all right. Bob Hay did not answer. Whittaker gave him a twisted grin, swearing and hunched, holding his legs. The rest were all right. He called Hay twice more but there was only silence, so he said ‘Toby, see if Bob’s all right. His intercom must be busted.’ Foxlee swung out of his turret and wormed towards the nose. He lifted his head towards Martin. ‘He’s lying on the floor. Not moving.’ (The Dam Busters, pp154-5.)

Eventually Martin managed to land his battered Lancaster in Sardinia, on a small airfield run by the Americans. Hay’s body was removed from the aircraft and he was buried the next day in a cemetery in Cagliari. He was the only one of Martin’s Dams Raid crew who did not survive the war. Martin was himself quite shaken by the episode, and did not fly again on operations with 617 Squadron. A few months later, however, he had recovered his poise and was back in a Mosquito squadron.

After Hay’s death, the Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College wrote:

We were shocked with the news of the loss of Flt Lt Robert Claude Hay, DFC and Bar and African Star, a much respected and loved member of the College staff and the Gold Medalist in 1935. Before his enlistment in 1940 he was assistant horticulturist at the college. Both as a member of the staff and as a student Bob Hay, with his happy, carefree disposition, more nearly symbolised the life of an agricultural college student than anyone I’ve known.

Hay had married Honoria (Edna) Thomson in 1938. They had one daughter.

More about Hay online:
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Roseworthy Agricultural College Newsletter

KIA: 13 February 1944
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Bob Hay and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

8 thoughts on “Dambuster of the Day No. 19: Robert Hay

  1. Graeme Jensen April 28, 2013 / 11:03 pm

    Given my understanding that Martin was designated to take over command of the raid if anything happened to G-George, and the roles of Leggo as navigation officer and Hay as lead bomb aimer, its interesting to see the Aussie represention on the raid was so significant ( even though they were only 12 of 133).
    Not that I’m being ‘parochial’.

    • Clare Burcham May 19, 2013 / 12:50 am

      Graeme, my grandfather was Bob Hay so I may be biased but I too believe that the Australian contribution was significant. I was lucky enough to be at a very moving memorial service in Adelaide on the 70th anniversary to honor the 3 South Australians in the dams raid. It was covered by two television stations so I feel their efforts are definitely being more widely recognized.

      • Chris Simmons August 4, 2015 / 8:39 am

        Hi Clare,

        I just stumbled across this post when searching for information on Bob Hay. He was my Great Uncle, so I guess we must be related!


      • Sarah Sydney Sheppard September 13, 2016 / 12:42 pm

        Hi Claire – I wonder if you can get in touch. I am the daughter of Margaret Fox – Bob’s cousin. Bob stayed with the Fox family when he arrived in the UK. I have some photographs of him and Aunty Cherry that you might be interested in. Sarah Sydney Sheppard

      • Malcolm Young April 27, 2021 / 8:20 am

        Clare, your mother’s name is listed as “unknown” on the page about your grandfather on the Australian Virtual War Memorial website. It would be great if you could advise them of your mother’s name and that could be properly recorded there.
        Mal Young
        former principal of Renmark High School

  2. Geoff Atkinson June 25, 2014 / 8:05 am

    Although Aussies obviously played a very significant role in 617 Squadron, Micky Martin was not Guy Gibson’s deputy on the Moehne raid – “Hoppy” Hopgood had that role.

  3. Tim Walpole-Walsh August 6, 2015 / 12:21 am

    Does anyone have a copy of the mentioned picture of Bob Hay in the Hungaria Restaurant ? (Bob was my uncle)
    Tim Walpole-Walsh
    Also, just to add another comment re the deputy role, here is a quote from a Guy Gibson Letter which puts Melvin Young squarely in the role ….
    (7) Guy Gibson, letter to Henry Young, the father of Melvin Young (20th May 1943)
    It is with deep regret that I write to confirm my telegram advising you that your son, Squadron Leader Henry Melvin Young D.F.C., is missing as a result of operations.
    Squadron Leader Young was a great personal friend of mine and was himself largely responsible for the success of this operation. He was deputy leader of this raid and I watched him drop his load in exactly the right position with great precision. Afterwards we led the raid on the Eder dam and he and I flew on the return journey back to base. Somewhere, however, between the target and the enemy coast he ran into trouble and has not returned.
    If as is possible your son was able to abandon his aircraft and land safely in enemy territory, news should reach you direct from the International Red Cross Committee within the next six weeks. Please accept my sincere sympathy during this anxious period of waiting.
    From: http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWgibsonG.htm

  4. John Clarke May 1, 2020 / 10:24 am

    That chapter in Paul Brickhill’s book is still one of the most thrilling on any subject that I’ve ever read. The struggle they had to off-load the bombs (necessary before an emergency landing), Martin’s own concern that he might be bleeding from a leg wound, the frantic calculations as to whether they could reach allied-held territory in time … masterly stuff. Pretty devastating to reach the end and find F/Lt Hay had not survived. At least it appears to have been a quick, clean death. Small consolation though.

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